‘Harry’ Lee Kuan Yew was born in 1923 into a comfortably off Straits family, resident in the Reservoir Road area of Singapore. His father was a Shell Oil company executive, his mother the author or Mrs Lee’s cookbooks.
Prime minister for three decades until 1990, he famously lived rather modestly, scooping water from an earthenware jug rather than having a bathroom. Since ‘retiring’ he had taken a series of titles. Standing before me, he is Senior Minister or Minister Mentor or some such. Perhaps Singapore’s head honcho and top banana would be closer to the mark?
If tasked to write a Guardian obituary, many years in advance of the day I hope, one might feel obliged to choose words like ‘statesman’, ‘philosopher king’ or even ‘the embodiment of the wisdom of the east’.
In every sense, Mr Lee tends to tower above those around him. Tall for the territory (he stands just shy of six foot), although assisted by built-up shoes and the nearby’s tendency to cower, Mr Lee has the long, thin face of the Peranakan. His forehead is high. The hair that surrounds it is silver and fine rather than thinning and grey.
As a young man, he suffered the Japanese occupation. Having finished first in Malaya in the senior Cambridge exams, after the war he attended the London School of Economics and Fitzwilliam Hall, Cambridge, graduating with a starred first in law. Addressing the Malay Society there, he foresaw a then underdeveloped Singapore becoming another Switzerland.
Returning to his native land, he started the Lee & Lee legal practice, helped to found the Peoples Action Party, became Prime Minister and, as promised, turned the plantations and docks into somewhere the Swiss might be a bit envious of.
If you seek his monument then look around you. Perhaps not at the British High Commissioner’s colonial plantation house residence (hosting tonight’s social and presentation), more amongst the Marina Bay skyscrapers and ubiquitous Housing and Development Board condominiums.
We face each other. If he can read minds, and some say he can, he’ll realise I’m in a bit of a fix. My own High Commissioner, as a close of friend of Mr Lee (the pair of them call each other Andy and Harry), has allowed me an introduction. I only have a minute or two.
The HC has taken a dim view of myself taking a packet of diamonds from the North Korean Secret Service, who in turn expect me to introduce them to the missing scientist, and suspected author of data altering Operation Bonfire, Mr Stein.
Both parties have given me until sunrise to sort out the mess, or else. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by the diplomatic corps and its associated movers, shaker and hangers-on, with an opportunity to network-network-network until it all makes sense.
“It’s about operation Bonfire, Mr Lee sir, causing chaos.”
Mr Lee twitched an eyebrow as if to say, causing chaos everywhere else in the world but things are going swimmingly in this neighbourhood. And if back copies of the online Straits Star have been rearranged, so much the better. Perhaps they needed to be rewritten anyway? He was known to be a bit thin-skinned and litigious. A few alterations here and there might save Mr Harry a few days in one of Singapore’s jury-less courts. Juries abolished by himself, just to be on the safe side.
“And operation Swaling,” I continued.
Mention of Swaling led him to speak, “Thank you for your efforts, Mr Worth, and please be good enough to thank Her Majesty on my behalf.”
“I don’t suppose I could borrow your phone?” I replied. At that, the eyebrow definitely moved, “I have to get onto the other side of the local firewall. I presume you can get around your own firewall? I’d use my cousin’s phone but she’s wandered off. She’s in blue, and four foot eleven, if you can see her anywhere.”
To be more precise, Lotus Blossom was in a royal blue gown of the finest Parisian coiffure, bashed out in a basement the New Territories, by Fong twins both called Wendy, acquaintances of my own tailor, a Mr Kowloon Ken. A raised eyebrow being a sign of alarm, Mr Lee’s bodyguards twitched while tapping their guns through the outside of their suits.
“Perhaps an explanation,” Mr Lee called me by my real first name, which no ever does, mangling the pronunciation to, “Esh-er-lee?”
“It’s about the Defence List.”
“A most useful resource, were you involved?” A rhetorical question. The DL was most top secret. I wouldn’t have known about it if not involved in its compilation.
“Indeed and it might be at risk,” I understated.
“You must thank Her Majesty again. The Defence List was most useful”
I noted his lack of surprise and use of the past tense.
“There’s a fear it’s been compromised, Mr Lee. I really have to get to the other side of your firewall and have a hunt about, see whats going on, talk to old colleagues who’ve been off the radar for a while.”
