So what’s PM Lee Hsien Loong like in person?

 lee-hsien-loong-visakan

2014 UPDATE: This post is getting lots of shares again, for some reason or another. It’s a little embarrassing– I was so excited at the time, and my writing was so clunky! But I’m leaving it as it is.

Before anything else, I want to start by clearly stating that I am not a PAP supporter. I am not an “Opposition supporter” either. I don’t believe in picking sides. I’m against PAP super-dominance, but I would be against Opposition super-dominance too. (Of course, then they wouldn’t be called Opposition anymore.) If you have to pin me down on something, consider me pro-Singapore, regardless of political affiliation.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about how I wanted to interview Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The article was posted on Daily SG with the caption “Mission Impossible?” It seemed like a crazy idea that was unlikely to bear fruit. Yet, on the 30th of August 2012, I did meet the Prime Minister, at the Istana, and we chatted for quite a bit. Sure, I didn’t quite get a full interview opportunity, but you know what they say about shooting for the moon.

For me, simply being presented with such an opportunity was empowering, and liberating. Receiving the email from the Prime Minister’s Office- with “@pmo.gov.sg” in the address- set my heart in a flutter. It felt like validation from the world, telling me that I’m on the right track, and that it makes sense to do what I’m doing with this blog and everything else. The last time I remember feeling that way was when I received a message from Patrick Chng on Facebook, asking me if Armchair Critic was willing to play at the Esplanade Powerhouse Stage.  (Boy, were we!)

I think there’s something to the idea that if you want something, and you take steps towards achieving it, then it becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. You start becoming the sort of person who would be a fit for the sort of role you’re creating for yourself. You do influence your destiny.

19 people were selected out of thousands- there are 75,000 people on PM Lee’s Facebook- and I was one of them. Was I just lucky? I was eagerly posting on his wall repeatedly whenever he was online, and I tried to ask questions that I felt were interesting, poignant and thought-provoking. There’s always an element of luck involved, and I am thankful that I was lucky, but I’m sure the conscientious effort helps, too.

Back on topic:

Again, for those ‘special’ kind of people: I don’t have any sort of “family connections” whatsoever, and I’m not even any sort of poster-child for anything- I was a GEP dropout, I repeated a year in Junior College, I was a storeman for most of my National Service, I smoke, and I have criticized the PAP and the Government on multiple occasions. Just to be clear.

I chatted with others who were present- there was a guy who worked in shipping, another guy who runs distance events, a mother who homeschools one of her children, a primary school teacher… I’m thoroughly, completely convinced that we were not “carefully handpicked” for “wayang” purposes. I honestly don’t think they have the time to do that sort of thing. Exploring such perspectives seriously, to me, feels like a phenomenal waste of time. and practically an insult to everyone participating.

I find that this bears repeating, because it’s absolutely sickening and disgusting how how vile online comments can be. I mean, I’m probably guilty of it too, which makes it even worse- we are so quick to label and demonize others that we don’t even know.  This isn’t the Singapore (or world, or internet) that I want to be a part of, and I’m sure that if you take the time to think about it, you’ll feel the same way.

What’s it like to actually go to the Istana?

It’s interesting, fun, exciting and overwhelming all at once. Others have written about this: I suggest reading the blog posts by Andrew Loh or mrbrown and maybe watching the video by Dr. Jia Jia.

The attendees were mingling among ourselves- MPs Zaqy Mohamad and Low Yen Ling were there too, and Acting Minister in the Ministry of Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin (though I didn’t notice him until later)- and we were having some light conversation, introducing ourselves to one another.

I felt a little bit intimidated by the setting- it was really posh and atas. I used to work at Shangri-La Hotel, so I was familiar with some degree of finery, but somehow the Istana just has that sort of oomph and gravitas, you know? You can’t help but feel a little awed by the magnitude of the place, both physical and metaphorical. That said, the MPs were wonderfully gracious and did everything they could to make us feel at home.

[2017: On retrospect this is quite obviously intended by design.]

What’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong like in person?

lee-hsien-loong-istana

He entered the room without much fanfare, but his presence was notable – all eyes turned on him immediately as he shook everybody’s hands, welcomed us and thanked us for coming. He was eager, enthusiastic and kind, with a firm handshake (and rougher hands than I expected, if I remember correctly.) No airs. He’s bigger than he looks on TV, and he has a commanding presence. (Probably not as much as his father would have had in his heyday, but still noticeable.) He has a deep, powerfully resonant voice- we would later split into two groups, and I’d constantly catch myself listening to what he was saying, all the way at the other end of the room.

