Happenings

A tribute to the late former President Wee Kim Wee

Jun 2005    

Loss of a great son of Singapore

SINGAPORE has lost a great son. He was great not because he was a top sportsman. Or a respected journalist. An excellent boss. An ambassador par excellence. An endearing President.

He was all of these – and more.

In fact I consider Mr Wee Kim Wee Singapore’s greatest son. Because of his one quality — humility, which is rarely found today.

The media has already written and spoken so eloquently of Mr Wee, who passed away in his home on May 2, 2005. So what more could be said about him?

I want to share briefly some insights of the man who had touched my life as he had with many, many others.

Mr Wee was not a Christian. But his behaviour was like that of a Christian. And there are important lessons we can learn from the man who rose from a clerk to occupy the highest office in the land, and through it all, remained as humble as ever.

Whenever colleagues, friends and others congratulated him on his world scoop on Lt-Gen Suharto’s desire to end Indonesia’s Confrontation against Malaysia, he would say: “I was just doing my job.”

His sensational story was splashed across the front page of The Straits Times of May 2, 1966 (What an uncanny coincidence that Mr Wee should pass away exactly 39 years to the day after he had secured his scoop).

To many of us in The Straits Times newsroom, he started out as a boss, and then became a friend, requesting to be called Kim Wee even after he had become Head of State.

On the evening before he left The Straits Times to take up his first high-level appointment as High Commissioner to Malaysia, he went around to shake hands and bid farewell to colleagues. His parting shot: “If you are heading for KL, let me know and look me up.”

Lesson No. 1: Be humble. When I first met Mr Wee at his office at a job interview in the early 1960s, he told me there was no vacancy. “We’ll call you when there’s a vacancy,” he told me. “Meanwhile, you go and pick up typewriting and shorthand writing skills, they will stand you in good stead.” I thought that was the end of my dream to be a journalist. But, true to his word, three months later, his secretary Mrs Mitchell called me for a second interview, and Mr Wee gave me the job of a reporter.

Lesson No. 2: Be truthful. Once when Straits Times reporters were asked to record pens, notebooks and other office stationery taken for use, I was one of those who protested vehemently. Mr Wee called me to his room and said: “Every office item taken has to be recorded. Even a 30-cent BIC ballpoint pen has to be recorded. These items don’t belong to you, they are bought by the company for your use, and they have to be accounted for.”

Lesson No. 3: Have integrity. Several times during our Conversational National Language class at our Times House office Mr Wee would urge those of us who were more at home with the language to help the less proficient colleagues.

He was concerned that they could not cope with the lessons and he would deliberately converse with colleagues in the National Language in class to help them gain confidence.

A Peranakan, Mr Wee naturally had a flair for the language, and he would assist Che-gu in explaining the intricacies of the language.

Lesson No. 4: Be caring. The Singapore media was spot on in calling him a People’s President.

So, farewell, Mr Wee (I think I should address him that way and not Kim Wee), and thank you for teaching us to be humble.

Peter Teo is the Editor of Methodist Message.

A BOSS, A FRIEND

‘To many of us in The Straits Times newsroom, he started out as a boss, and then became a friend, requesting to be called Kim Wee even after he had become Head of State.’

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