Does being Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter make making friends difficult? Lee Wei Ling replies: ‘I’ve never been much bothered by that. Like I said…
Dr Lee Wei Ling had one condition when she agreed to this interview: no photographs.
She did not want people to recognise her.
On the 80th birthday of her father – the late former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew – in 2003, her photo appeared in the press.
Not long after, a stranger accosted the medical professor in a lift at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital and asked her: “Are you Dr Lee? You see patients dressed like that?”
The 60-year-old former director of the National Neuroscience Institute is sitting in her office at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, dressed in a well-worn grey T-shirt.
I’m eccentric. And I want to continue being eccentric and I see no reason why I should conform to so-called normal standards.”
DR LEE WEI LING
She usually prefers shorts, but today has deigned to put on a batik wraparound skirt.
“Look at me, I’m eccentric,” she says with a self-deprecating shrug.
“And I want to continue being eccentric and I see no reason why I should conform to so-called normal standards.”
Moreover, she says, getting recognised is “a damn nuisance”.
“It’s just irritation I would rather avoid. I’d rather have people judge me not knowing my family connections. Judge me as you find me, not judge me as LKY’s daughter,” says Dr Lee.
No photo aside, she is more than happy to talk about anything.
Indeed, over three hours, she holds forth – in her gravelly voice and rapid-fire delivery – on a myriad of subjects including the recent general election, the musculature of West African athletes, euthanasia and religion.
It is like listening to live, unedited and unexpurgated versions of the columns she writes for The Straits Times and The Sunday Times.
Over the last 12 years, she has penned about 180 articles and letters – on topics ranging from her father to public health policies and her physical pursuits – for this newspaper. Straits Times Press has compiled 75 of these pieces into a book, A Hakka Woman’s Singapore Stories, which hits bookstores today.
The title came from a passage in a eulogy she delivered at the private funeral of Mr Lee in March this year. Although filled with grief, she said that she could not break down because she is a Hakka woman.
Hakka women are known for being strong, tough and resilient.
Indeed, those who read her columns will know she has very strong opinions and is unapologetically frank, blunt even, when it comes to issues she is passionate about.
In 2006, she poured scorn on biomedical research directions headed by Mr Philip Yeo, former chairman of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.
“I don’t deny that he’s contributed to Singapore as a top civil servant and he’s still contributing… All I’m saying is that you’re not a doctor, so you’re not in a position to know what is important,” she says.
Two years later, she publicly crossed swords with former attorney-general Walter Woon over the case of retail magnate Tang Wee Sung, who was jailed for trying to buy a kidney off an Indonesian man.
Recalling the case, Dr Lee – who believes that banning organ trading is irrational and medically incorrect – says: “The Indonesian guy who was willing to sell his kidney may well have needed that money to prevent two daughters from going into prostitution for all we know.”
Who she takes on does not faze her. “I just disagree with what you say regardless of who you are.
“I mean, I don’t need to agree with my father either.”
She refers to Mr Lee’s admission in 2009 that getting people to be equally competent in two languages was difficult.
“I’ve been telling him for years that our second-language standards are too high,” says Dr Lee, who argued in a 2010 column that intelligent students who are not linguistically talented should not be penalised by the education system.
Her fearlessness, she says, has nothing to do with the fact that she is who she is. “Can we just say that I am surprised by how powerful people think I am?”
Instead, she says, it has to do with the strength of her convictions.
“There are certain things that have to be done, and unless you feel strongly about it, you wouldn’t try that hard to do it. So what needs to be done, damn it, whoever obstructs me, you obstruct me at your own risk,” she says.
A few years ago, she was ready to make a statutory declaration to ensure that a university adhered to the terms of an $80 million donation from a wealthy family. She wanted the money allocated for research: $70 million ring-fenced for local researchers, the other $10 million for open competition.
“You do something because it’s right, not because you want fame or to show that you’re powerful.”
Of people who disagree with her, she says: “If you agree simply because of who I am, then I look down on you. You know, if you have a certain opinion, you must have reasons why you hold that opinion. And those would be valid reasons.”
Asked if her intensity applies to other areas of her life, she says: “Well, in my eulogy, I did mention my house has a 20m corridor.
“And if I run up and down 800 times, it makes it 16km,” adds Dr Lee, whose arms are lean and toned, probably from brisk walking at least 10km with 1kg weights in each hand every day.
Even her own father remarked on her tenacity and once told her: “You have all my traits but to such an exaggerated degree that they become disadvantages in you.”
She does not disagree. “Who else would run 800 times up and down a corridor,” she says with a laugh.
But she understands why Mr Lee said what he did.
“Well, you know, if you’re too determined to get certain things done, it depends on whether the thing may be achievable, right?”
Shrugging, she says not all the things she strongly believes in get realised. “It’s like living donors donating a kidney. It still hasn’t happened because I guess our Government just wants to be careful.”
She also believes that legalising euthanasia is a move in the right direction. “I have a living will that says if I cannot recover to my pre-morbid condition, I don’t want any treatment and that includes no artificial nutrition or hydration.”
People may call her eccentric but she will have you know she is consistent. “I’m not saying I’m typical but my eccentricity has a consistency to it… Once you know me, you know my reactions are very predictable.”
It explains why she once refused to give US$3 to an African-American woman who said she had a gun, when she got lost in a less than savoury neighbourhood in Cleveland.
They eyeballed each other for a few tense minutes before Dr Lee made her escape by jumping on a bus which came along.
“When I tell this to people, everyone says you’re mad. I say I’m not mad and I know she could have a gun. But I will not be coerced.
“The point is, she was trying to bully me in a situation where she had the upper hand. And I will not be bullied,” says the neurosurgeon, who has a black belt in karate.
Although she refuses to leverage on her father’s name, being Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter, she says, is a responsibility. “Whether implicitly or explicitly, my father held us up as examples. Why else would he bother to turn up at my kindergarten graduation and my Primary 6 graduation? Because at that point in time, he was trying to convince the Chinese that he was not against Chinese education.”
It was stressful when the President’s Scholar failed the Membership of the Royal College of Physicians examination, the only exam she has ever failed.
“It was precisely because of that that my father said, ‘Look, every exam is important. You have to top it. So you got to pass this one exam that you failed.’ And it was more because I was his daughter than because of my President’s Scholarship. I got to prove to the system that Singapore did not favour me.”
She does not think being her father’s daughter has made it harder to cultivate friends.
“I’ve never been much bothered by that. Like I said (in one of my columns), I was a Martian anyway. Even now. I have enough friends to count on all my fingers, and these are friends who really count. I know of a much bigger group of people who don’t count on that score.
“But isn’t that so for most people if they sit back and think carefully, ‘which friend can I depend on when the crunch comes?'”
Many of her columns are candid, giving personal glimpses into her life as well as that of her family’s.
Regular readers, for instance, will know that she sleeps on a mat on the floor, had her first date when she was 21, likes being single and once had a colostomy bag.
She has no problems being personal. “You know, the more you try to keep things secret, the more people are curious about them. I have nothing to hide.
“Nothing that I’ve written is libellous or in any way dishonourable.
“Yes, I’m eccentric but most people know that anyway.”
•A Hakka Woman’s Singapore Stories is available at $32 (before GST) at all major bookstores and www.stpressbooks.com.sg