Model political wife
Mrs Lee's modest and unassuming personal style set the standard for other political spouses
By Rachel Lin
At first glance, Mrs Lee Kuan Yew's role as a political wife seems subdued.
She did not hold court decked in jewels, lending her influence to this or that political faction. An intensely private person who shunned the limelight, she was a silent partner to her more illustrious husband, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.
But her political legacy runs deep. Her discretion, simplicity and honesty set an example that has permeated Singapore's political culture. She became the model for all political spouses.
Without her, Mr Lee might have been a very different politician. She polished his speeches. She vetted the drafts of his memoirs, staying up with him till 4am, making corrections.
'I have been proof-reading and sometimes correcting his speeches from his earliest 1950 speech to the Malayan Forum in London,' she told The Straits Times in 1998.
The early history of the People's Action Party (PAP) also bears the stamp of her involvement. She might have had a hand, she told the writers of the book Men In White, in the drafting of the PAP Constitution in 1954.
'Who else would have drafted that Constitution for them?' she said. 'My husband doesn't draft things. He was an advocate; he was a court lawyer.'
Drafting the rules of a society, by contrast, was her speciality.
Mrs Lee was also credited with registering the PAP with the Registry of Societies. She was one of the first women to join the party and objected when she was barred from party meetings.
'I felt it was unfair that I should be dropped. I thought I could have made a contribution. But I did not take a strong stand about it,' she told the authors of Men In White.
She also acted as a go-between for her husband in his dealings with the British governor and a plenipotentiary from the Malayan Communist Party.
In 1959, she delivered her first and only party political broadcast during the general election that year, urging women to vote for the PAP. She was the only English-speaking woman in the party who had the requisite firmness and conviction for the broadcast.
She attended PAP rallies and other official events, standing steadfastly by her husband. She accompanied him on countless official trips.
Many times, Mr Lee leaned on her sound judgment of people. Ms Deborah Barker, the daughter of former law minister Eddie Barker, said that it was Mrs Lee who told Mr Lee to bring her father into politics. Mr Barker became law minister in 1964.
'My father felt that she had very good judgment, and he would go to her for advice on important personal matters,' Ms Barker recalled.
Mr Lee was forthright about Mrs Lee's influence on him in an interview with the writers of Lee Kuan Yew: The Man And His Ideas.
'She would tell me whether she would trust that man or not,' he said. 'And often she is right, because she has an intuitive sense of whether the chap is trustworthy and friendly or unfriendly.'
Her political instincts did not fail when it came to the question of merger with Malaysia.
'She did tell me that she didn't think Malaysia would work,' Mr Lee said. 'She didn't think it would work because, she said, 'You know the way they do things and we'll never change them'.'
Singapore left Malaysia after just two years of merger.
She had also expressed reservations over the PAP's decision to make Mr Ong Eng Guan the party's treasurer. Mr Ong became mayor of Singapore and later national development minister, but became disenchanted with Mr Lee and eventually left to form his own party.
But Mrs Lee's most far-reaching impact, perhaps, has been on Singapore's political culture.
Her personal style - plain, simple, unassuming, modest - has set the standard for other political spouses.
Following her lead, they stay out of the public eye and do not use their position to flex political muscle.
The tone of government in the early years of independence might have been very different if the wife of the prime minister had been a socialite or a conspicuous consumer of finery or a power broker. By her example and demeanour, Mrs Lee helped shape a modest and sober political culture.
'To me, Mrs Lee was a humble and courteous person, straightforward with no airs or pretences,' said the wife of former Old Guard minister Jek Yeun Thong.
Mrs Elisa Chew, who tailored dresses for Mrs Lee, remembered her as an 'amiable' person, with 'no pretences'.
'She would always greet me when she came into the store, and was even willing to take a photograph with me,' Mrs Chew said.
Mrs Lee was no political wallflower, though. Silent partner she may have been, but she made her mark on the PAP's history, most especially as a political confidante to Mr Lee.
And, crucially, her example has inspired generations of political wives who aim for the same combination of simplicity and sense that she made her own.
KWA GEOK CHOO'S RADIO BROADCAST
Madam Kwa Geok Choo was one of the founding members of the People's Action Party. In this edited excerpt from his memoirs, Mr Lee Kuan Yew tells the story of how she came to make her first - and only - political speech, which was broadcast on radio. The speech was on the PAP's position on women.
We shared the view of the communists that one reason for the backwardness of China and the rest of Asia, except Japan, was that women had not been emancipated.
They had to be put on a par with the men, given the same education, and enabled to make their full contribution to society...
During the election campaign... we could not find a PAP woman member who was a good enough speaker to take on the programme in English.
After Choo had auditioned the wives of two candidates in Lee & Lee's office, she came into my room, where I was in discussion with (Goh) Keng Swee and (S.) Raja(ratnam), to tell me that they sounded too soft, not tough enough.
When she left us, my two friends suggested that she should do it.