One can’t really give the Mr Lee’s of this world instructions but I added, “Now this minute,” just to hurry him along a bit.
Both my own side, the High Commissioner, and the North Korean Secret Service had put a bit of a deadline on this. At sunrise, I would be under a forfeit. Life in a Singaporean jail if it was my lucky day, instant death if it wasn’t. All these calculations, and more, would be flying through Mr Lee’s impressive mind too.
“I’ll put my best person onto it.” With that, and in a louder voice, he ushered me away with, “Enchanted, Mr Worth, enjoy your evening.”
If a gong had been struck, or someone had tapped a glass with a spoon, I’d missed it. All the same, everyone had begun to move out of the reception rooms and pass through the open French windows and onto the veranda. I followed them.
Outside, down the steps and onto the lawns, a definite pecking order emerged. The dance band were finishing a number and Mr Jigan, the voice of Bukit Timar racecourse was at the microphone clearing his throat, preparing for the introductions. Opposite, a podium. Those about to speak were near the floodlight, those round about, including myself, visible in the glow of burning torches about the lawn. Was there a tang in the air? I wasn’t the only one putting a hand into a pocket, checking for a face mask. Were the anticipated crop burnings across the Straits in Sumatra about to make their mark upon the evening? Was the star-speckled velvet night sky about to disappear? Would a wave of dark brown smog block out the fringe of rain trees hiding the vulgar billionaire’s mansions next door? I could smell and taste the approach of something bad. There were one or two ominous coughs.
“Mr Worth, closer to the front surely?” It was the diminutive but ample Miss Noor from the Pakistan High Commission. Yes, there was a pecking order. Distracted, I’d lost track of it. Myself and Miss Noor crept closer to the stage. In front of the podium were the young people, sat crosslegged on the grass, chattering excitedly. Behind them, junior chancery staff, snotties, allowed to feel important for once and primed to laugh and clap in all the right places. Behind them, the start of the serious people, including myself and Miss Noor. Behind us, the less important, especially business types and the self-made. On the steps and veranda, handy for the drinks, with first refusal of the late buffet and with the best view, stood the VVIPs, Mr Lee, our High Commissioner, carefully selected ambassadors and the better-mannered billionaires.
“Notice anything?” Asked Miss Noor.
It was say what you see o’clock.
“Forward Singapore Banner, Union Jack, Singapore National Flag, bunting in European Community colours. Usual stuff.”
“No silly man, look again.” She used the back of her hand, equipped with some serious jewellery, against my chin to adjust my gaze. Was she flirting with me?
I took a second glance and then glanced back at her. She was flirting with me. She looked up at me through her fringe which peeped below her head covering, her eyes were as dark as the night, her smile as bright as the stars, her scent an antidote the slight but harsh tang of the approaching smog cloud.
“See?” She asked.
Yes, I did. Unusually, the banner didn’t exclaim ‘Forward Singapore’ but,
“Progress Singapore? Strange,” I said puzzled, returning her teasing smile with a frown. “What’s that about?”
While I had her attention, I might as well put her to work.
“Where’s Mr Lee’s best chap? He’s supposed to be helping me with a favour but I don’t even know who it is.”
“Mr Worth, I’m sure Mr Lee’s best will find you. Relax, enjoy the presentation. Oh, look.”
She took her eyes away from me and addressed them forwards. The speakers were making their way out of the gloom and into the spotlight, lining themselves up with their microphones.
“Is that?” Asked Miss Noor, feigning surprise.
I completed the sentence for her, supplying my own genuine surprise, “Sir Julian Minsk.”
“I thought Mr Sir Julian was a pariah? A good word, not quite Urdu but useful all the same, meaning a drummer, the lowest caste. A thousand years later and continents apart, meaning banished to Strussels in private disgrace.”
“Strasbourg and Brussels,” I corrected her. “Like Islamabad and Rawalpindi but further apart and more corrupt. A non-job in the European Community being a place of banishment that keeps one out of the newspapers.”
“For the banished, he looks rather smug,” Miss Noor observed.
To me, he looked like a silhouette from an enlarged photograph, taken in the middle of the night, at a dockside in Tangier. Captured below a canopy, immortalised on film, leading a lost boy to a taxi. When confronted, given his status and the need to avoid yet another scandal, he’d been sent in secret shame to Brussels, to be locked in a well paid pointless bureaucratic box and forgotten about. Why the hell had he been released and put in charge of something important? I was about to find out.
To be continued…..
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file