Mr Lee Kuan Yew loves to eat, puts on weight easily and used to smoke 20 cigarettes a day. Now 68, he feels fitter than at 50, exercises daily, eats carefully, and has learnt to reduce stress.
Friday, 6.40 pm, and the sun is setting at Seri Temasek, the official residence at the Istana. The pre-war building overlooks a huge sweep of lawn. Bushy pines line the surrounding roads. In the distance, a squirrel scurries up a tree. There is greenery everywhere.
A car drives up the front porch and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew alights, trailed by his security officers. He heads for the building and changes into a plain white T-shirt, blue shorts and Nike running shoes before starting his exercise routine: 20 minutes of cycling on a stationary bicycle; five to 10 minutes on a rowing machine; a 10-minute jog. Sometimes, if he is in the mood, he hops onto a bicycle and breezes through the grounds of the Istana.
At 68, Mr Lee feels fitter than he did at 50. His weight is lower, his heart stronger and his muscles more toned. This is a result of a concerted effort to make aerobics a way of his life, and to change his eating habits. At 1.78 m tall, he weighs between 74 and 76.5 kg, and averages 74.5 kg. “I tend to put on weight very quickly, so I have got to watch it,” he says in an interview at his office earlier that afternoon.
He became health conscious after taking office in 1959. “The pressures became very great and I knew that if my health is poor, then my work suffers. When you are under heavy stresses you must be in good health or you are in trouble. I began to be careful about how much I ate and how much I drank.”
Exercise has always been part of his life, although it was only 15 years ago that he took up aerobics seriously. “Even when I was a young boy in school, when I was staying in Siglap, I used to swim, cycle and play games,” he says. “I find that if I am inactive I get slothful, I get slow.”
In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, his exercise was mostly golf and sometimes swimming and cycling. Golf was an antidote to the smokey conference rooms, and more a form of recreation than an exercise. “You go out to get fresh air, birds, wind, sun, green grass, green trees … The exercise was at the practice tee. If you hit a hundred balls, you can really work up a sweat, especially if you have to tee the balls up. But not the game itself.”
After the 1976 General Election, when he was in his mid-50s, he stumbled on aerobics. “I could feel that I was feeling sluggish. So after the elections, I took a holiday. It was winter, and we (his family) went to Hongkong, Taipei for the cold. But I was still feeling sluggish. So I started taking deep breathing exercises.
“My daughter, who was then a medical student, asked me what I was doing. I said I was feeling sluggish and breathing deeply. She said: ‘No, you will never get better that way. What you want is to get your heart pumping.’ ”
She lent him a book on aerobics. “I wasn’t very convinced,” recalls Mr Lee. “It was all very scientific.” But he decided to give aerobics a try. “In between my golf shots, I walked fast to work up a sweat. I felt I was getting better by fast walking. So at the end of the golf game, I decided to run one or two fairways. I found that that was better still.
“I really was convinced by my own experience. The sluggishness was countered. Then I took up aerobics seriously. I took up jogging 10 minutes, 15 minutes and eventually I even jogged half an hour … when I had eaten a heavy meal that day.”
Because of joint problems, he has cut down on jogging and does more stationary cycling, with stationary rowing to keep his upper limbs in shape.
He makes it a point to exercise daily. “If I don’t, I would feel sluggish. I find that the aerobics makes me feel better. I eat better, I sleep better.”
Even on overseas trips, he squeezes in his exercise routine, either before he starts the day, or in the evening before dinner.
His foldable stationary bicycle accompanies him if there are no gymnasium facilities in the places he is visiting.
By all accounts, exercising runs in his family. In an interview in 1988, Mr Lee’s father, Mr Lee Chin Koon, then 85, said that he swam every night and loved ballroom dancing.
Mr Lee says that like the rest of his family, he lives to eat. His late mother, Madam Chua Jim Neo, who died in 1980 at the age of 75, was well-known in culinary circles and an expert Nonya cook whose cookbook is still on sale in bookshops. “I can eat anything and enjoy it, if it is good to eat,” he says. But he avoids foods which are oily and sweet.
His diet has changed with age, as his metabolic rate slowed down and his body could not burn up calories as quickly as before. “It is just silly to eat more than you can burn up … With time and age you must change, otherwise you are just overloading your system.”
While he once used to eat sirloin steak and many good things without any qualms, these days he eats very little meat.
He eats more fish and soya bean curd, plenty of vegetables and fruits, wholemeal bread and cereals.
He likes his fish grilled or fried, but not poached or steamed unless it is very fresh. He takes ikan kurau, pomfret or garoupa. “I also like ikan billis when it is nicely fried crisp.”
He admits to a soft spot for deep fried food. “I would like a well-fried chicken, drumstick or a wing, fried crisp. But these days I would take the skin and strip it off,” he says.
Breakfast is usually sugar-less soya bean milk and a small bowl of soya bean curd. If he is travelling to a country where there is no soya bean, he takes cereal and milk.
At lunch, he has fish or a small portion of meat, steamed green vegetables and lots of fruits such as pineapple and pomelo. He keeps his lunch light to avoid feeling heavy during the afternoon. Dinner is his biggest meal.
