Former PAP old guard Lee Khoon Choy dies at 92

Mr Lee Khoon Choy seen with one of the books he wrote (left), Golden Dragon And Purple Phoenix, and with founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (above). He played a pivotal role in mending ties between Singapore and Indonesia following the Konfrontasi
Mr Lee Khoon Choy seen with one of the books he wrote (above), Golden Dragon And Purple Phoenix, and with founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. He played a pivotal role in mending ties between Singapore and Indonesia following the Konfrontasi period.ST FILE PHOTOS
Mr Lee Khoon Choy seen with one of the books he wrote (left), Golden Dragon And Purple Phoenix, and with founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (above). He played a pivotal role in mending ties between Singapore and Indonesia following the Konfrontasi
Mr Lee Khoon Choy seen with one of the books he wrote, Golden Dragon And Purple Phoenix, and with founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (above). He played a pivotal role in mending ties between Singapore and Indonesia following the Konfrontasi period.ST FILE PHOTOS

Former politician Lee Khoon Choy, a member of the People's Action Party old guard who also served as Singapore's ambassador to Indonesia in the 1970s, died yesterday.

His son, National University Heart Centre deputy director Lee Chuen Neng, said his father "passed away in tranquillity" at the National University Hospital in the morning, after battling pneumonia for two weeks. He was 92.

Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean yesterday described Mr Lee as "a giant of our times" for helping to smooth strained relations between Singapore and Indonesia in the 1970s.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan, also in a Facebook post, said founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had spoken of the pivotal role Mr Lee played, adding: "It was his deep appreciation of culture and history that gave him that special insight and tact that is so essential in diplomacy."

Mr Lee, whose political career spanned 25 years, was known for his tact, and represented Singapore as a diplomat from 1968 to 1988.

He was appointed ambassador to Indonesia in 1970, shortly after the end of Konfrontasi, a period of hostilities when Indonesia opposed the formation of Malaysia, of which Singapore was a part from 1963 to 1965. Singapore had hanged two Indonesian marines in 1968 for a bombing at MacDonald House which killed three people.

Mr Lee, with his knowledge of Indonesian customs, persuaded Mr Lee Kuan Yew to wear a batik shirt on an official visit to Indonesia in 1973, and to scatter flowers over the graves of the two men. The gesture helped mend ties, and the following year, Indonesia's then President Suharto visited Singapore.

Academic Barry Desker, who was ambassador to Indonesia from 1986 to 1993, said Mr Lee had made a tremendous effort to understand Javanese culture. "He was someone who was prepared to learn about other societies, open to new experiences, and always conscious of new opportunities for Singapore."

Over the years, Mr Lee, who spoke five languages including Arabic, also represented Singapore as a diplomat in other countries such as Egypt and Japan.

Mr Lee, who was born in Penang, had started out as a journalist in Malaya and was a reporter with The Straits Times for two years.

He joined politics in 1959, driven by a desire to gain independence for Singapore and Malaya.

In a 2014 interview with The Straits Times, he described the year as his most eventful and also most painful, as his first wife died of cancer. The same year, his mother and father-in-law also died.

During his years in politics, Mr Lee held several appointments including as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Culture and Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. After he stepped down in 1984, he set up his own business consultancy and wrote several books.

Mr Lee was also a man of the arts, and was an accomplished artist who had staged several exhibitions and played three instruments.

In 1990, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order by the Singapore Government for his contributions to the nation.

His son, Professor Lee Chuen Neng, said yesterday: "He was a man of many talents, and we were always proud of him. He was also the best father. He had confidence that we would all do well in the end."

Former senior parliamentary secretary Ho Kah Leong, who was introduced to politics by Mr Lee, said: "He was a good man, always ready to help."

Mr Lee leaves his second wife, Madam Eng Ah Siam, as well as seven children and 11 grandchildren.

His wake will be held at the Mount Vernon Sanctuary tomorrow and on Tuesday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'Former PAP old guard Lee Khoon Choy dies at 92'. Print Edition | Subscribe