Today, I am pleased to feature a special High Chair Conversation with former political journalist Hwee Goh. Hwee and I reconnected 8 years ago at the Book Council’s Asian Children’s Writers & Illustrators Conference in 2007 where I was just embarking on writing my debut children’s book Prince Bear & Pauper Bear. Like true blue Singaporeans, we bonded over Yakun kaya toast and teh si, immediately after lunch. That’s when we realised we had a similar appetite for things.
Timmy & Tammy Discover Series for Young Readers
So I’m doubly pleased that Hwee has now debuted as an author with a first book that is right down her alley. Hwee was on the press corp that accompanied Modern Singapore’s Founding Father Mr Lee Kuan Yew on his overseas trips. Now, as mum to four kids, she is a walking repository on children’s books. She’s combined both experiences to research and write a kid-friendly book on Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
I asked her to give a sneak peek into her heady days of high-level news reporting and her current station with early readers.
1. You were on Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s press corps when he traveled overseas, in the years he was Senior Minister from 1997-2002.
a) How did you feel on your first overseas news trip with him?
Hwee: I must have been in my usual high adrenaline mode – to listen, observe and kill ourselves putting the news out as soon as possible! I suppose it was all done with this in mind – that Mr Lee was watching us too, and ready to question me back if I asked a question that wasn’t based on good research, or sound foreign relations!
b) What was one memorable nugget from your 7 years on his press corp?
Hwee: I think it would have to be the few times he went to Kuala Lumpur to meet with the Malaysian leaders. It was so fascinating to watch the dynamics between him and Malaysia’s then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and no matter which side, everyone we met (officials, media) were in awe of Lee Kuan Yew whether in a respectful way, or a slightly grudging way.
And now with hindsight from delving into his life further for the book, I’m sure that topmost in Mr Lee’s mind, while balancing relations with Malaysia, was getting a good deal to further secure water supply to Singapore. This was before Singapore then moved on to alternative ways to enhance water supply with NEWater and desalination. This was Mr Lee in his 70s already, never letting up on getting what he wanted for Singapore.
2a) Share 2 things you learnt from your 15 years as a political journalist.
– Keep calm. If you get the interview or story that you want, then good. If you don’t, the news goes out with or without it.
– Try again. If I were the anxious sort who had to have something happen a certain way, I couldn’t survive the crazy days there!
– Be yourself. Friends will say I am the ‘Act Blur’ sort, which was probably a defence against the harsher parts of a news journalism environment. I’d just add, “Act Blur and Do Your Own Thing Well”. As a news journalist, you have to make dozens of cold calls a day to try to get a news angle or news story together. So being yourself really breaks down barriers between you and a contact because he/she would be much more willing to help you.
Inside Page of Timmy & Tammy Discover: Lee Kuan Yew
b) Tell us 2 treasures you discovered when researching and writing Timmy & Tammy Discover: Lee Kuan Yew.
Hwee: I read Mr Lee’s memoirs again, this time not as a journalist, but more as a writer delving into what kind of a person he was, not as much his policy. I came back with:
– Singapore was really his home. Mr Lee kept his eye on everything that might possibly need improving in Singapore till he died. If he saw a rotting tree along the road, he’d call the NParks. If he worried excessively on securing water supply to Singapore, he thought of a plan 20 years even before it became reality (read the book!). For that, despite what some critics may say about him, I can only be appreciative.
– He loved his wife Kwa Geok Choo deeply. I knew this but reading his words again just made me feel in awe all over again. He admired her, respected her and loved her as an equal, and as an equally-intelligent partner.
Imagine Singapore on the dawn of Separation from Malaysia, suddenly independent, and Lee Kuan Yew worried, fretted only for a moment and then “just did it”. Who did he look to for help with securing water supply from Malaysia? His wife. She was best with wording these agreements (read the book!).
How did Lee Kuan Yew write in such a readable, concise manner? His wife! She would parse words with him and read through his draft speeches, memoirs and they would both work late into the night. It was an amazing partnership.
3. Did any of your journalistic skills prepare you for your next chapter of raising four kids? Tell us one!
Hwee: Um. Hmmmm. Not really. Having my firstborn in the U.S. was hard and years of stressful high adrenaline journalism didn’t really help! And I only have half the patience at home than I ever had at work. Haha!
So I’d have to say maybe being a journalist honed my massive multi-tasking skills that I still employ now.
4. a) What prompted you to start Hwee’s Book Share Club? Your recent post on a “big box sale” reached 10,000 people.
Hwee: I did it on a whim while waiting for my boys at golf one Saturday in November last year. But I think the biggest impetus at that time was that on average, I was asked for book recommendations once or twice a week and I would look for the physical book, or find it online, snap pictures, look through reviews if I haven’t read the book, then share it on email or whatsapp with the friend who asked.
Unsolicited, I would also send out good books that I saw while browsing online and email links to some friends. Friends also liked to look at my “book loot”, which are just pictures of books I bought! I had also just finished a year with some mums of Primary 1 kids who had worked together to bring up the reading of all the girls in the group, through sharing pictures of their girls reading, the good books that worked, etc. This convinced me that peer-sharing of books is the way to go. Hence, Hwee’s Book Share Club
b) Tell us why you love children’s books?
Hwee: They are the best books to read because they have to be interesting, clearly written and full of imagination in order to be read by a child. The best ones are the ones with a second layer (usually humour or clever writing) for the adult or older child.
5. What’s your favorite book from childhood? Why?
Hwee: I had different favourites at different ages, so maybe the Enchanted Wood series by Enid Blyton.
6. What’s the first word that comes to mind in your new chapter as a published author?
Mummum: This is the final week to pre-order Timmy & Tammy Discover: Lee Kuan Yew at Armour Publishing’s e-store before it launches. Pre-orders from now till 10 July come AUTOGRAPHED and with FREE delivery (within Singapore)! What better SG50 book to gift your friends and children? Majullah Singapura!