Sunday, 10 October 2010

Lee Kuan Yew: The last farewell to my wife; A pioneer in her own right

This eulogy by Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was delivered at the funeral service of his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, at a private ceremony at Mandai Crematorium on Wednesday. 

Kwa Geok Choo
1920-2010


ANCIENT peoples developed and ritualised mourning practices to express the shared grief of family and friends, and together show not fear or distaste for death, but respect for the dead one; and to give comfort to the living who will miss the deceased.

I recall the ritual mourning when my maternal grandmother died some 75 years ago. For five nights the family gathered to sing her praises and wail and mourn at her departure, led by a practised professional mourner.
Such rituals are no longer observed. My family’s sorrow is to be expressed in personal tributes to the matriarch of our family.

In October 2003 when she had her first stroke, we had a strong intimation of our mortality.

Lee Kuan Yew bidding farewell to his ‘tower of strength’. –AFP
 
My wife and I have been together since 1947 for more than three quarters of our lives. My grief at her passing cannot be expressed in words. But today (Wednesday), when recounting our lives together, I would like to celebrate her life.

As a young man with an interrupted education at Raffles College, and no steady job or profession, her parents did not look upon me as a desirable son-in-law. But she had faith in me.

We had committed ourselves to each other. I decided to leave for England in September 1946 to read law, leaving her to return to Raffles College to try to win one of the two Queen’s Scholarships awarded yearly. We knew that only one Singaporean would be awarded. I had the resources, and sailed for England, and hoped that she would join me after winning the Queen’s Scholarship. If she did not win it, she would have to wait for me for three years. In June the next year, 1947, she did win it.

We have kept each other company ever since. We married privately in December 1947 at Stratford-upon-Avon. At Cambridge, we both put in our best efforts. She took a first in two years in Law Tripos II. I took a double first, and a starred first for the finals, but in three years.

Returning to Singapore, we both were taken on as legal assistants in Laycock & Ong, a thriving law firm in Malacca Street. Then we married officially a second time that September 1950 to please our parents and friends. She practised conveyancing and draftsmanship, I did litigation.

In February 1952, our first son, Hsien Loong, was born. She took maternity leave for a year.
That February, I was asked by John Laycock, the Senior Partner, to take up the case of the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union, the postmen’s union.

They were negotiating with the government for better terms and conditions of service. After a fortnight, they won concessions from the government. Choo, who was at home on maternity leave, pencilled through my draft statements, making them simple and clear.

Over the years, she influenced my writing style. Now I write in short sentences, in the active voice. We gradually influenced each other’s ways and habits as we adjusted to and accommodated each other.

We knew that we could not stay starry-eyed lovers all our lives; that life was an on-going challenge with new problems to resolve and manage.

We had two more children, Wei Ling in 1955 and Hsien Yang in 1957. She brought them up to be well-behaved, polite, considerate and never to throw their weight around as the prime minister’s children.
As a lawyer, she earned enough to free me from worries about the future of our children.

She saw the price I paid for not having mastered Mandarin when I was young. We decided to send all three children to Chinese kindergarten and schools. She made sure they learned English and Malay well at home. Her nurturing has equipped them for life in a multi-lingual region.

We never argued over the upbringing of our children, nor over financial matters. Our earnings and assets were jointly held. We were each other’s confidant.

She had simple pleasures. We would walk around the Istana gardens in the evening, and I would hit golf balls to relax. Later, when we had grandchildren, she would take them to feed the fish and the swans in the Istana ponds. Then we would swim.

She was interested in her surroundings, for instance, that many bird varieties were pushed out by mynahs and crows eating up the insects and vegetation. She discovered the curator of the gardens had cleared wild grasses and swing fogged for mosquitoes, killing off insects they fed on. She stopped this and the bird varieties returned. She surrounded the swimming pool with free flowering scented flowers and derived great pleasure smelling them as she swam.

She knew each flower by its popular and botanical names. She had an enormous capacity for words.
She had majored in English literature at Raffles College and was a voracious reader, reading everything from Jane Austen to J.R.R. Tolkien, from Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian Wars to Virgil’s Aeneid, to The Oxford Companion to Food, and Seafood of Southeast Asia, to Roadside Trees of Malaya, and Birds of Singapore.

She helped me draft the Constitution of the PAP. For the inaugural meeting at Victoria Memorial Hall on 4 November 1954, she gathered the wives of the founder members to sew rosettes for those who were going on stage.

In my first election for Tanjong Pagar, our home in Oxley Road became the HQ to assign cars provided by my supporters to ferry voters to the polling booth.

She warned me that I could not trust my new found associates, the leftwing trade unionists led by Lim Chin Siong. She was furious that he never sent their high school student helpers to canvass for me in Tanjong Pagar, yet demanded the use of cars provided by my supporters to ferry my Tanjong Pagar voters.

