Monday, October 4, 2010

Farewell, Mrs Lee: Confidante, counsel and companion of 63 years

Oct 3, 2010

KWA GEOK CHOO - 1920-2010

A nation mourns the death of the wife of Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew

By Chua Mui Hoong

In life, Madam Kwa Geok Choo was a quiet, dignified cheongsam-clad presence by her husband's side.

In death, she leaves behind a void that not only her husband, but also the entire nation, will feel.

Madam Kwa, known to the world as the wife of Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, died yesterday evening at 5.40pm at her Oxley Road home, with her daughter Wei Ling, 55, by her side. She was 89. Her younger son Hsien Yang, 53, had been by her side earlier in the day.

Her husband of 63 years was in hospital with a chest infection.

Elder son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 58, yesterday cut short an official visit to Belgium where he was to attend the Asia-Europe Meeting summit. He is due to arrive in Singapore today.

A statement from the Prime Minister's Office said the wake will be held tomorrow and on Tuesday at Sri Temasek, the official residence of the Prime Minister located within the Istana grounds. Mrs Lee had spent many hours watching her children, and later her grandchildren, play at Sri Temasek, while their father went about his business or exercised.

Visitors may pay their respects there from 10am to 5pm on those days. A private funeral will take place on Wednesday at the Mandai Crematorium.

In a moving tribute, President S R Nathan said: 'To know Mrs Lee's greatness, one has to listen to what has not been said of her until now. Mrs Lee was great in many ways - as a legal luminary, as a mother of an illustrious family, and more than that for her stoic presence next to Mr Lee Kuan Yew during times of turbulence and tension in the many years of his political struggle.

'There was not a single important event or development that she was not an intimate witness of. Indeed she lived a life that had its fair share of pain and uncertainty, which was not evident in public.'

He sent his condolences to Mr Lee, 87, saying that his 'grief over her passing must be heavy and immeasurable.'

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou also conveyed their condolences to the Lee family.

Mrs Lee had been ill for some time. A stroke in 2003 had left her frail, with weakened peripheral vision, but she remained bravely active, accompanying Mr Lee on numerous official functions here and overseas.

On one trip to China, she gamely donned a long-sleeved swimsuit with long pants, and swam in the hotel pool, never mind zig-zagging across the lane. Her gait was uncertain and she needed a supporting arm, but she continued in good cheer, her sharp wit intact.

In 2005, on a visit to Temasek House in Kuala Lumpur, Mr Lee pointed out a photograph on the wall and described the picture to her: 'This is a picture of you doing the joget.' Her swift retort: 'Put it in the furnace.'

She suffered another two strokes in 2008 which left her unable to walk or speak. Nurses cared for her at the Lees' Oxley Road home.

In the last two years, Mr Lee has spent many hours by her bedside, reading from her well-thumbed copies of English poetry and novels and telling her about his day.

In an upcoming book to be published by The Straits Times in January, Mr Lee revealed that in her last days, 'I'm the one she recognises the most. When she hears my voice she knows it's me.'

Theirs was a lifelong love story.

Mrs Lee, a brilliant student who came out top in her Senior Cambridge year, and who went on to build a successful law practice at Lee & Lee, was the intellectual equal of Mr Lee, but she saw herself first and foremost as a wife and mother, in keeping with her upbringing in a conservative Straits-Chinese home.

In public, she was a traditional Asian wife who metaphorically walked two steps behind her husband, as she once quipped.

In private, she was a devoted mother, a caring, gentle woman, and a quick-witted conversationalist who loved literature, classical music and botany. She was a 'tower of strength' to her husband and family, emotionally and intellectually. She believed in the same causes as Mr Lee did - independence from colonial rule in the early years, and later, a multiracial, meritocratic Singapore.

She saw Mr Lee through the nation's toughest moments in 51 years in office, 31 as Prime Minister, girding him for battle the way only a wife can. She helped him through the anguish of separation. She shared with him her instinctive grasp of character among the people they met. She helped him draft and polish his speeches, memoirs and even legal documents.

She engaged him in heated debate on policy matters like the rights of women and was wont to chide him if she thought him too demanding of others.

An intensely private woman who shunned the limelight, Mrs Lee trod softly through Singapore's history. She was a pioneer in her own right, but she chose to remain on the sidelines in public, content to play a supporting role.

But her imprint on Singapore was no less significant for being so gentle. Her quiet dignity and self-discipline, her selflessness and modesty, were unique. The nation will not see the likes of Madam Kwa Geok Choo again.

Confidante, counsel and companion of 63 years

Brilliant and intensely private, the late Madam Kwa Geok Choo is best remembered as Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's loyal partner, whose strength of character supported him as he built a new nation

By Lee Siew Hua

She was the supremely capable wife who signed the cheques and kept the family strong, prompting her husband, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, to suggest, only half in jest, that he was a 'kept man'.

Many men will cringe at that status, believing that being kept is a contemptible station in life. Not so Mr Lee, who sometimes made counter-intuitive remarks about his wife that hinted at how equal their marriage was.

