Lee Kuan Yew and his red box

Mr Lee Kuan Yew always had a little red box with him at work.

The box would arrive at work before the man and he would bring it home with him after work.

The red box, a large boxy briefcase about 14cm wide, was a hand-down from the British days, when ministers would use them to transport documents between offices.

Singapore's early ministers all had red boxes as well, but Mr Lee was the only one who continued using his 50 years on, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat recounted in a Facebook post.

Mr Heng worked for Mr Lee as his Principal Private Secretary from 1997 to 2000.

Mr Lee's box contained a wide range of items, including his draft speeches, letters, readings, and a whole range of observations, reflections and questions that he had scribbled down.

Mr Heng wrote: "It could be communications with foreign leaders, observations about the financial crisis, instructions for the Istana grounds staff, or even questions about some trees he had seen on the expressway.

"Mr Lee was well-known for keeping extremely alert to everything he saw and heard around him – when he noticed something wrong, like an ailing raintree, a note in the red box would follow."

He added: "Inside the red box was always something about how we could create a better life for all."

Even when Mr Lee was in hospital in 1996 to for balloon angioplasty to insert a stent, he asked his security officers for his red box - soon after regaining consciousness and sitting up in the hospital bed.

Mr Lee's daily routine

Mr Heng also gave some insights into Mr Lee's day at work. He would start off his mornings with a bowl of dou hua, or soft beancurd (with no syrup) and a cup of water (room temperature). He never had coffee or tea at breakfast.

In the evening, Mr Lee would do his exercises, including the treadmill, rowing, swimming and walking. But all this time, he would keep his ears peeled to the evening news or his Mandarin practice tapes.

Even in his more senior years, he would continue to exercise, though with a simpler exercise regime.

During this time, Mr Lee's staff, including Mr Heng, would prepare documents to put into Mr Lee's red box for him to read when he was home.

Hard at work

Mr Lee’s study, according to Mr Heng, is converted out of his son’s old bedroom.

His work table was a plain, old wooden table with a piece of clear glass placed over it.

Under the glass were family memorabilia including a picture of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his National Service Days.

When he was PM, Mr Lee would stay up till about 3.30am. As Senior Minister and Minister Mentor, he could afford to rest earlier - 2am.

"Deep into the night, while the rest of Singapore slept, it was common for Mr Lee to be in full work mode," said Mr Heng.


Mr Heng said that the red box symbolised much of his former boss' "unwavering dedication to Singapore".

"The diverse contents it held tell us much about the breadth of Mr Lee’s concerns – from the very big to the very small; the daily routine of the red box tells us how Mr Lee’s life revolved around making Singapore better, in ways big and small."

Mr Lee was admitted to hospital on Feb 5.

He continued to use the red box until Feb 4.



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