She had an uncanny ability to read the character of a person. She would sometimes warn me to be careful of certain persons; often, she turned out to be right.

When we were about to join Malaysia, she told me that we would not succeed because the Umno Malay leaders had such different lifestyles and because their politics were communally-based, on race and religion.
I replied that we had to make it work as there was no better choice. But she was right. We were asked to leave Malaysia before two years had passed.

When separation was imminent (in 1965), Eddie Barker, as Law Minister, drew up the draft legislation for the separation. But he did not include an undertaking by the Federation Government to guarantee the observance of the two water agreements between the PUB (Public Utilities Board) and the Johor state government. I asked Choo to include this. She drafted the undertaking as part of the constitutional amendment of the Federation of Malaysia Constitution itself.

She was precise and meticulous in her choice of words. The amendment statute was annexed to the Separation Agreement, which we then registered with the United Nations. The then Commonwealth Secretary Arthur Bottomley said that if other federations were to separate, he hoped they would do it as professionally as Singapore and Malaysia.

It was a compliment to Eddie and Choo’s professional skills. Each time Malaysian leaders threatened to cut off our water supply, I was reassured that this clear and solemn international undertaking by the Malaysian government in its Constitution will get us a ruling by the UNSC (United Nations Security Council).

After her first stroke, she lost her left field of vision. This slowed down her reading. She learned to cope, reading with the help of a ruler. She swam every evening and kept fit. She continued to travel with me, and stayed active despite the stroke. She stayed in touch with her family and old friends.

She listened to her collection of CDs, mostly classical, plus some golden oldies. She jocularly divided her life into “before stroke” and “after stroke”, like BC and AD.

She was friendly and considerate to all associated with her. She would banter with her WSOs (woman security officers) and correct their English grammar and pronunciation in a friendly and cheerful way. Her former WSOs visited her when she was at NNI (National Neuroscience Institute). I thank them all.

Her second stroke on 12 May 2008 was more disabling. I encouraged and cheered her on, helped by a magnificent team of doctors, surgeons, therapists and nurses.

Her nurses, WSOs and maids all grew fond of her because she was warm and considerate. When she coughed, she would take her small pillow to cover her mouth because she worried for them and did not want to infect them. Her mind remained clear but her voice became weaker. When I kissed her on her cheek, she told me not to come too close to her in case I caught her pneumonia. When given some peaches in hospital, she asked the maid to take one home for my lunch. I was at the centre of her life.

On 24 June 2008, a CT scan revealed another bleed again on the right side of her brain. There was not much more that medicine or surgery could do except to keep her comfortable. I brought her home on 3 July 2008. The doctors expected her to last a few weeks. She lived till 2nd October, 2 years and 3 months.

She remained lucid. That gave time for me and my children to come to terms with the inevitable. In the final few months, her faculties declined. She could not speak but her cognition remained. She looked forward to have me talk to her every evening.

Her last wish she shared with me was to enjoin our children to have our ashes placed together, as we were in life.

The last two years of her life were the most difficult. She was bedridden after small successive strokes; she could not speak but she was still cognisant. Every night she would wait for me to sit by her to tell her of my day’s activities and to read her favourite poems. Then she would sleep.

I have precious memories of our 63 years together. Without her, I would be a different man, with a different life. She devoted herself to me and our children.

She was always there when I needed her. She has lived a life full of warmth and meaning.
I should find solace in her 89 years of a life well lived. But at this moment of the final parting, my heart is heavy with sorrow and grief.

October 4, 2010

A pioneer in her own right

LKY’s late wife, however, chose to remain on the sidelines in public, content to play a supporting role.

IN life, Kwa Geok Choo was a quiet, dignified cheongsam-clad presence by her husband Lee Kuan Yew’s side. In death, she leaves behind a void that not only her husband, but also the entire island nation, will feel.

Kwa, known to the world as the wife of Singapore’s first Prime Minister Kuan Yew, died on Saturday evening at her Oxley Road home. She was 89.

Life-long lovers: A Sept 9, 2004 file picture of Lee and Kwa during the wedding ceremony of Brunei’s Crown Prince Al-Muthadee Billah Bolkiah and Sarah Salleh in Bandar Seri Begawan.— AFP
 
Her husband of 63 years was in hospital with a chest infection.

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

The wake will be held today and tomorrow at Sri Temasek, the official residence of the Prime Minister located within the Istana grounds. Kwa 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.”

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

Kwa had been ill for some time. A stroke in 2003 had left her frail, with weakened peripheral vision, but she remained bravely active, accompanying 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, 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, Lee had 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, Lee reveals 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 life-long love story.

Kwa, a brilliant student who came out tops in her Senior Cambridge year, and who went on to build a successful law practice at Lee & Lee, was the intellectual equal of 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 Lee did – independence from colonial rule in the early years, and later, a multiracial, meritocratic Singa­pore.

She saw 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, Kwa 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 Kwa again. — The Straits Times / Asia News Network