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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Mrs Lee: People expect Lee to be cooing over baby Hsien Loong, but...(the Unions were more important) - ST Sept 6

It was a day etched in the memory of Mrs Lee Kuan Yew. She had just delivered her first child on Feb10, 1952 and her husband was visiting her in the maternity ward of Kandang Kerbau Hospital, now known as KK Women's and Children's Hospital.

As she recalled, Lee sounded elated when he told her about his first union job while cradling baby Hsien Loong. 'People would think he'd be cooing over the baby all the time instead of talking about union matters. But I think he was quite pleased at the prospect of acting for this union.'

She was referring to the Singapore Post and Telegraph Uniformed Staff Union, which was then locked in an acrimonious pay dispute with the colonial authorities. Several days earlier, union leaders Ismail Rahim and Perumal Govindasamy had visited Lee in his office and asked him to be their legal adviser.

Throughout the 13-day strike by the P and T union, as it was better known, which brought all mail services to a stop and unnerved British officialdom, Lee acted as legal adviser, official negotiator and eloquent spokesman - a high-profile role that was to catapult him into the headlines.

Basically, the dispute hinged on the difference between the government's offer of $90 and the postmen's demand of $100 on the maximum pay.

It was a difference of only $10. But when the sheer reasonableness of the demand was met by the sheer intransigence of the response, it was transformed into a cause celebre.

Despite the massive service disruptions, people supported the postmen. The press cheered. Even some of the pro-British legislative councillors sympathised with the strikers. Eventually, the government gave in to the union's demands.

The triumphant resolution of the strike projected Lee as a champion of exploited workers in the public eye and turned him into a household name. Requests for Lee to act as their legal adviser came pouring in from trade unions and associations which nursed similar grievances against the colonial masters. To the establishment, Lee became anathema.

Obviously, the lawyer was not in it for the money as the unions comprised lowly-paid workers who could barely afford to pay his legal expenses. If he really craved material rewards, he would have joined his contemporaries in servicing the big British trading houses and the Chinese banks, or doing lucrative conveyancing work.

In his memoirs The Singapore Story, Lee said that he accepted the postmen's case without asking for legal fees. In a letter to Lee, his boss John Laycock complained that the firm had 'suffered' from all his union cases and that it 'must not take on any more of these wage disputes'.

For an example of Lee's legal work, take this letter from Chan Tham Choon, general secretary of the Singapore City Council Services Union, to Lee dated March 7, 1956. It read: 'My executive council has noted that there is no fee to be charged for the advice and help you have given to the union, and I am directed to convey the union's appreciation of your kind attention in this matter.'

When Utusan Melayu journalist Samad Ismail was detained in 1951 for anti-British activities, his newspaper hired Lee as his lawyer. Living in retirement in Petaling Jaya, Kuala Lumpur in 2002, the grand old man of letters, whose controversial career straddled both sides of the Causeway, was livid at the recollection of another leading lawyer who demanded $15,000 for his case. How much did Lee charge? '$10, a token sum,' he cackled.

Former Straits Times news editor Felix Abisheganaden, who was acquainted with Lee in the 1950s and 1960s, noted that he hardly ever charged the unions for his work. 'You can never say that he was ever in his life after any kind of financial gain - never, never, never.'

If Lee was not in it for the money, then what was he in it for? To those who divined his thoughts and intentions, he was practising what he preached to his audience in his Malayan Forum speech in London: get involved in politics. And what better way to cut your political milk teeth than to take up the cudgels on behalf of underpaid workers?

Former student activist and unionist Chen Say Jame's observation was shared by many: 'Lee was influenced by the Labour Party in Britain when he was a student there. So he was naturally inclined to be pro-labour and to build his network and power base through the trade unions. Hence his willingness and eagerness to help the unions as legal adviser.'

Right from the start, noted former party chairman Toh Chin Chye, the trade union was recognised as an important source of support. 'It was the unions that provided the mass base. Lee Kuan Yew was the legal advisor, so he had a mass base.'

As Lee admitted, the free or almost-free legal service was extended to the unions when he was in Laycock and Ong. 'I was working there for a salary at that time, service free. I mean, even if I charged, it just went to the firm. Why should I charge them? John Laycock did not know. In the end I was working to get a following into the PAP! Had he known that, he would have stopped it.'

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