Married in 1947, their union spanned the decades from Singapore's vulnerable infancy to its arrival as a First World country. Telling the nation that he was a kept man was Mr Lee's way of acknowledging how central his wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo, a brilliant cheongsam-clad lawyer, was in his career.

Because he had a resolute, able and successful wife at his side during the riotous 1950s, he had the freedom of mind to take arms against colonialism and communism, without worrying that their three young children might suffer if anything were to happen to him.

It was years later, in 1985, that he would say in Parliament: 'Over the years I've been a kept man. My wife keeps the family.'

That was a rare moment when the role in his life played by his intensely shy and private spouse surfaced.

For she had chosen all her life to support him from behind the front line. It was not her place to offer political advice, both appeared to agree, or advance her own agenda or take a direct part in politics.

When senior Straits Times journalists, interviewing him in the late 1990s for their book Lee Kuan Yew: The Man And His Ideas, wanted to know what 'influence' Mrs Lee had on him, he responded:

'Not in political matters. In political matters, she would not know enough to tell me whether this is right or wrong.'

Tellingly, though, he indicated that she was a discerning judge of character.

Other times, he valued her frugality and staid quality. 'She's a very caring person, very staid, very caring; she's not frivolous and does not like to socialise, which saves a lot of time,' he said.

Trusted intermediary

Mr and Mrs Lee, together with Mr Lee's brother Kim Yew, set up the Lee & Lee law firm in a shabby Malacca Street shophouse in 1955.

It was there that Mrs Lee, or Choo as her husband called her, 'first personified the whole hazardous balancing act that was to decide the fate of Singapore', according to the late British journalist Dennis Bloodworth, who authored The Tiger And The Trojan Horse.

There, under the radar, she played the unlikely role of 'cut-out' or trusted intermediary between Mr Lee and two irreconcilable enemies - the British Governor and the 'Plenipotentiary' of the Malayan Communist Party.

Governor William Goode would make contact with Mr Lee, leader of the radical People's Action Party (PAP), through his confidential secretary Pamela Hickley, who would phone Mrs Lee and communicate in hushed tones.

As for 'The Plen', Mr Fang Chuang Pi, he did not trust telephones. But Lee & Lee's clients then included petty gangsters, unlicensed hawkers and a whole host of other humble people, so it was easy for The Plen's courier to slip upstairs to her office.

As Mrs Lee drily pointed out to Mr Bloodworth: 'A four-digit lottery runner would look much the same as a communist agent.'

Mr Bloodworth was able to consult her in the early 1980s for his rich account of the duel between the non-communist PAP and communists. Her voice as it emerged in brief quotes in the book sounded coolly cogent and eloquent, hinting at a precise, lawyerly wit.

The same voice was also evident in the odd e-mail interviews she gave the media in her later years.

For example, when asked if she and Mr Lee had disagreements, she responded: 'Would you believe me if I say we never disagree or quarrel?

'Fortunately, these are over little matters. Kuan Yew leaves household decisions to me. Family matters have not been a problem.'

Another time, in a light-hearted sequence when Radio Television Hong Kong quizzed the couple in 2002, she teased Mr Lee. The interviewer, who started by asking them if they held hands, wondered about changes since their romantic Cambridge years.

Mrs Lee gave a deliberately plain reply: 'The only change is that we've grown older.'

Cheekily, the interviewer said: 'Black hair to white hair.'

Mrs Lee, who often banters with her husband, looked at him and quipped: 'Black hair to no hair.'

Nixon's compliment

In 1973, then United States President Richard Nixon paid artful homage to her at the White House:

'Tonight, when you saw me turning to Mrs Lee, I said, 'Mrs Lee, tell me, is it true that you were No. 1 in the class at Cambridge Law School and your husband was No. 2?' And she said, 'Mr President, do you think he would have married me if that were the case?'

'But I probed further, and I found that, as a matter of fact, Mrs Lee... did receive a first at Cambridge Law School.

'Her husband did also, but like a very loyal wife, she said, 'He had a first with a star after his name, and that is something very special'.'

Mrs Lee was being modest, for she had outshone her husband academically - not at Cambridge but earlier, at Raffles College.

As Mr Lee related in his memoirs, The Singapore Story, he was the best student in mathematics, scoring over 90 marks.

'But to my horror, I discovered I was not the best in either English or economics. I was in second place, way behind a certain Miss Kwa Geok Choo.'

He sat up. 'I knew I would face stiff competition for the Queen's Scholarship,' he wrote.

They had first met at Raffles Institution. As the only girl in a boys' school, the principal had asked her to present the prizes in 1939, and he collected three books from her.

Their intellectual rivalry turned into friendship - and then love.

Her Prince Charming

The war from 1943 to 1946 disrupted their education. Together with Mr Yong Nyuk Lin, later a minister, whose wife was Miss Kwa's sister, Mr Lee started a small business making gum, which was then in short supply. The young Kuan Yew reconnected with Geok Choo in that context.

