Personal bodyguard Karuppiah Kandasamy said he would have taken a bullet for his boss of 20 years.
Mr Kandasamy was so in awe of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s sincerity, dedication and contributions to Singapore that he was ready to sacrifice himself for the founding Prime Minister.
“Had an assassin taken aim at Mr Lee, I would have jumped in front of him. I was ready to take the bullet for him any time,” the still sprightly Mr Kandasamy told tabla! on Tuesday.
The 83-year-old was reminiscing about his years of service as he remembered Mr Lee on his 100th birthday last Saturday.
“I thought if I were gone, nobody would suffer a loss except my dear wife. But if my leader were gone, millions of people would suffer,” added Mr Kandasamy, who is affectionately known as Kanda.
“Mr Lee improved the lives of millions of people, not only in Singapore but also elsewhere. He built relations and businesses with other countries and put our nation in good stead for the future.”
As Mr Lee’s personal security officer from 1970 to 1990, Mr Kandasamy was posted to Mr Lee’s 38 Oxley Road residence. He was also the longest-serving member of Mr Lee’s security detail.
“I learnt a lot from Mr Lee as I kept a close watch on him. Those were the best years of my life,” said Mr Kandasamy.
“Mr Lee was firm but never lost his temper at me. He was always looking around and would put other people to the test. I learnt what I had to do as I stood by his side.
“I don’t know how or why I outlasted the other security officers. Maybe Mr Lee trusted me and his family had faith in me. I also got along well with Mr Lee’s personal secretary, whom I chatted with every day.”
He also believes it was fate.
Mr Kandasamy, who grew up in Jurong, said he was most probably the first boy from the neighbourhood to attend Victoria School at Tyrwhitt Road. The Veterans Football Club founder recalls playing football – something he was good at – with his friends and how he enjoyed his school life.
Until he was told that he was in trouble.
“I asked, ‘For what?’” said Mr Kandasamy, recounting his conversation with a close friend when he was in Secondary 4.
“He told me, ‘Gangsters in our area have targeted you. They want you to be the extortion collector, go to every shop, collect money and give it to the leader.’
“I came from a poor family, my father was a rubber-tapper and mother a grass-cutter. So, after hearing what my friend said, I had no choice but to join the police force – something we could do from Secondary 3 onwards in those days.”
Mr Kandasamy, who was a sharp-shooter and fitness buff, made instructor at the police training school when his constable peers were posted to different divisions.
“Perhaps the top officer saw something in me,” he said.
“One Monday, he called me and told me to report to the police headquarters. I was sent to the Security Command, bodyguard department.
“‘You’re going to be a bodyguard,’ the officer told me. I underwent training before my posting to 38 Oxley Road. I had no idea what my future would hold but that was the beginning of some of the best years of my life.”
Mr Lee was already a well-known figure at the time but “he was never an authoritarian”, said Mr Kandasamy.
“He set the highest standards, both in the office and at home, but never pushedthrew his weight around. To me, he was a perfect gentleman.
“He is one man who, to the best of my knowledge, has done so much for Singapore. He never thought of only himself or his family. To him, Singapore was priority No. 1, then maybe came his family.
“His heart was with Singapore and Singaporeans all the time. Whatever Mr Lee did, he did it for his people and country.”
Mr Kandasamy recalled how Mr Lee would always finish his work before going to bed. He would wake up early the next morning and exercise.
“Come rain or shine, Mr Lee would exercise. He made sure he did his exercises around the Istana grounds every day, even on holidays.
“There was one time Mr Lee returned from an overseas trip only at midnight but he still completed his exercise routine, – golf, jog, swim, run, cycle, push-up and step-up – including jogging, swimming and cycling, the next morning.
“He was also careful with what he ate. It was usually a simple meal of white rice, vegetables and fruits. He ate chicken, beef or fish only on every other day.”
Mr Kandasamy decided to hang up his hatend his stint on Aug 15, 1990 – the eve of his 50th birthday.
“I told Mrs Lee I was retiring and she said I had to tell the Prime Minister. At 11am, as we were taking the lift to the office, I told Mr Lee about my decision.
“After we exited the lift, he put his bag down and asked me ‘why’. I told him that I had exceeded my retirement age by five years and had to go.
“He asked me: ‘How old are you?’
“I told him I was 50 and he said, ‘What? You are 50? You don’t look like it.’
“He then asked if I had another job waiting and I said I did, to which he replied: ‘Well, if you have to go, you have to go.’”
The rare, brief exchange was a display of Mr Lee’s professionalism, said Mr Kandasamy.
“Nobody is indispensable. When I left, someone else would take over my position. It’s a fact of life.
“I was called up by my Police Security Branch boss the next day and he gave me one of the best birthday presents – a signed testimonial by Mr Lee.”
The handwritten testimonial read: “He was my personal security officer since 1970. He was keen, alert and quick. He anticipated my movements and was unobtrusive in the manner he covered me. He is also helpful, resourceful and courteous. I commend him to anyone looking for a reliable and trustworthy personal security officer.”
“Getting this great testimonial from a great man is more than a dream come true,” said Mr Kandasamy.
“I took on other jobs but never used the testimonial as leverage. I framed up the testimonial, the proof that I worked for one of the greatest men of the 20th century.”
Mr Kandasamy worked as a protocol officer at Changi Airport VIP complex over the next 14 years before joining a transport company. He and his wife Anapurini, 77, are still working at a taxi company.
The couple lost their older son due to health issues several years ago and now live with their second son and his family in Pasir Ris.
“Life has been good,” said Mr Kandasamy, who gets to maintain his financial independence with his salary and pension.