Lee Khoon Choy, 90, shares secrets for long life

Former journalist- turned-politician Lee Khoon Choy.
Former journalist- turned-politician Lee Khoon Choy.PHOTO: ST FILE

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 19, 2014

With his 90th birthday just 10 days away, Mr Lee Khoon Choy is the second oldest People’s Action Party old guard office holder still alive.

Only former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew is older, having turned 90 last September.

The former journalist- turned-politician was among the 43 PAP candidates who won in the 1959 Legislative Assembly election that swept the party to power.

Long retired from politics, Mr Lee celebrated his birthday at the Shangri-La Hotel last night with more than 200 family members, relatives and friends, several of whom had come from overseas for the event.

Among the guests were PAP stalwarts Chng Jit Koon and Chan Chee Seng and banker Wee Cho Yaw.

“I had to hold the celebration earlier to accommodate some of my relatives and children who are coming from Hong Kong and Hawaii,” Mr Lee told The Sunday Times in an interview.

He walks briskly and unaided, and is leading an active work life as a full-time book writer. Last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong launched his 11th book, Golden Dragon And Purple Phoenix, about the impact of Chinese migration to South-east Asia more than 1,000 years ago.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan will launch its Chinese translation at the Peranakan Museum on Saturday.

I remember him to be humble and always helpful to younger colleagues when he was a journalist in Singapore in the 1950s.

Former journalist CHIN KAH CHONG, 83, about Mr Lee Khoon Choy, a friend of 63

Mr Lee has two other books waiting to be published.

The first, My Role In The Hustings, is the second part of the autobiography he wrote and published in 1988 on his life as a journalist between 1946 and 1959, including a short stint with The Straits Times, and later as a politician until he stepped down from political office in 1984.

The second, Secrets Of Youth, will tell all about his unlikely longevity despite having a heart condition inherited from his late father Lee Kim Fook, a wealthy rubber plantation owner who had three wives and died from a heart attack at the age of 49.

His mother, Yong Yook Yun, his father’s second wife, was 56 when she died.

He and many of his siblings – 11 boys and four girls – had heart problems. “I had a major heart bypass operation in 1990 and two years ago, had to stay in hospital for a month because of a leak in one of my heart valves,” he said.

Only three siblings are still alive and Mr Lee is the oldest. Two younger brothers, aged 87 and 85, live in Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong respectively.

“So it is not my genes that keep me living today. If I didn’t look after my health, I would have gone long ago,” he said.

What proved most important for him was meeting the late Indian guru Paranjothi Mahan who taught him Kundalini yoga and the secrets of good health in 1963. Since then, he has practised this form of yoga daily. He explained that it helps him empty his mind through meditation and energises him for health, sex and other bodily functions.

He also learnt deep-breathing exercises, or qi gong, from a Chinese master to complement the meditation and guide the proper circulation of energy, or qi, in his body. “Fifteen minutes to half an hour, that is all it takes to do the meditation and breathing exercises daily,” he said.

Mr Lee had suffered from poor health from the time he was young, hit by one illness after another, including typhoid and malaria. But 50 years of yoga and deep-breathing exercises have helped him. He has perfect eyesight, an alert mind and normal blood pressure. “At my age I can eat anything, like providence has given me a stomach of someone who is only 30,” he said.

Equally important, for a healthy long life, is having a positive mental approach and a big heart. “To make friends you must have a big heart and must always learn to forgive others,” he said.

A healthy lifestyle, including rising and going to bed early every day, is essential too. “I wake up by 6.30 in the morning and will be in bed by 10 every night.”

He spends his mornings reading the newspapers and being at his computer and takes afternoon naps whenever he has no business appointments.

He still runs Eng Lee, an investment company he set up in 1990 which also deals in real estate and other businesses.

His friend of 63 years, former journalist Chin Kah Chong, 83, who covered the first Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955 together with Mr Lee, said: “I remember him to be humble and always helpful to younger colleagues when he was a journalist in Singapore in the 1950s.”

Looking back on his life, Mr Lee sees 1959, the year he left journalism for politics, as his most eventful and painful.

“That year my first wife died of cancer, aged only 30. The same year my mother also passed away, and my father-in-law too. So I had to buy three coffins in that one year and they drained all my resources,” he said.
And his happiest moments?

“There are many, like when I had the first of my 11 grandchildren and when I received the Distinguished Service Order from the Singapore Government in 1990 for all my contributions to the nation,” he said.

Looking ahead, he plans to continue writing.

“I am already halfway through my next new book on the founding fathers of new nations – world leaders whom I met during my years as a journalist, politician and then diplomat,” he said.

wengkam@sph.com.sg