I remember mrbrown telling the PM about his autistic daughter Faith, and his worries and concerns for her- and PM was sympathetic, listening carefully to every word. None of it seemed fake or put-on- he struck me as a remarkably genuine guy. As mrbrown says, he laughs heartily.

I remember PM warming up immediately to the children in the room- he happily bent over to listen to them, and interacted with them spiritedly, with the vigor of someone who genuinely loves children.

None of it seemed in any way farcical. He seemed genuinely happy to be spending time with us throughout, and I got the very real sense that we could have spent the whole night talking away if he didn’t have other things on his schedule. He seemed genuinely apologetic at having to leave, after over an hour of animated conversation, and I was thoroughly convinced.

A few random fun facts- he walks for 40 minutes every morning and swims now and then when he gets the chance. He uses a white iPhone. He hasn’t started using Whatsapp yet. (I asked if him and the other  world leaders were all on the same Whatsapp group.) He sleeps 6 or 7 hours a night, and naps for 30 minutes after lunch.

I know these things don’t really affect the governance of the country, but it’s nice to remind yourself that the PM and MPs are all human beings. I think that’s important. I think that influences the way we talk to one another, and that the state of discourse will ultimately affect policy, and subsequently, our lives.

When we were moving from one area to the next, and we were getting seated- PM actually stood in front of me and passed me a fork and a plate to get food! That’s quite an epic, surreal moment that I’ll probably remember for life- the Prime Minister standing in front of me, while I was absent-mindedly sitting down, eagerly presenting me with a fork and plate, that I might get some food to eat. He didn’t make a big show of it or anything- just a friendly gesture from one person to another, never mind that I’m an unemployed bum and he’s the Prime Minister. (I know, a cynic might say that he’s ultimately a civil servant, and we pay him to serve us- but not literally, right?!) I was thoroughly humbled. It doesn’t matter how much we’re paying this man- you know human decency when you see it, and this guy had it in spades.

lee-hsien-loong-tea

Time and time again I noticed his social graces. There was no moderator, no emcee or anybody to mediate- it was just him and us, sitting around a table, as you see above here. And he gently took charge in the best possible way, the way a speaker owns the stage.

I quote Francis Bacon’s “On Discourse”: “The honorablest part of talk, is to give the occasion; and again to moderate, and pass to somewhat else; for then a man leads the dance.” 

Let me say right now that PM’s damn good at this, and manages to be the life of the party without imposing himself on anybody else,  putting in the right amounts of effort in the right places without trying too hard. He’d gently guide the conversation towards the quieter folk, asking people what they thought about this, or that. He was far more interested in listening to our opinions and perspectives than anything else– and it was refreshing.

After a while, PM went over to the other group, and Acting Minister Tan Chuan-Jin swapped places with him. You may already know that I’ve said many nice things about BG Tan on Facebook and Twitter- I love his perspectives, his thought processes, his insight. Meeting him in person reinforced all these positive intuitions I’ve held so far. He was a real man’s man- down to earth, practical, real- he felt even more real than PM, and PM’s pretty real. (I could totally imagine meeting him at the kopitiam afterwards for a kopi or a beer, for instance.)

I especially remember him telling us about his children (in response to one mother’s query about homeschooling)- his son’s in Primary 4, and his daughter’s in Secondary 2 in St. Nicks, and how him and his wife decided not to have her go for tuition, because they felt it was important that she have a life and childhood. I was impressed by that. Clearly, the obsessive achievement-oriented culture that used to define Singapore is past its peak. (Thankfully.)

Above all I can’t express how much PM Lee and BG Tan both struck me as incredibly intelligent, perceptive and fundamentally honourable men. I was able to talk to them and engage with them with the greatest of ease, but I attribute this to their manners and grace, rather than any talent or skill on my part. (And anybody who knows me personally or reads this blog will surely realize that I have an unhealthily large ego and think way too highly of myself.)

It’s easy to throw stones at them from a distance, but up close, you see them for who they are: very, very remarkable people. Articulate, clear, respectful… I am willing to go on record to say that I’m incredibly proud to be represented by men of this caliber.

This post would get a lot more hits if I had something nasty to say about PM, or any of the MPs. But honestly, I don’t. Trust me, I believe in constructive criticism, and entertainingly scathing criticism, too. If you read my blog, you’ll know this. But I honestly have nothing bad to say.

