My earliest and most vivid recollection is of being held by my ears over a well in the compound of a house where my family was then living, at what is now Tembeling Road in Singapore. I was about four years old.
I had been mischievous and had messed up an expensive jar of my father's 4711 pale-green scented brilliantine. My father had a violent temper, but that evening his rage went through the roof. He took me by the scruff of the neck from the house to this well and held me over it. How could my ears have been so tough that they were not ripped off, dropping me into that well? Fifty years later, in the 1970s, I read in Scientific American an article explaining how pain and shock release neuropeptides in the brain, stamping the new experience into the brain cells and thus ensuring that the experience would be remembered for a long time afterwards.
I was born in Singapore on 16 September 1923 in a large two-story bungalow at 92 Kampong Java Road. My mother, Chua Jim Neo, was then 16 years old. My father, Lee Chin Koon, was 20. Their parents had arranged the marriage a year previously. Both families must have thought it an excellent match, for they later married my father's younger sister to my mother's younger brother.
My father had been brought up a rich man's son. He used to boast to us that, when he was young, his father allowed him a limitless account at Robinsons and John Little, the two top department stores in Raffles Place, where he could charge to this account any suit or other items he fancied. He was educated in English at St. Joseph's Institution, a Catholic mission school. He said he completed his Junior School Certificate, after which he ended his formal education--to his and my mother's eternal regret. Being without a profession, he could only get a job as a storekeeper with the Shell Oil Company when the fortunes of both families were destroyed in the Great Depression.
I grew up with my three brothers, one sister and seven cousins in the same house. But because they were all younger than I was, I often played with the children of the Chinese fishermen and of the Malays living in a nearby kampong, a cluster of some 20 or 30 attap- or zinc-roofed wooden huts in a lane opposite my grandfather's house. It was a simpler world altogether. We played with fighting kites, tops, marbles and even fighting fish. These games nurtured a fighting spirit and the will to win. I do not know whether they prepared me for the fights I was to have later in politics. We were not soft, nor were we spoiled. As a young boy, I had no fancy clothes or shoes like those my grandchildren wear today.
We were not poor, but we had no great abundance of toys, and there was no television. So we had to be resourceful, to use our imagination. We read, and this was good for our literacy, but there were few illustrated books for young children then, and these were expensive. I bought the usual penny dreadfuls and followed the adventures of the boys at Greyfriars--Harry Wharton and Billy Bunter and company. I waited eagerly for the mail boat from Britain, which arrived at Tanjong Pagar wharf every Friday, bringing British magazines and pictorials. But they too were not cheap. When I was a little older, I used the Raffles Library, where books could be borrowed for two weeks at a time. I read eclectically but preferred westerns to detective thrillers.
Life was not all simple pleasures, however. Every now and again my father would come home in a foul mood after losing at blackjack and other card games at the Chinese Swimming Club in Amber Road and demand some of my mother's jewelry to pawn so that he could go back to try his luck again. There would be fearful quarrels, and he was sometimes violent. But my mother was a courageous woman who was determined to hang on to the jewelry, wedding gifts from her parents. A strong character with great energy and resourcefulness, she had been married off too early. In her day, a woman was expected to be a good wife, bear many children and bring them up to be good husbands or wives in turn. Had she been born one generation later and continued her education beyond secondary school, she could easily have become an effective business executive.
She devoted her life to raising her children to be well-educated and independent professionals, and she stood up to my father to safeguard their future. My brothers, my sister and I were very conscious of her sacrifices; we felt we could not let her down and did our best to be worthy of her and to live up to her expectations. As I grew older, she began consulting me as the eldest son on all important family matters, so that while still in my teens, I became de facto head of the family. This taught me how to take decisions.
My maternal grandmother had strong views on my education. In 1929, before I was six, she insisted that I join the fishermen's children attending school nearby, in a little wood and attap hut with a compacted clay floor. The hut had only one classroom with hard benches and plank desktops, and one other room, which was the home of our scrawny middle-aged Chinese teacher. He made us recite words after him without any comprehension of their meaning--if he did explain, I did not understand him.
After two to three months of this, I pleaded with my mother to be transferred to an English-language school. She won my grandmother's consent, and in January 1930 I joined Telok Kurau English School. Now I understood what the teachers were saying and made progress with little effort. In my final year, 1935, I came first in school and won a place in Raffles Institution, which took in only the top students.
I enjoyed my years in Raffles Institution. I coped with the work comfortably, was active in the Scout movement, played cricket and some tennis, swam and took part in many debates. But I never became a prefect, let alone head prefect. There was a mischievous, playful streak in me. Too often, I was caught not paying attention in class, scribbling notes to fellow students or mimicking some teacher's strange mannerisms. In the case of a rather ponderous Indian science teacher, I was caught in the laboratory drawing the back of his head with its bald patch.
Once I was caned by the principal. D.W. McLeod was a fair but strict disciplinarian who enforced rules impartially, and one rule was that a boy who was late for school three times during one term would get three strokes of the cane. I was always a late riser, an owl more than a lark, and when I was late for school the third time in a term in 1938, the form master sent me to see McLeod. The principal knew me from the number of prizes I had been collecting on prize-giving days and the scholarships I had won. But I was not let off with an admonition. I bent over a chair and was given three of the best with my trousers on. I did not think he lightened his strokes. I have never understood why Western educationists are so much against corporal punishment. It did my fellow students and me no harm.
I was asleep in the "E" block of raffles college at 4 o'clock in the early morning of 8 December 1941, when I was awakened by the dull thud of exploding bombs. The war with Japan had begun. It was a complete surprise. The street lights had been on, and the air-raid sirens did not sound until those Japanese planes dropped their bombs, killing 60 people and wounding 130. But the raid was played down. Censors suppressed the news that the Keppel Harbor docks, the naval base at Sembawang, and the Tengah and Seletar air bases had also been attacked.
The students at Raffles College were agog with excitement. Those from upcountry immediately prepared to leave by train for home. Nearby everyone believed Singapore would be the main target of the attack, and it would therefore be prudent to return to the countryside of Malaya, which offered more safety from Japanese bombers. The college authorities were as confused as the students. Nobody had been prepared for this. Two days later we heard that on the same morning the Japanese had landed at Kota Bharu in Kelantan. Malaya was not to be spared after all.
Within days, the hostels were nearly empty. Lectures were suspended, and students asked to volunteer for a Raffles College unit of the Medical Auxiliary Services (MAS). I volunteered for the MAS, and cycled daily from my home (in Norfolk Road since 1935) to my post in the college three miles away. We were not provided with uniforms--there was no time for that--but we were each given a tin helmet and an armband with a red cross on it and paid a small allowance of about $60 a month, for which we worked on a roster round the clock. We were organized into units of six. There was no fear. Indeed there was barely suppressed excitement, the thrill of being at war and involved in real battles.