I had the privilege of one day having lunch with our late president, Mr Wee Kim Wee (he had already left office for some years) and the pleasure of witnessing, at first hand, the special regard in which he was held by the people.
We were at a buffet lunch in the Shangri-la Hotel when Mr Wee mentioned something about his love of tandoori chicken. There was none at the buffet table. I voiced my disappointment to a waiter who as soon as he recognized Mr Wee, went into a flurry of activity that must have soon included the maitre d’ and then the chef.
For in less than a hour, he appeared at our table with a large plate of the most delicious-looking tandoori chicken. Later, at the end of the meal, we found that one of the diners who had been sitting some tables away had already settled the bill.
These gestures of regard and affection were probably just a few instances of the many that Singaporeans, in their various ways, had shown Mr Wee. He was truly a ‘people’s president’, much loved for his warmth and thoughtfulness. (My own thoughtlessness will always be a matter of embarrassment to me, for while Mr Wee had brought along a little gift of scented candles for me, I had brought nothing for him)
I recollect a story that Mr Wee told me during lunch, that reflected his humble, gentle, loving nature. He came from a poor family; his mother worked long hours as a cleaning woman in a hospital, the only solace she allowed herself being some cheap toddy which she sometimes sent her little son Kim Wee to buy. Many years later, as Singapore’s ambassador to Japan, Mr Wee was personally handed the keys to the most expensive room in the entire embassy—the wine cellar. When he saw the row upon row of exclusive wines and liquors, he remembered his mother and wept.
Reading the Straits Times report of Mr Wee’s funeral, I was particularly interested in the eulogy delivered by a young member in the family who described an incident reflecting a truly endearing aspect of Mr Wee’s character—his enormous capacity for kindness, spontaneous and radiant as a child’s, which extended to animals. Someone had given him a turkey which instead of ending up on the table, became a pet, until it got too noisy and the family decided to give it to the zoo. But Mr Wee constantly worried about the well-being of the bird, and wrote to the zoo, requesting to be informed regularly of its condition and of its death when it took place!
He was a man who, despite attaining the highest office in the land, remained completely rooted in life’s simplicities.
A continuing flow of little, readable pieces that will constitute what I feel is an important 'legacy of values' to leave behind. Read more about Vignettes...