Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Mr Lee Kuan Yew's wife's death left a void in his life

For a week after his wife died, Mr Lee Kuan Yew fussed over her photographs on the wall of the living room at their Oxley Road home.

He placed pictures of their favourite moments together at the foot of his bed and by the treadmill which he used every day. A few days later, he would move them around again.

He repositioned his grey plastic chair at the dining table to have the best view of her pictures on the wall. As he ate his dinner, he listened to classical music, which she enjoyed - her favourite composer was Johann Sebastian Bach.

But nothing seemed to comfort Mr Lee in the days after Madam Kwa Geok Choo, his wife of 63 years, his best friend and confidante, died on Oct 2, 2010.

He slept erratically. A memory would bring tears to his eyes. When her ashes arrived at Oxley Road in a grey marble urn three days after the funeral, he wept.

It took three months before he began returning to normal.

"Slowly, he accepted that Mrs Lee was gone," said his youngest and only surviving brother, Dr Lee Suan Yew.

It was nine months before his health stabilised, said his only daughter Wei Ling.

HIS DAY started at 9.45am or so with breakfast: a piece of cake, a mug of Milo and a glass of whey protein drink.

He would then brush his teeth and take a stroll on the treadmill for at least 15 minutes - two things he did without fail after every meal.

The next few hours would be spent clearing e-mail on his desktop computer and catching up on current affairs. He read newspapers in three languages: English, Chinese and Malay, as well as magazines such as Time and the Economist.

Lunch at around 2pm would be a simple meal - chicken soup and tofu, for example. After that, he would go to work.

Although he retained his Istana office after stepping down from the Cabinet in May 2011, he no longer concerned himself with government matters. Rather, he spent his time reading up on topics that interested him, such as population issues and language education.

Occasionally, he met visitors such as former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, his old friend and former West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and the advisory board of French oil and gas giant Total.

Until the end of 2012, he would swim for up to an hour every evening. He had to stop when his doctors wanted to avoid the risk of lung infection.

He also had two-hour Chinese lessons every weekday at the office with one of several tutors, discussing current events and topical issues in Mandarin. Sometimes he would continue with his Mandarin lessons even when he was in hospital.

He would usually get home at around 9pm and he would spend a few moments looking at his wife's urn in the living room.

He kept to his new routine in the disciplined way with which he had led his life. But he told his friend Dr Schmidt, who visited in May 2012, that his wife's death had left a deep hole in his life and nothing could fill it.

AFTER Mrs Lee died, elder son Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister, and his wife Ho Ching began visiting Mr Lee on Saturday afternoons whenever their schedules allowed, to keep him company.

On Sundays, the whole family gathered for lunch at Oxley Road, as was their longtime tradition. The two married sons, their wives and children would join Mr Lee and Wei Ling.

Mr Lee would ask after his seven grandchildren, and the family would sit down to a simple meal prepared by his two maids.

After his wife fell ill and could no longer plan his meals, Mr Lee would tell his only sister Monica that he wanted some of the food of his childhood, the Nonya dishes their mother used to cook.

He asked for rojak, mee siam, satay and gado gado, and his sister would either prepare them herself or show his maids how to prepare the dishes.

Later, as it became harder for him to swallow, his home meals became simpler and more bland. He ate mostly fish, tofu or chicken porridge with a ginseng drink, and a scoop of frozen yoghurt or ice cream for dessert.

Sometimes, the food went down his windpipe, causing infection in his lungs that led to pneumonia, said his son Hsien Yang.

Nonetheless, he looked forward to meals and outings around Singapore, hosted by his wife's niece and some of his younger friends. Visits to the Marina Barrage and the Changi Jewel project were among his favourites.

HE WAS diagnosed in 2009 with sensory peripheral neuropathy, a rare nerve disease which made his walking unsteady. To give his balance a boost, he underwent regular rounds of intravenous immunoglobulin infusions, which infused antibodies into the bloodstream through the veins.

His brother Suan Yew said this was meant to overcome the damaging effects of the disease on his nerves.

On Feb 16, 2013, one of his security officers noticed that one side of Mr Lee's body had gone limp and alerted his daughter Wei Ling, a neurologist. He was admitted to the Singapore General Hospital for a suspected episode of transient ischaemic attack.

A prolonged bout of irregular heartbeats had probably resulted in a small blood clot which travelled to his brain. He was discharged on a Sunday, and returned to his office the next day.

MR LEE'S health meant he had to keep his public and constituency engagements to a minimum.

But he never missed the annual tree planting in his constituency, from 1963 till the most recent Tree Planting Day last November.

The crowd cheered when he appeared for the National Day Parade last August.

On Nov 7 last year, he attended the People's Action Party's 60th-anniversary celebrations at the Victoria Concert Hall, and received a standing ovation as he took to the same stage he stood on six decades earlier at the party's founding.

Throughout, Mr Lee kept up his Mandarin lessons, and continued his exercises and outings. Titanium, as his daughter once described him in an article, is light but strong. It can bend a little, but it will not snap unless it is under overwhelming force, she wrote.

On Feb 5, he was admitted to the Singapore General Hospital, this time with severe pneumonia.

News in mid-March that he was critically ill saw an outpouring of good wishes across the island he loved and called home.