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Mar 31, 2020

Memorium of Madam Kwa Geok Choo


By Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew
[Source:  Straits Times, 7 October 2010]

Ancient peoples developed and ritualised mourning practices to express the shared grief of family and friends, and together show not fear or distate of dealth, but respect for the dead ones; 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 would gather to sing her praises and wail and mourn at her departure, led by a practised prosfessional 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 (Mrs Lee Kuan Yew) had her first stroke, we had a strong intimation of our mortality.

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, when recounting our lives together, I would like to celebrate her life.

In our quiet moments, we would revisit our lives and times together.  We had been most fortunate.  At critical turning points in our lives, fortune favoured us.

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.  But the British colonial office could not get her a place in Cambridge.

Through the Chief Clerk of Fitzwilliam, W.S. Thather, was a good friend of the Mistress of Girton, Mis Butler.  He game me a letter of introduction to the Mistress.

She received me and I assured her that Choo would most likely take a "First", because she was the better student when we both were at Raffles College.

I had come up late by one term to Cambridge, yet passed my first year qualifying examination with a Class 1.

She studied Choo's academic record and decided to admit her in October that same year, 1947.

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 starrred first for the finals, but in three years.  We did not disappoint our tutors.

Our Cambridge firsts gave us a good start at life.

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.  Negotiations were deadlocked and they decided to go on strike.  It was a battle for public support.

I was able to put across the reasonableness of their case through the press and radio.  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 and accommodated each other.  We knew that we could not stay starry-eyed lovers all our lives; that life was an ongoing 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 as the Prime Minister's children.  As a lawyer, she earned enought 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 learnt English and Malay well at home.  Her nuturing 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 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, from Jane Austen to J.R.R. Tolkien, from Thucydides' History of The Peloponnesian Wars to Girgil's Aeneid, to The Oxford Companion To Food, and Seafood Of South-east Asia, to Roadside Trees Of Malaya, and Birds Of Singapore.

She helped me draft the Constitution of the P.A.P.  For the inaugural meetings at the Victoria Memorial Hall on Nov 4, 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 booths.

She warned me that I could not trust my new-found associates, the left-wing 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.

When separation was imminent, 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 and the Johor state government.  I asked Choo to include this.

The 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's and Choo's professional skills.

Each time Malaysian Malay leaders threatened to cut off our water supply, I was assured 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 learnt to cope, reading with the help of a ruller.  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 grammer and pronunctiation 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 May 12, 2008 was more disabling.  I encouraged and cheered her on, helped by a magnificient 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 cheek, she told me not to come too close to her in case I caught her pneumonia.  I assured her that the doctors did not think that was likely because I was active.

When given some peaches in hospital, she asked the maid to take one home for me for my lunch.  I was at the centre of her life.

On June 24, 2008, a CT scan revealed another bleed again on the right of her brain.  There was not much more that medicine or surgery could do except to keep her comfortable.

I brought her home on July 3, 2008.  The doctors expected her to last a few weeks.  She lived till Oct 2, two years and three months.  She remained lucid.  They 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.  The 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 live a life full of warmth and meaning.

I should find solcace in her 89 years of life well lived.  But at this moment of the final parting, my heart is heavy with sorrow and grief.


National Neuroscience Institute
Lee Kim En (Neurology)
Ivan Ng (Neurosurgery)
Francis Hui (Neuroradiology)

Tan Tock Seng Hospital
Suresh Sahadevan (General Medicine), Chin Jing Jih (Geriatric Medicine), Karen Chua (Rehabilitation Medicine), Kwek Tong Kiat (Anasthesia), Thomas Lew (Anaesthesia)

Singapore General Hospital
Fong Kok Yong (Rheumatology),
A. Balakrishnan (ENT)

National Dental Centre
Yuen Kwong Wing (Senior Consultant), Marianne Ong (Consultant)


NNI:  Tan Li Fan
TTSH:  Wong Mui Peng, Ranbhir Kaur, Lily Ng, Tina Tng, Ten Siew Hwa, Heng Mui Chu, Lily Toh
SGH:  Elaine Yek, Eileen Robert Jacob, Li Ying Jacqueline Teo
Khoo Teck Puat Hospital:
Liu Xiao Yan

Physiotherapy:  Susan Niam, Seah Wei Wei
Occupational therapy:  Chan Mei Leng, David Zhang
Speech therapy:  Leiw Li Pyn, Sharon Wu

Heng Li Hoong, Lynne Teo

The archived photos with courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore and the National Library Board.

