A tribute to Kwa Geok Choo, the late wife of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.
|PHOTO: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images|
On Oct. 2, it seemed like the heart of Singapore stopped for a few hours—the hours after Mrs. Lee Kuan Yew, nee Madam Kwa Geok Choo, passed away at 5:40 p.m. at her Oxley Road home.
Even though the nation was already well aware of Mrs. Lee’s deteriorating health, via a touching column her only daughter Lee Wei Ling had written in The Sunday Times not even a month ago, the news still came as a surprise to many.
“I was shocked when my wife told me about Mrs. Lee passing away—then I saw the news on television,” says Tan Lee Wah, 70, a former government servant. “I think that Mrs. Lee was a great leader, a very supportive wife to MM Lee. She advised him on many things. She was a very elegant woman, a very capable lady.”
Singaporeans flocked to mourn the departure of Mrs. Lee at a two-day wake held at the Istana, before a private funeral last Wednesday at Mandai Crematorium. Her husband, children and grandchildren gave touching eulogies, remembering everything from her intelligence to her idiosyncrasies.
|CN PHOTOS: Michael Chan|
Tributes and condolences flooded in from heads of state such as Malaysia’s prime minister Najib Razak to Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-Jeou. Singapore’s president Mr. S. R. Nathan wrote in his tribute, “Mrs. Lee was great in many ways … 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.”
Mrs. Lee was rarely seen and heard, but from the many tributes published, it was evident that she was a kind and humble woman who was a source of strength and encouragement to her husband, and a firm but loving mother and grandmother.
Madeleine Choong Ong, 70, a former health professional at Singapore General Hospital, remembers watching the speech by Mr. Lee Kuan Yew when he announced Singapore’s separation from Malaya. “I have great admiration for Mrs. Lee. She was his pillar and great support. We all know that she was a brilliant woman but she always walked two steps behind her husband, gently reminding him of things. Mrs. Lee made a great difference; she has left a great legacy and a fine example for us to follow. She was a woman who ‘walked the talk.’”
A Singapore Love Story
The most arresting images to have emerged this past week are those of a young Lee and his bride smiling, laughing during their days as law students at Cambridge University. Mrs. Lee was top of her class (Mr. Lee, apparently a “distant second”).
Theirs was a love story that has captured the public’s heart. The couple was secretly married in England, a “secret” that Mr. Lee revealed in his memoirs, The Singapore Story, in 2000. Mrs. Lee had seen her husband through the many difficult and painful years of nation-building, including 31 as prime minister, and was often referred to as his “tower of strength.” Those who have had the privilege of observing them in private will share that she called him “Harry” and he called her “Choo.”
Mrs. Lee had a stroke in 2003, but it was her second stroke in 2008 that weakened her considerably. In her last months, she was unable to move or speak. Mr. Lee told The New York Times in a September 2010 interview with Seth Mydans that his hardest moments were at the end of each day when he sat by the bedside of his wife. “She understands when I talk to her, which I do every night,’ he said. ‘She keeps awake for me; I tell her about my day’s work, read her favorite poems.’”
Tragically, Mr. Lee was in hospital with a chest infection when Mrs. Lee breathed her last. Mrs. Lee had brought out a side of her husband the public rarely saw: the gentle, passionate, kind and humorous Lee Kuan Yew.
To read the many remembrances of Mrs. Lee, it seemed she epitomized the Noble Wife in Proverbs 31: “The heart of her husband safely trusts her, So he will have no lack of gain. She does him good and not evil all the days of her life … Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also …”
As Singaporeans mourn the “mother of our country,” hearts also go out to her husband, who said in his eulogy that “Without her, I would be a different man, with a different life … I should find solace in her 89 years of life well lived. But at this moment of the final parting, my heart is heavy with sorrow and grief.”
CHC members joined the queues of those who paid their final respects to Mrs. Lee Kuan Yew.
“Behind every successful man, there is an even greater woman. Mrs. Lee was one such woman who has won my admiration. She helped Mr. Lee so that he can just be at the forefront. She helped start a women’s movement and fought for our rights. It’s a great loss to our country.” ~ Audrey Ng, 33, hospitality officer
“I went to the wake because I wanted to honor MM Lee who did so much for our nation. Clearly, Mrs. Lee has played a vital role in his life to allow him to do so without worrying about the family.” ~ Lu Jia Hui, 35, administrator
“My first thoughts were for Mrs. Lee’s family—they must have been devastated. What more, with Mr. Lee’s deteriorating health. Mrs. Lee had never been in the limelight, but she was definitely a founder of Singapore as well.” ~ Olivia Lau Wan Yee, 28, graduate student, LKY School of Public Policy
“The greatest honor of a woman is to be known as a great wife and mother to her husband and children. I respect Mrs. Lee for her love and commitment toward MM Lee in their 63 years of marriage, and for raising up a family of three excellent children. She remains an inspiration to all women.” ~ Dawn Lee, 35, personal assistant