Later, he recalled: 'She told me... she was looking for her Prince Charming. I turned up, not on a white horse but a bicycle with solid tyres!'

It was often in his happy recollection of their love story - from his moonlight proposal to their secret wedding in 1947 while they were law students in Cambridge - that Mr Lee's forceful personality seemed to soften, even sparkle, most.

But then Mrs Lee regularly revealed a different side of the leader simply by her presence, or her well-timed words in a light British accent.

One day, for a Straits Times report to highlight healthy living, he hopped onto a bicycle on the Istana grounds.

The photographer and journalist found it awkward to instruct the leader of the land to keep cycling. Mrs Lee stepped to the fore, urging her husband to continue riding in circles until the photo shoot was complete.

In the public mind, however, she was very much the silent partner. 'I walk two steps behind my husband like a good Asian wife,' she said in 1976 on a visit to Kuala Lumpur. 'I am not used to interviews. I suppose I am interview-shy.'

In 1971, the Manila Times marvelled at the way the Lees kept out of the public eye. Mr Lee made sure there was 'no Lee Kuan Yew family with a capital F' and 'no Lee Kuan Yew cult', the paper said in a front-page story. And Mrs Lee was 'almost an invisible entity', the paper observed - in marked contrast to some first ladies elsewhere, including in the Philippines itself.

In this respect, she personified - and in many ways, set the model for - the Singapore-style political spouse: in the background, not a newsmaker, not flashy. She was always very quiet by Mr Lee's side in public. And by her manner and deportment, she set the moral tone for all the other political wives. Which was not to say she wasn't always observant - of situations as well as of people.

Mr Lee paid a glowing tribute to his wife in the preface to the first volume of his memoirs, The Singapore Story, which was dedicated to 'Choo':

'Choo was a tower of strength, giving me constant emotional and intellectual support,' he wrote. She would stay up with him till 4am while he laboured over his tome. 'A powerful critic and helper', she went over every word. 'We had endless arguments,' he wrote.

This was an echo of his early political life, when she used to polish his speeches because he had no time.

More significantly, she also had a hand in the 1965 Separation Agreement with Malaysia drafted by then Law Minister Eddie Barker.

Mr Lee had wanted the critical water agreements with Johor to be included in the Separation Agreement. He recounted in his memoirs: 'I was too hard-pressed, and told Choo, who was a good conveyancing lawyer, to find a neat way to achieve this.'

The paragraphs she drafted later became part of the Malaysian Constitution, guaranteeing Singapore's water supply from Johor.

The couple were inseparable. One evocative photograph that has appeared in this paper shows Mrs Lee watching and listening to her husband from a private coign on a rooftop, as he spoke at Fullerton Square rally during the 1984 General Election.

Even after her first stroke in 2003, which occurred while she and her husband were in London, she would still accompany him on trips - whether it was to Chinese New Year dinners in his Tanjong Pagar constituency or on long visits to the Middle East.

At every turn of their marriage of 63 years and in the nation's life of over 45 years, Mrs Lee's love for the father of modern Singapore ran like a leitmotif in his and the nation's life.

In the end, her life, so quiet and yet so entwined with his, made her a vital partner in the Singapore story.


Madam Kwa Geok Choo was born in Singapore on Dec 21, 1920. Her parents were Mr and Mrs Kwa Siew Tee. Her father was the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation's (OCBC Bank) general manager from 1935 to 1945.

1936: Completes secondary education at Methodist Girls' School. First in the Senior Cambridge Examination for the whole of Malaya.

1937-39: Joins Raffles Institution Special Class, where she meets Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

1940-46: Enrols in Raffles College in 1940 and returns in 1946 after end of World War II.

1947: Graduates from Raffles College with First Class Diploma in Arts, winning the Queen's Scholarship.

1947-49: Reads law as a second-year student in Girton College, Cambridge University.

Places first in Part II of the Law Tripos - the first woman in Malaya to win this distinction.

1947: Secretly marries Mr Lee in December.

1950: Passes Bar final in May. Both she and Mr Lee are called to the Bar at the Middle Temple on June 21. Returns to Singapore. Marries Mr Lee again on Sept 30.

1951: Is admitted to the Bar in Singapore on Aug 7. Joins and becomes senior partner of a local law firm.

1952: Gives birth to son Lee Hsien Loong.

1955: The Lee & Lee law firm is established by Mr Lee, his brother Kim Yew and Madam Kwa.

1955: Gives birth to daughter Lee Wei Ling.

1957: Gives birth to second son Lee Hsien Yang.

1959: Mr Lee Kuan Yew is elected Prime Minister of Singapore. His brother and Madam Kwa take over the reins of Lee & Lee. They remain as consultants even after retirement from active practice.

1965: Helps in drafting parts of the Separation Agreement when Singapore leaves Malaysia.

2003: Suffers a stroke in October while on a visit to London. Recovers soon after and continues to accompany her husband on official trips.

2008: Suffers two strokes in May and in June, which leave her unable to get out of bed, move or speak.

2010: Dies at age 89, 11 weeks before her 90th birthday.

No comments: