Serving Singapore: My Journey, by pioneer civil servant VK Rajan, is an account of his time in the civil service, as well as the various trials and tribulations that Singapore faced in its earlier years of independence.
Here, we reproduce an excerpt from the book in which Rajan describes his experience working under the late Lee Kuan Yew during his tenure as Prime Minister on several important occasions.
Rajan entered Singapore's civil service in 1959, and served in the Executive Service, the Administrative Service and the Foreign Service with postings in several frontline ministries. He retired in 2001 and is currently serving as an Adviser in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kingdom of Bahrain.
Serving Singapore: My Journey is published by World Scientific and you can get a copy of it here.
By VK Rajan
Appointed to organise the Commonwealth Seminar in 1969
The first big event was the seminar in 1969 for senior officials from the Commonwealth countries, 34 in all. The title of the seminar was “The Changing Patterns in the Conduct of Foreign Policy”. It was held at the National Trade Union Congress Conference Hall, the only facility available then.
Holding it was challenging on many accounts, most important being a very tight budget. We had to make do with limited facilities and assets and improvise where necessary.
I was appointed as the Administrative Secretary to organise the seminar. I was chosen for my experience in London where I gained familiarity with the workings of the Commonwealth Secretariat and experience in organising PM Lee and his delegation’s participation in the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Meeting (as it was known then) in 1966 and 1968.
Mr Chia Cheong Fook, who was then Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of Labour was tasked by PM Lee to take on the job and he had asked for me to assist him. (We both were in the pioneer team posted to London.)
There was no conference table, chairs were inadequate
There was no proper conference table to accommodate the number of countries attending. In those days, furniture for government offices was made in government owned workshops and was standard issue.
Meeting tables were long tables, and chairs were of two types; one without arm rests for junior officers and the other with curved half-back arm rests for senior officers.
Limited number of swivel and tilting chairs were also made for superscale and higher office holders. All the furniture was made of wood and had rattan seat bottoms. The chairs for super scale officers had cloth cushions.
We had to deal with many problems.
The swivel and tilting chairs were allotted to the heads of delegations. This chair had a central grooved iron rod fulcrum for height adjustment. Our chairs were designed for Asian weights and many of the delegates, especially from Africa, West Indies and Pacific Island nations, were bigger and heavier.
Lee himself came down to inspect the chairs and decorations
On the eve of the seminar (a Sunday), PM Lee came to inspect the final arrangements and he tried out the chair (I had no notice of his coming). He told me that the chair did not appear to be sturdy and that it tilted a bit too much.
He was concerned and exclaimed, “You want Arnold Smith to fall down and cause an international incident?”
I told him that the degree of the tilt I could adjust but there were no other suitable chairs available to replace it. His response was to the effect of “Let us hope there is no incident”. Arnold Smith, a Canadian and the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, was of big build.
Lee made people nervous
After trying out the chair, PM Lee wanted to look at the floral decorations.
Speaking in Malay and pointing to a few potted plants, which had leaves looking rather pale, he asked the Botanical Gardens worker whether they were the same plants that were there for the visit of Japanese Crown Prince that had taken place a few days before.
The worker replied “yah tuan” (yes, sir) whereupon, he instructed me to replace them with fresh plants. I conveyed the instructions to the Director of Botanical Garden (George Alphonso) and he was furious with his worker.
According to George, they were special plants and were placed there by the same worker the day before. I told him it was better that he replaced them, which he did. I asked the worker why he did not tell the PM they were new plants. He said “saya takut tuan” (“I was frightened sir”).
In fact, I had heard of many senior officers, feeling nervous and fumbling in answering PM Lee’s questions. Here are two anecdotes that were relayed to me by colleagues who had witnessed the scenes.
A legal officer in another office would stand up whenever he received a telephone call from PM Lee. This officer assumed a senior position in the judiciary in later years.
In another case, an Administrative Officer serving the PM also jumped to his feet whenever the telephone rang. He picked up the handset and placed the mouthpiece to his ear, uttered his name but pronounced it in reverse order, and as he jumped up his left foot went into the rattan waste paper basket! My colleague who witnessed this behaviour was a junior officer in the same office.
I was worried that Arnold Smith was stretching the chair to its limit
I was really concerned that night and did not sleep much, worrying over the chair. Before the start of the Seminar, I drew the attention of Arnold Smith to the chair’s design and asked him whether he would like it to be replaced with the simpler and sturdier, but less comfortable, chair.
He tried it, was happy with it, and insisted on having it.
I kept my fingers crossed throughout the Seminar. There was nothing more that I could have done. I became more anxious when Arnold Smith really started to enjoy the chair, especially its tilt, and swivelled frequently, stretching it to the limit.
He said he liked the chair very much. That was quite an experience. In a very small way, the chair also must have contributed to the success of the seminar.
Upon his return to London, he sought out our High Commissioner, A P Rajah, to express his appreciation of our arrangements and the manner in which they were executed.
Our hospitality was modest.
We provided hotel rooms in accordance with the agreed scheme. We transported the delegates from the hotel to the Conference Hall and back by a bus.
Yet, the feedback from the delegates was positive — clean and green environment, orderly traffic, discipline in the workplace and in the streets, and the other aspects of life they saw, impressed them.
PM Lee was constantly thinking about work
In my observation, PM Lee’s mind was always thinking of or working on something, except probably during his sleeping hours.
Between the time he left office or home and arrived at the airport to board the aircraft, he would have thought of some issues or things that needed to be attended to during his absence, and would give me instructions as we went up the step ladder of the aerobridge.
Most of the time the instructions were to be conveyed to his Secretary Wong Chooi Sen for action.
It must be said that implementing PM Lee’s instructions was not difficult. His instructions, whether oral or in writing, were usually conveyed to me by Wong Chooi Sen (sometimes through Sankaran), except on occasions when PM Lee spoke to me directly on the telephone.
Organising the visit of foreign VVIPs required finesse
In organising the visits of foreign VVIPs, especially heads of state and heads of government, precision in implementing the programmes was important for many reasons.
We had to pack in as much as possible, without tiring the visitors, to get the maximum impact and benefit for both sides.
The programme also had to allow time for the visitors to see and feel what drives Singapore. Managing the various threads and pulling all of them together was important.
At the core of the programmes was the session in the Cabinet Room in the Prime Minister’s Office in the Istana Annex. Usually 45 to 60 minutes would be allotted depending on the issues to be dealt with.
To control the time, I would knock on the door, enter and announce “Sir, there is another appointment” without specifying what the appointment was.
PM Lee would say thank you or at other times he would ask me whether they could have little more time like “can I have 10 more minutes”. I would simply say “yes sir’ and come out and rearrange the next item on the programme, if necessary, for seamless operation of the rest of the programme.
The whole thing was orchestrated carefully to make it easier for both sides to get through the business without delay and without causing any embarrassment.
It helped visiting delegations as they could be waiting for the host to take the initiative to end the meeting. In fact, it served both sides well. Many VVIPs and ambassadors commented favourably on this arrangement.
It should be noted here that this arrangement worked well for us because it had our leaders’ support. It would be difficult to implement it in countries where royalties were involved. There the chief of protocol might not feel comfortable or confident enough to suggest it to his masters.
I was once reprimanded for suggesting a foolish solution
However, it was not always smooth sailing for me with PM Lee during all those years when I had the privilege of serving him. I recall two instances.
One case was the visit of Premier Li Peng of China.
At about 7:50pm, I received a call from Minister Ong Teng Cheong, Minister in Attendance to Premier Li, concerning an issue raised by the guests and he wanted to know our position before the Chinese guests arrived at the Istana for the official dinner.
I asked our senior most minister present for instructions and he told me to ask PM Lee.