Because he puts on weight easily, travelling can sometimes be a problem. For instance, when he was on an official trip to Pakistan for a week recently, he put on 1.8 kg. He adds, rather ruefully: “And that was in spite of the gym there. But the food was different … all the Pakistani foods were good to eat but I got heavier.”
Mr Lee drinks plenty of water throughout the day. At social functions, he sticks to low-alcohol beer, which has between 0.1 to 0.5 per cent alcohol content, compared to the nearly 4 per cent of average beers. “If I drink full-strength beer and drink four, five bottles, which I can easily do in the course of an evening, the next day … my mouth tastes sour and I dont like the taste. I take low alcohol beer and the next day I am fine.”
Stress and relaxation
Since stepping down as Prime Minister, Mr Lee feels less stressed as he no longer has to make quick decisions. “My job is to reflect on problems which may arise,” he says.
“The stress comes when you have three or four tricky decisions to make and they are weighing on you. You know that once you have made it, things will start moving, you can’t retrieve it, so you have got to be very careful that you have made the right decision. Once you have made it, I find the stress is not so great because you have thought over all your alternatives and this is the best, you move.”
Before he was 55, golf and swimming were his main stress releasers. Then his doctor recommended a physiotherapist to teach him how to relax. The physiotherapist advised him to lie down and relax for 20 minutes after lunch.
Mr Lee was sceptical as he had, when younger, tried to rest after lunch without any success. But the physiotherapist urged him to lie down, relax his muscles and try not to think about work so that his mind could also rest. “I tried it. I found it was of some help,” he says.
At about the same time, his daughter, Wei Ling, a medical student, was doing meditation. Mr Lee also tried to meditate but could not do it. “But in the process, I learnt through reading books on meditation how to control my breathing and slow it down.
“When you are working on high pressure, your adrenalin flows. And you must have your adrenalin flowing or else you would not be working at a pitch … I learnt how to slow down my breathing and bring my metabolic rate down so that my heart beat will go down. That made the rest of the day much easier.
“It is like an electric shaver. When the battery is running out and if you switch off and you cool it down, and switch it on again, the current seems to be stronger. And that was what I was able to do for the second half of the day.”
With such a healthy lifestyle, one positive by-product has been that he always feels fresh. “I get six and a half, seven hours of sleep. I sleep late, I wake up late, I work late. I have no trouble sleeping.”
FROM 20 CIGARETTES A DAY TO NONE
Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew does not smoke and his dislike of cigarette smoke is well known today, but up to 1957 he was smoking 20 cigarettes a day.
He picked up smoking as a student at Raffles College in the early 1940s. “We were all growing up and it was a sign of manhood,” he recalls.
“I started to smoke in a serious way during the Japanese Occupation because life was a lot of blank spaces. You did your work, dull, miserable work, and you sat around and you smoked lousy cigarettes. It was a kind of recreation. Then it became a real habit.”
He tried to stop smoking several times but failed. The turning point came after the City Council elections in 1957. He recalls: “During the course of the election campaign, I made two or three speeches each night. I would go up on a platform and watch and feel the crowd first before I spoke.
“In that 20 minutes to half an hour, I could smoke seven, eight sticks, watching the crowd, getting the feel of the crowd and deciding how I should say what I wanted to say. At the end of the campaign, at the counting station at Victoria Concert Hall, there was a microphone at the balcony. I could not speak. I had burnt my throat dry.
“I decided that this was stupid. I was not enjoying my food, I was losing my voice, so I gave it up.”
The next two weeks were very “painful and uncomfortable. It was terrible because immediately after a meal, the sweetest thing would be the puff of a cigarette. It sort of caps it … a cigarette gives you a sensation of well-being.”
“I used to wake up dreaming that I had started smoking again and feeling very sad about it when I found out that it was just a dream. But I have never touched another cigarette.” Now he says that people should be warned about the dangers of smoking even before they start, because it is difficult for heavy smokers to quit.
After he gave up smoking, he made smoking colleagues like Mr S. Rajaratnam, Mr Lim Kim San and Mr E. W. Barker smoke outside the Cabinet conference room. “I told them smoking was no good for them, they never believed me,” he says.
Mr Lim finally stopped smoking after he had angina. Mr Rajaratnam gave up before undergoing a heart by-pass operation. But Mr Barker still smokes. “I’m quite sure he has read what the medical journals say, what the popular magazines say, but it is an addiction, so he carries on,” says Mr Lee.
He notes that whenever he has dinner with Dr Albert Winsemius, a long-time economic adviser to the Singapore Government, the economist refrains from smoking. A man of dry humour, Dr Winsemius once consoled himself by noting to Mr Lee that “all smoked things last longer – smoked meat, smoked fish”.
Adds Mr Lee: “When I told this joke in Cabinet, Goh Chok Tong said, yes, but they are all dead!”
Concludes Mr Lee: “My advice to someone who has not smoked is just stay that way. It is stupid, it is addictive, it is no good for you, and it will harm not only you but everyone else around you.”