One Last Goodbye
Amid the grief and sadness, a celebration of an extraordinary life

By Chua Mui Hoong
Deputy Review Editor
[ Source:  Straits Times, 7 October 2010)

In the end, there was just a man who loved his wife till the end.

He walked to her casket and placed a single stalk of red rose, green leaves still on its stem, on her body.

He raised his 87-year-old body and walked half a step towards the head of the casket, supporting himself on the frame.

Then, he bent towards her and reached for her face with his right hand.  He brought his hand back to his lips and planted a kiss on her forehead.

As though he could not bear to part, he did that again.  And then he walked away, composed and un-aided.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew gave his wife two final kisses as she lay peaceful in her casket at the Mandai Crematorium.  Madam Kwa Geok Choo - his beloved Choo - had died on Saturday, aged 89, after being bedridden for over two years as a result of a series of strokes.

His kiss was a private gesture of love, but will linger in the memories of those who witnessed it, as a public affirmation of the abiding love they shared.

Earlier, in his eulogy, he spoke of their years together, as starry-eyed lovers at Raffles College and Cambridge University.  He spoke too of her support as he fought for independence, and through his many years as prime minister as he and his colleagues built a new nation.

He spoke of their public life together, reminding his audience of her role in helping to draft legal documents at pivotal moments in Singapore's history, and of her role as his confidente and adviser.

Of his private feelings at losing his wife, he would only say he would have been a different man without her, with a completely different life, adding at the end, with his head bowed:  "I should find solace in her 89 years of her life well lived.  But at this moment of the final parting, my heart is heavy with sorrow and grief."

After lying at Sri Temasek for two days, Mrs Lee's casket was borne on a gun carriage to the Mandai Crematorium.  Hundreds gathered outside the Istana gates to send her off.

Her casket travelled down roads bordering the Central Catchment and nature reserve areas, down Thomson Road past MacRitchie Reservoir where she went courting with her then-fiance more than 60 years ago, past the Lower Pierce Reservoir, down leafy Upper Thomson Road lined with the beautiful albizia, to her final stop at Mandai, a route apt for one who love botany and enjoyed watching birds in the Istana grounds.

Thousands of Singaporeans and foreign dignitaries had gone to Sri Temasek, the official residence of the Prime Minisster, to pay their respects over the last two days.  The crowd included a stenographer she had encouraged to become a lawyer, and a butler's son she had encouraged to become a policeman.  Others came to pay their respects to a woman they had never met, but whom they admired for her faithful support of her husband and for her quiet grace in public.

But yesterday's funeral service at the Mandai Crematorium Hall 1 was private, a family affair with about 300 guests - colleagues, friends and relatives, as well as representatives from the PAP and grassroots organisations, and the doctors, nurses and others who cared for Mrs Lee over the years.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong spoke not as Prime Minister but as the grieving son, clad in mourning garb of plain white T-shirt and black trousers, addressing the Minister Mentor as Papa for the first time in public.

After two days of standing for hours by his mother's casket to receive well-wishers, there were shadows under his eyes.  However, his face lit up when he spoke of her hand-knitted sweaters, and his voice swelled with grief when he recalled how she had taken care of his two older children when their mother died.

On behalf of the family, he said:  "Over these last few days, I, and my family, have been deeply touched by the outpouring of condolences and fond recollection of people from all walks of life.  We stood receiving the visitors, all moved that so many had come."

She was a doting Mama, so attuned to her children's needs, she seemed to know just when daughter Wei Ling needed a toothbrush, or when youngest child Hsien Yang needed medical attention.

The family's eulogies gave glimpses into life in the fiercely private Lee family.  One highlight was Sunday lunches at Oxley Road with three, or even four generations - with the grandchildren tending "to eat far too fast and play too loudly", as grandson Shengwu put it.

Granddaughter Xiuqi, in a fond tribute, celebrated the zest for life her beloved Nai Nai (Chinese for granny) had, relating how she, in her last years, developed a fondness for dessert and ribbons.  As Mrs Lee grew frail and her husband became more attentive to her every need, she "acquired the flow of a girl who knew she was adored".

What Mr Lee, a traditional Chinese gentleman in his restraint and composure had declined to reveal, his children and grandchildren chose to say for him, describing how he learnt to care for his wife after she became frail.

As Hsien Yang said, looking teary-eyed:  "He adjusted his routine to accomodate her changing circumstances and physical condition.  His abiding love, devotion and care must have been a great comfort to her, and an inspiration to Fern and me on how to manage a lifelong partnership, through good health and illness."

