“You Must Know The Ground Sentiment”

In an exclusive interview, Mdm Yeong Yoon Ying, former Press Secretary to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, shares what it was like to be his long-time aide, and what government communications officers need to know today.

Back in 1993, Mdm Yeong Yoon Ying was debating whether to leave the Public Service to spend more time at home with her sons when one day, she was asked to interview with Mr Lee Kuan Yew. The then Senior Minister was seeking a new Press Secretary.

“I never applied for the job,” she recalls.

But feeling “game for a challenge”, Mdm Yeong, who was at the time Deputy Director of Public Communications Division at the former Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA), went to the meeting. Mr Lee’s main concern was whether she could juggle the travel demands of the job with caring for her family. “He respected mothers. He knew we have a duty.”

Mdm “YY”, as she came to be known, served as Mr Lee’s Press Secretary for the next 21 years, until his passing last year in March.

She was thrust into the role exactly a day after her predecessor, Mr James Fu, retired. “There was no understudy!” she tells Challenge. “And no job description; it was for me to figure out.”

Mr Lee also never communicated his expectations of her. For advice, she turned to Mr Fu. Her priority, he said, was to fulfil Mr Lee’s requests on time — and if she could not finish her MICA’s assignments, then, “Don’t sleep!”


She had a lot on her plate then: her Press Secretary role aside, she had kept her duties at MICA, and was a mother to two boys. She was also pursuing a post-graduate business administration course part-time at the National University of Singapore. Struggling, she considered dropping her business studies to focus on her work and family.

A good friend helped to put things into perspective. He told her that, unlike undergraduates, she had “so many important things to handle… so prioritise them and persevere. No one expects you to score straight ‘As’, so finish the course, don’t quit.” That lifted a load off her mind, and she went on to complete her studies.

With no mentor on the job, “everyone is your teacher,” adds Mdm YY. She recalls handling her first few courtesy calls on Mr Lee by a foreign delegation. For such calls, cameramen were usually allowed to take a few shots at the start, and should then leave the room for the call to proceed in private.

Mr Lee kept shooting her pointed looks, which she did not comprehend. It was a security officer who taught her what it meant: a silent instruction to tell the photographers that their time in the room was up, and that they should leave.

After a six-month trial, “Mr Lee didn’t say anything, I didn’t say anything, so we carried on for 21 years plus.”

Doing the best job

As Mr Lee continued to be highly sought after for interviews, Mdm YY had to assess every media request. She would seek the relevant ministries’ inputs and submit her recommendations to Mr Lee. At first, her submissions were three pages long.

“After a couple of months, the late Mr Lee told me, ‘YY, just give me three paragraphs.’ Do you know that three paragraphs is harder than three pages?” she says with a laugh.

Mr Lee would also always ask her: “What is the value of this interview to Singapore? Will it be good for Singapore if I do this?”

For Mdm YY, this was the trait of Mr Lee’s that impressed her most. In whatever he did, Mr Lee’s first consideration was Singapore’s interest — how it would benefit the country and Singaporeans.

Mr Lee was also sharp-eyed. Mdm YY recounts how he had sensed her discomfort at something he had said during a TV interview — just from a tiny shift in her body language. He later asked her what was wrong during a pause in recording, to which she replied that an example he had cited in one of his answers could be misinterpreted. Mr Lee thought about it, and had the answer re-recorded.


What press secretaries should do, she says, is to ensure that their “principal” is never embarrassed or put in an awkward situation.

And although she was “born in a different era”, before the rise of social media, she firmly believes that one principle must remain: a press secretary should only disseminate facts and accurate information. “You don’t have to confirm rumours.”

Press secretaries should also have a good grasp of current affairs, both domestic and international. They must have strong communication skills, and be able to relate to people across all levels, she says.

“You must know the ground sentiment,” she says. “The title [of Press Secretary] would have meant nothing if I didn’t know how to assist [Mr Lee].”

Public officers should also brush up on their communication skills, she adds. Public officers, especially those in communicator roles, should be able to face the media and explain a complicated policy in a simple and easy-to-understand manner. And as people have short attention spans, Mdm YY has learnt to crystallise and simplify messages to capture the audience’s attention.

When officers are asked for their comments at media briefings, for example, “if you’re prepared and know the key words, you can give the [media] ‘the 30 seconds’ — it’s only that 30 seconds that you can hold people’s attention.”

Shifting roles

As a close aide, Mdm YY saw the softer side of Mr Lee — the caring father and devoted husband. After Mrs Lee’s first stroke, he personally administered her medicine, cajoling her to have a bite of food beforehand. Mrs Lee, relates Mdm YY, had shared that after taking care of her husband for so long, she enjoyed being pampered by him.

Over the years, as Mr Lee aged and his staff got more concerned about his health, Mdm YY’s role expanded to caring for his comfort. Mindful of his weak throat, she would shorten or break up media sessions so that he could rest.

And when he passed away, the whirlwind of the following weeks meant she hardly had the time to process the loss. It was only a month later, Mdm YY says in a quieter voice, that she felt “something was missing”.

But having seen his health gradually decline, she understood that the end was good for him. “He wouldn’t suffer… and you know he didn’t want to be a burden to anyone.”

Press secretaries should also have a good grasp of current affairs, both domestic and international. They must also have strong communication skills, and be able to relate to people across all levels.

Mr Lee himself emphasised the need to stay healthy every chance he got, she adds. When asked how he kept fit even in his 80s, his advice was to exercise regularly, eat less, sleep well and to “love your job, so that the moment you wake up, you can expect a whole day of things you love to do”.

For Mdm YY now, her work continues at the Ministry of Communication and Information as Director of Special Duties, which include overseeing Mr Lee’s photos, interviews and speeches.

While working with Mr Lee, she assisted in compiling his speeches and interviews into a 20-volume collection, The Papers of Lee Kuan Yew. She remains responsible for ensuring that his image is not misused for profit or publicity.

She also spends time with other public officers, imparting her knowledge from her years in government communications and 15 years of being a TV and radio producer.

At home, she indulges her two grandchildren with their favourite songs on the piano, and pursues her singing passion with a group of friends.

Having had a unique opportunity to work closely with Mr Lee for so long, how would she remember him? “An honest leader, who held firmly to what he believed in. His life revolved around Singapore and our interests.”


What’s in your cuppa?
Teh tarik

Where do you take it?
Coffee shops

How often do you have it?
Every day, but I can live without it

    Mar 2, 2016
    Siti Maziah Masramli
    Norman Ng
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