Which of us can confidently say we know the story of our grandparents’ lives? Leanne Sim is one such person, although she only became better acquainted with her grandfather 15 years after he had passed away in 2007.
The 38-year-old communications expert has just co-authored the biography of Sim Kee Boon, her grandfather.
“I feel a huge sense of relief and accomplishment because the project has finally come to fruition,” she remarks. “I have been like a sponge, soaking up my grandfather’s story and learning more about Singapore’s pioneer generation of leaders.”
What makes her journey truly remarkable is how her grandfather was a prominent and well-respected individual, but she had absolutely no idea about any of it till after he died.
Sim was one of Lee Kuan Yew’s most trusted civil servants.
It’s no secret that he was responsible for many achievements, including laying the foundation of Changi Airport, heading the Civil Service from 1979 to 1984, as well as bringing Keppel Corporation back from the brink of bankruptcy.
Yet, despite the many celebrated facets of his public life, he kept them separate from his family life for reasons we will never know.
“One of my uncles expressed his excitement about reading the book to discover his father for the first time as a whole,” the author muses.
A wake-up call to her grandfather’s legacy
To Sim, her grandfather was simply “Kung Kung” and one of her biggest cheerleaders in the 24 years they had together. Some of the most cherished memories are of him picking her up after school to eat her favourite food.
Therefore, it is easy to imagine her astonishment when at his wake, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and President SR Nathan paid their respects.
Besides them, there were also shipyard workers, golf club caddies, bus-loads of employees from all the companies he worked with and their higher-ups.
Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia newspapers also published stories about him, with The Straits Times running articles for up to a week.
“My family and I were very surprised by the outpouring of grief and affection,” Sim recalls. “His five granddaughters were shocked to see so many people attend the wake, especially the country’s political leaders.”
When the fog of grief began to lift, she realised that there was so much more to Kung Kung than she had ever known.
Sim’s family first discussed writing his biography around the end of the noughties, but it wasn’t until 2018 that they found a funding source: the Sim Kee Boon Institute for Financial Economics at Singapore Management University.
Even then, it took another three years before this granddaughter found the perfect co-author — magazine journalist Low Shi Ping — to embark on the journey with her. “The book just needed the right people to birth it,” she says, adding that veteran copy editor Rosnah Ahmad was also involved.
Putting Together A Puzzle
In 2021, during the second year of the Covid pandemic, the two writers spent almost every weekend on the phone, mapping out her grandfather’s 78 years.
She describes it this way: “If Kung Kung’s life story was a complex jigsaw puzzle, then we went on a scavenger hunt to find all the pieces and see where and how they fit together.”
Her father, Peter, the eldest of Sim’s five sons, provided them with an outline of his life and career by chronologically mapping it out. Additionally, he gave them a list of individuals who had worked alongside his father during each phase of his life.
Several had passed away; others helpfully referred them to colleagues after sharing their stories and lessons learned from him.
“There were many times when I was so overcome with emotions stemming from a combination of sadness, regret and pride that I found myself inadvertently tearing up,” says Sim.
The importance of connecting with your elders before it is too late
After nearly 70 interviews, countless hours spent reading newspapers and searching the National Archives, the manuscript was delivered to the publisher in April 2022.
It was a process of discovery for her to find out who he was beyond just being her Kung Kung. “He had incredible interpersonal skills. I truly believe they were second to none, as he made and kept lifelong friends from all walks of life, who also became invaluable business contacts in different cities.
“The fact that he was able to positively influence and touch the lives of so many people that they are still talking about him 15 years after he passed on is pretty incredible to me.”
She must wonder if she regrets not getting to know him better when he was alive.
Sim mulls over that comment for a few seconds before responding, “I’m not sure he would have told me much. And to be honest, since I was also caught up in the throes of teenage life and young adulthood, I don’t think I would have listened.
“It is precisely for this reason that the book has become a lesson about the importance of connecting with our elders before they pass on. Just do it, before it is too late.”
Sim Kee Boon’s biography is scheduled to launch in September 2022.
Photos: Lily Toh & Leanne Sim