I asked her, and after a moment's hesitation, she agreed. Raja wrote the first draft, which she amended so that it would sound like her.
It was cleared by the central executive committee and translated into the other languages, and she delivered it in English over Radio Malaya. One paragraph was crucial:
'Our society is still built on the assumption that women are the social, political and economic inferiors of men. This myth has been made the excuse for the exploitation of female labour. Many women do the same kind of work as men but do not get the same pay... We are fielding five women candidates in the election... Let us show them (the other parties) that Singapore women are tired of their pantomime and buffoonery. I appeal to women to vote for PAP. It is the only party with the idealism, the honesty and ability to carry out its election programme.'
This was a serious commitment, or I would not have agreed to my wife making it in a broadcast. I wanted to implement it early, although it meant urgent work for the legal draftsmen in the Attorney-General's Chambers.
They searched for precedents in the legislation of other countries, and drew up the Women's Charter, which we passed into law within a year.
It established monogamy as the only legal marital condition and made polygamy, hitherto an accepted practice, a crime - except among Muslims, whose religion allowed a man to have four wives.
The charter was comprehensive and altered the status of women. But it did not change the cultural bias of parents against daughters in favour of sons. That has still not been achieved.
Mrs Lee raised her children to be well-mannered and disciplined, and took pride in their achievements
By Li Xueying
To the country, she was Mrs Lee. To her husband, she was Choo.
To her three children, she was Mama - who corrected their English, took time off from work to lunch with them every day, occasionally wielded a cane, and continued to look out for them when they were adults, down to replacing her daughter's toothbrush when it was worn out.
She took Hsien Yang, now 53 and chairman of Fraser & Neave, out to the beach, watching over him like a hawk as he built sandcastles.
She bought clothes for Wei Ling, now 55 and director of the National Neuroscience Institute, as the latter was a 'reluctant dresser'.
And when her eldest son, Hsien Loong, now 58 and the Prime Minister of Singapore, was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1992, she agonised as only a mother could.
With a mother's telepathy, she knew instinctively when her children were in trouble.
Dr Lee Wei Ling, in a column for The Sunday Times, wrote of how in 1995 she had called home after a brush with death on a hiking holiday in New Zealand, but without intending to tell her parents what had happened.
Her mother nevertheless sensed instinctively that something had happened - 'but I'd rather not know what', she told a relative.
Wrote Dr Lee: 'My mother knew me better than I knew myself.'
By accounts, Mrs Lee practised tough love when the children were growing up, making sure that they never threw their weight around although they were the offspring of the prime minister.
When the need called for it, she did not spare the rod 'when the children were particularly naughty or disobedient', recounted Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in his memoirs.
'She brought them up well-mannered and self-disciplined,' he wrote.
As the family's main breadwinner during the early days of MM Lee's foray into politics, she worked long hours at the law firm she had co-founded with MM Lee and his brother, but would forego business lunches so as to be with the children.
In the evenings, she would take them to 'run around the Istana grounds while Kuan Yew played golf or practised on the practice tee and the putting green', she recalled in an interview with The Straits Times. 'And I remember taking them along to PAP picnics, and to Pulau Ubin to visit the Outward Bound School.'
For holidays, the family would visit the Cameron Highlands or Fraser's Hill in Malaysia at least once or twice a year - up to 1965. After that, they would vacation in Changi.
She took quiet pride in the children's achievements.
For instance, when Dr Lee had essays published in the Chinese newspapers, she would cut them out and paste them neatly in an exercise book.
Educated in Chinese-medium schools, their command of English is her achievement. A voracious reader with a passion for literature, she corrected their grammatical errors.
But the couple left it to the children to decide their careers, although she did dissuade Dr Lee, who was fond of dogs, against a career as a vet.
After the trio grew up, Mrs Lee's role evolved from a disciplinarian to that of confidante and companion.
In cahoots with her daughter, she persuaded Mr Lee on his 75th birthday to donate the proceeds from his book sales to polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education students instead of academically gifted students.
Her advice was often laced with her trademark humour.
Dr Lee recounted how as a by-product of being MM Lee's daughter, various people would ask to meet her though they had nothing specific to say to her.
'My mother used to say wryly of such people: 'If they cannot see the panda, the panda's daughter may be an acceptable substitute.'
She was a brilliant student and a sharp conveyancing lawyer. But it was clear that being a wife and mother were the most important roles to Mrs Lee.
In 2003, when the family auctioned for charity various personal possessions, she kept one thing: a pair of small ivory seals which she and Mr Lee had used to stamp the report cards of their three children. Another of her prized possessions was a gold pendant that Mr Lee had commissioned for her, with the engraved Chinese characters 'xian qi liang mu' (virtuous wife and caring mother) and 'nei xian wai de' (wise in looking after the family, virtuous in behaviour towards the outside world).
Dr Lee has written of how she had once e-mailed her mother when her toothbrush needed replacing. Mrs Lee e-mailed back:
'I am telepathic. I just got a toothbrush for you.
'But one day, the commissariat will not be around.'