His wife Suet Fern, and PM Lee's wife Ho Ching, were present by their husbands' sides throughout the wake and funeral.

Historians will accord Mrs Lee Kuan Yew an illustrious place in Singapore history, for her pioneering legal career, her quiet contributions to constitutional draftsmanship and as the wife of Singapore's founding Prime Minister.

But in her final journey yesterday, she returned to the roles she most valued - that of wife, mother and grandmother.  And listening to her family members' moving tributes, there is no doubt that she loved them all, and was much loved in return.

In the end, there was just a woman who stood by her husband over a lifetime and cared for her children and grandchildren.  That woman was Madam Kwa Geok Choo.

A tribute in cartoons

By Akshita Nanda
[ Source:  Straits Times, 9 September 2011]

Madam Kwa Geok Choo, Mr Lee Kuan Yew's wife, now has a book of sketches in memory of her.

Wife of Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew and mother of the current Prime Minister, the late Madam Kwa Geok Choo was often captured on camera - and now, in cartoons.

A new book by well-known artist Morgan Chua, in Memory of Madam Kwa Geok Choo (1920-2010), sets out her life story in a series of affectionate, light-hearted sketches.  She died in October last year at the age of 89.

The drawings, many inspired by photographs in the National Library Board archives, emphasise her achievements as a lawyer, breadwinner and home-maker, as well as her public persona as Mrs Lee Kuan Yew.

The 72-page self-published volume begins with a note from former president S R Nathan.  He writes:  "I hope that it would stir interest among younger Singaporeans to get to know this remarkable lady better."

Historian Kwa Chong Guan, who is Madam Kwa's nephew and in his mid-60s, says:  "I think the book is a nice balance between historical accuracy and artistic creativity."

The head of external programmes at the S. Rajaratna,m School of International Studies lent cartoonist Chua family photos for reference.

The author, Singapore-born Chua, 61, was the editorial cartoonist for the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong for 25 years until 1997.  His work also appeared in the Singapore Herald in 1970; a best-selling illustrated history of Singapore, My Singapore (2000, Raffles Publishers); and Chronicle Of Singapore (2009), in which Editions Didier Millet condensed 50 years of newspaper history.

Artist Morgan Chua

Chua never met Madam Kwa but last November, a month after she died, he says he felt driven to begin researching her life.  "Everyone was talking about her, but I felt they just echoed what Mr Lee Kuan Yew had written in his books.  Nobody went beyond what he said."

Though based in Tanjoung Pinang on Bintan island with his wife and one-year-old daughter, Chua began spending up to five days a week in Singapore, reading microfilms and old school magazines in the National Library Board collection.  He unearthed interest photos, such as one of Madam Kwa riding an MRT train in the 1980s, when the train lines opened for use. 

"She played a part in the history of Singapore and she deserves a place in the history of Singapore and she deserves a place in the history books," he says.

In his sketches, he adds his own signature twist to well-recorded events, such as the 1940s courtship of Mr Lee and Madam Kwa in Singapore and England.  Drawings based on photos of the couple together in a park, for example, include curious animals in the background.

Chua also mingles facts about Madam Kwa's family, career, hobbies and pets with snippets of Singapore history.  A page about her days at Methodist Girls' School also summarises that institution's origins.

When done with the draft in June, he enlisted friends such as heritage buff and National University of Singaproe's law professor Kevin Tan as fact checkers.

Dr Tan, 50, who just retired as president of the Singapore Heritage Society, says he was impressed by Chua's determination to get the facts right - and also the detailed, tongue-in-cheek drawings.

"I've always thought, 'This guy has something special'," says the self-confessed fan who devoured Chua's work for years in the Far Eastern Economic Review.

"There have been all these sombre tribute to Madam Kwa Geok Choo but this is a lighter touch.  I think he did a fantastic job."

My personal acquaintance with Morgan Chua

The first time I met Morgan Chua at the photostating room at Lee Kong Chien Reference Library at Level 11 of the National Library Building, Victoria Street many years ago.   I did not know he is the famous and popular artist of Singapore and he is a friendly and modest guy.  It is my pleasure and honor to know him in person.

Many years ago, we often meet at the library when both of us were doing our research at the reference library, a "goldmine" for published resources and material.

We were at the library for many hours and once when we were hungry for dinner time, we decided to have chicken nasi bryani at an Indian stall at the coffee shop opposite the library.

I have lost contact with him for many years now, long before he published the book on Madam Kwa Geok Choo.

A few selected drawings from the book are shared on this blog, with thanks to Morgan and hope more readers would like them and learn from an interesting book.


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