In fact, if I must criticise, and I must tread carefully here- I would criticize those of us who were present. We didn’t prepare enough, we didn’t have as much insight to share as we should’ve. We didn’t really get to ask any tough questions, but this wasn’t because anybody was stopping us. I had meant to ask PM about what he thought about SKL0 (Sticker Lady), but the conversation simply led us elsewhere, and I felt it would have been rude to impose my agenda upon him.

But I think I got something more valuable from it all- I think (I’m presuming, really) I can even intuit what he might say. He might say something along the lines of- her work is entertaining and really good, but we can’t condone it- and as a graffiti artist, she knew what she was doing. She knew that she was pushing the boundaries, and that she’d eventually get into trouble for it. Maybe in time we may , as a society, change our perspectives on these things. What sort of sentence does she deserve? I can’t say, that’s up to the judge to decide.

I mean, okay fine, I’m putting my own words into his mouth here. But I really got the sense that he- and BG Tan, and the others (and I got this with Indranee Rajah too, when I met her) knows what’s going on. I think we tend to imagine that PM must be some blur guy in an ivory tower who doesn’t know how we feel. But I’m starting to suspect we’ve got it the wrong way around. PM does know what’s happening on the ground. He’s very observant and perceptive for one, and he listens carefully to people, and he has a fantastic team that surely updates him. He has a natural curiosity about him that I think is in the best interests of the country- and I’d say the same for BG Tan.

So I think the disconnect is that we don’t know what’s going on up there. We don’t know what are the trade-offs that need to be made, we don’t know what are the problems and considerations that those in government have to deal with. That’s something I think we ought to correct a little better. I think people need to understand the trade-offs that are being made.

No politician is going to say this, because that’s political suicide. You’d be openly insulting the people by saying “You people don’t understand what it’s like to have all this power!” But it’s true, we don’t. We don’t understand! Let’s be realistic here. It’s far more likely that our politicians know what it’s like to be normal folk than normal folk know what it’s like to be in charge. And let’s not point fingers- if we want a better Singapore, we need better communication, better understanding, both ways. So I’m going to say it- Singapore will be a better place if the average citizen had a better understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the government, and the decisions being made.

No, I’m not saying that the government is always right and that they know what they’re doing. Please! Far from it. I do believe we can do better, and I do believe we have a lot of work ahead of us.I haven’t turned into a mouthpiece or lapdog of the government, or the PAP. Governance is complex business- nobody is going to get it right all of the time. I think we’ve got a good team at the helm, with people with good heads on their shoulders. I left the Istana ultimately breathing a little easier, knowing that Singapore is in good hands.

One thing I remember discussing with BG Tan was the vitriolic nature of online comments and people’s perspectives- and we juxtaposed that against one of the ladies who met him at a Meet-The-People session. I can’t remember the details, but I found myself sympathizing with him- wherever you stand on your political views, you have to admit that some Singaporeans are really unreasonable, and just a pain to be around, and that the people in our Government do have to deal with them. (No politician would admit that, but come on.) I found myself wondering what I could possibly do to help, to make our country a better place for all of us.

I think we need to create (by ourselves) a sense of purpose for ourselves. We’re mean and annoying to each other online because we don’t feel like it matters. We act out, seeking personal validation and fulfillment, and we don’t think about the bigger picture- perhaps because we don’t see it. We don’t see how everything adds up and ultimately defines our nation. I like to think of World of Warcraft- millions of crazy internet users doing stupid things on their own here and there, but also coming together to complete incredibly difficult and complex tasks that none of them could possibly achieve on their own. How does it happen? I think it begins with a sense of purpose and mission.

I didn’t get a chance to talk much with Low Yen Ling or Zaqy Mohamad, but I was won over by their sincerity and their personalities. They all genuinely seem eager to make a difference. I think that’s the most important thing that I learnt- that these people do care. They do. No, they really do. (No, they didn’t pay or threaten me to say this.) I think we need to remember that above all else before we move forward together, grappling and debating issues where we have different perspectives. It’s easy to forget that we all want what’s best for all of us.

TL;DR:

It was an honour to meet PM Lee. He’s a really intelligent, perceptive guy, and very fun to be around. If he didn’t have a schedule to follow, I get the sense that he would have gladly spent hours in conversation with us.

I will still be making fun of the PAP, don’t worry. And I will still speak up if I see, read or hear anything that doesn’t stand with me.

And yes, the chocolate éclairs were bloody delicious.

(I realize this is a really long blogpost- I’m not sure what people want to know or hear, so do ask me anything in the comments.)