A new book, The Last Fools: The Eight Immortals of Lee Kuan Yew, edited by Peh Shing Huei, puts the spotlight on eight powerful bureaucrats who turned the late Singapore statesman’s ideas into icons. In this excerpt, Justin Kor details how Hon Sui Sen played a pivotal role in ensuring a smooth leadership transition in the city state. His untimely passing in 1983 brought the issue of political succession into sharp focus. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew struggled to speak. On that day, December 20, 1983, the usually brilliant orator was finding the words difficult to come by, his characteristic and unflappable composure absent. The Parliament House was enveloped in gloom as its members mourned the loss of an esteemed colleague. In sombre silence, they listened as Lee paid tribute to Hon Sui Sen, the veteran Finance Minister who had unexpectedly passed away from a massive heart attack two months earlier. After the death of Labour Minister Ahmad Ibrahim in 1962, he was the second minister to die in office. But to Lee, he was more than just a colleague. The pair had a close friendship that stretched back decades: they were roommates during the dark days of the Japanese Occupation when a broke Hon moved into Lee’s family home; students studying Mandarin together when Lee fought to win over the Chinese masses in an unstable, self-governing Singapore; and later, confidants to each other as they oversaw the country’s transformation into a modern city. Addressing Parliament, the Prime Minister fondly recounted an instance when Hon had enthused to him how easy it was to change his grandchildren’s nappies. Emotions finally got the better of him. “I have lost a close personal friend of more than 40 years,” he said as his voice faltered. “And an exceptionally able Minister of Finance. I still find it difficult to talk of him in the past tense … his sudden death was a grievous loss for Singapore.” It was truly a crushing blow. The quiet Hon had proved indispensable as both a civil servant and politician. As the first chairman of the Economic Development Board, he was instrumental in making Singapore’s industrialisation dream a reality against all odds. His 13-year tenure as Finance Minister saw the country escape poverty as it experienced almost unparalleled economic growth during a period of international turmoil. To describe him as a miracle worker would not have been an exaggeration. How J.Y. Pillay helped Lee Kuan Yew turn Singapore Airlines into a global giant But Hon’s death did not only leave behind a devastating void for Lee and his Cabinet. It was also a sobering reminder that the Old Guard – the Prime Minister’s trusted band of leaders who had guided Singapore for more than two decades – would not be around to lead the country forever. It was the beginning of the end, as The Straits Times noted in an article two days after his passing. “Mr Hon’s death is a jolting reminder of what has preoccupied the Prime Minister for many years – the mortality of the Old Guard, the problem of leadership succession in Singapore,” it stated. In an interview for this book, S. Dhanabalan, a key member of the second-generation leadership, revealed that Hon’s death likely accelerated Singapore’s political succession process. “He just drew attention to the fact that we were all mortal, and did not know when we were going,” he said. This fact could not have hit harder on the day the Finance Minister died, and when both of Lee’s Deputy Prime Ministers were also incapacitated themselves. Goh Keng Swee was lying in a room next to Hon’s at the Singapore General Hospital. Half a world away, S. Rajaratnam was recuperating in a New York hospital after suffering a heart attack there. Lee’s closest and most capable lieutenants were ailing and ageing. “I do not know how much time the Old Guard have got … the amber lights are flashing,” the Prime Minister would later remark in his 1984 National Day Rally speech. Their era was ending. An urgent renewal of leadership was imperative. But it would be no easy feat. Political successions were the biggest Achilles’ heel for developing Asian countries headed by strongmen in the 1970s and 1980s. South Korea saw Park Chung-hee’s autocratic rule end with his violent assassination. Chaotic instability consumed China’s political landscape after Mao Zedong’s death. Only a massive show of People Power in the Philippines could eject corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos from Manila. Military coups were almost fashionable in the continent at the time, rocking Thailand, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Singapore had been warned. But who could take over from the indomitable Lee and his crew who had run the country with an iron grip for the large part of three decades? How could it ensure a seamless transition of power? How could it avoid the fates of other Asian nations? The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) was well aware of the immense difficulty of this task, as Rajaratnam noted in an article in 1969: “One of the most difficult tasks of politics is not how to acquire power but how to transfer it to a new generation of leaders.” China, friend or foe to Singapore? How a wily Lee Kuan Yew made it both Hon would play a huge role in smoothening the rocky transition process. He was the chief evangelist of a planned, smooth, and peaceful leadership renewal. He had the breadth of both government and party, which allowed him to scan for the best in both the civil service and politics. He had the sharpest eyes among the pioneer leaders for a bright young mind that was described by Lee as “best in talent scouting” – quite the honour given that the Old Guard had astute judges like Goh, Lim Kim San, and of course Lee himself. Most of all, Hon practised what he preached. Renewal, in his mind, would start with himself. At a time when many of his peers in other Asian states would still be enjoying the spoils of their new-found republics, Hon wanted to say goodbye In 1974, he would stun Lee by requesting to step down as Finance Minister. He had been in the job for just four years after retiring from the civil service, while the PAP had been in charge of independent Singapore for only nine years! At a time when many of his peers in other Asian states would still be enjoying the spoils of their new-found republics, Hon wanted to say goodbye. It was a move completely incongruent with the ethos of global politics in the developing world at that moment. Regimes entrench and enjoy; they don’t exit, and certainly not on their own volition. Hon was a different, unique creature, already preparing his political obituary. He told Lee that foreign investors in Singapore had noticed that he was slowing down as he approached 60 years old – a complete life cycle in ancient Chinese beliefs. The foreigners were looking to see who could be his successor. But there was a problem: no one seemed to have the potential to do so. “This conversation had more impact on me than any other exchange I have ever had,” noted Lee in his memoirs. “I resolved that I must not be found wanting in this respect, and that I must place Singapore in competent hands before I retired.” Hon had a strategy. When interacting with chief executives of top American corporations, he noticed that they had to retire by 65, with younger leaders replacing them. It was a move that prevented companies from stagnating and allowed for a consistent renewal of leadership. And one of the outgoing chief executive’s last tasks would be to identify, test, and train his successor. Singapore should employ a similar system in its political structure, he felt. This would lay the foundations for what would be the PAP’s bragging rights that has helped keep it in power for over six decades: an enduring ability to keep the gears of governance turning smoothly for Singapore. Much of it was owed to Hon. Talent was front and centre of the Penang-born Hakka’s career. Hon seemed to possess all the requisite attributes of an eagle-eyed headhunter meshed with a nurturing manager: a shrewd judgment of character, a patient willingness to nurture, and above all, a remarkable tolerance to look past the faults of others. He once told his protégé Ngiam Tong Dow: “When I look at you, I never think of your weak points. I always think of your strong points, and I use your strong points to do my work for me rather than spend day and night on your weak points.” Hon was a human resource dream come true. The Last Fools: The Eight Immortals of Lee Kuan Yew is available at Books Kinokuniya Singapore and Nutgraf Books .