Just then PM Lee arrived, and I conveyed the message from Ong Teng Cheong.
In doing so, I volunteered a suggestion (in the spirit of finding a solution) which turned out to be both unwise and inappropriate — a big mistake on my part. PM Lee scolded me in a loud voice saying, “are you daft?”
There was a stunned silence from guests who had already arrived, but I could not afford to get distracted. I had to act very quickly as time was closing in fast.
With help from Wong Chooi Sen, we solved the issue and I sent a message to Ong Teng Cheong. The rest of the programme was executed with precision.
On reflection, I felt it was a very serious mistake on my part and I deserved the rebuke.
The next day I received calls from a few guests including members of parliament who were present at the function to console me.
I did not hear further from PM Lee concerning the incident and neither did I sense any change afterwards in the way he used to deal with me. That was a close shave for me, and I learnt a good lesson from that incident.
It was in our interest to have PM Lee wait for Suharto even though he got somewhat angry about it
The next incident concerned the visit of President Suharto that I have mentioned previously.
To my knowledge, no other head of state on an official visit had come through the Causeway in Woodlands.
The only exception was when the Sultan of Johor made an official visit to Singapore towards the end of his term as Yang di Pertuan Agong (king) in 1984. This was a special case and he was accustomed to coming to Singapore by road from Johor anyway.
Receiving VVIP visitors at the Causeway had different problems, especially in getting the guest to arrive on time at our border.
At the airport we were able to get PM Lee to arrive just as the aircraft taxied in. We had control over the whole process and could cut waiting time to absolute minimum, often to just a few minutes.
My suggestion was for PM to arrive at the small immigration building in Woodlands (CIQ complex was built later) 15 minutes before the scheduled time of arrival of Suharto.
The Malaysian protocol would hand over halfway at the Causeway, on our side, and it would take only about one minute for Suharto to arrive, escorted by our motorcycle outriders, at the receiving point.
Upon arrival at the checkpoint, PM Lee asked me in a somewhat angry tone why I had brought him to wait that long (15 minutes). I explained to him that I had very little control over the timing and that I was dependent on the cooperation of the Malaysian side to get Suharto arrive on time.
That there was a possibility, however slight, that Suharto could arrive earlier, in which case he (PM Lee) had to be there to receive him.
All he said was “huh”. From his body language, I could not determine whether he was satisfied with my answer. He was quite accustomed to not having to wait that long to receive visitors.
In this case, it would have been very risky to further trim the timings to such a fine degree. I had to make sure that PM Lee was there in case Suharto arrived earlier.
I would have been in very deep trouble, if Suharto arrived earlier, and PM Lee was not there to receive him. The consequences would be too terrible to even contemplate.
Generally, PM Lee himself was always punctual
As it turned out, the Malaysian protocol did a good job and Suharto arrived on time and the visit went very well in all aspects.
The Police Officer, a DSP on duty, later thanked me for the way I handled the matter. He said he had noticed that I was interacting with all, from PM Lee to the outriders who were assigned to escort Suharto.
In an operation of that nature, the enthusiastic cooperation of all in the team was absolutely essential for a successful outcome. It was always teamwork, teamwork and teamwork!
I must make the point that PM Lee, our ministers and in fact, all concerned personnel in any event were always punctual and adhered to the set timings.
Having a leader who respects time greatly helps
As Chief of Protocol, I introduced the “Order of Proceedings” which detailed the protocol order of arrivals of VIPs and others, as well as other details relevant to the event from beginning until the end.
The timings were carefully worked out. It was carefully choreographed and meticulously executed to achieve clockwork precision. It was easier because of our leaders’ respect for time and their insistence on efficiency.
Such efficiency and cooperative working relationships was absent in many countries.
In a few countries I have served, I noted that the leaders did not value punctuality and the officials serving them had no control over the timings.
As usual of course, the protocol was blamed for the lapses though they were not responsible. That is part and parcel of life in protocol.
Top image via NAS
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