Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew: Devoted husband and caring father

Close-knit family and a small circle of friends - these are the people who got to witness the tender, nurturing side of Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew was a man with few close friends. Those who knew him best and saw his tender, caring side came mainly from his tight family circle.

But others who interacted with him caught glimpses of the private man away from his public persona as Singapore's hard-driving, straight-talking first prime minister.

At home, he was ever the devoted son who cared deeply for his mother, Chua Jim Neo, even if he upset her once by cancelling her driving licence when he decided she had become too old to drive.

She was an English-speaking Straits Chinese matriarch famed for her Peranakan culinary skills who died in 1980, aged 75. He greatly admired her for standing up to her temperamental, more carefree husband in order to keep the family finances healthy and raise her children properly.

He was less close to his father, Lee Chin Koon, who worked at the Shell oil company first as a storekeeper, then later in charge of various depots in Malaysia, and had a love for card games. He was 94 when he died in 1997.

Mr Lee had three younger brothers and a sister who looked up to him and had regarded him as the man of the house during long periods when their father was away. "He was a wonderful big brother because he was responsible, caring, and when we were young, he'd give us good advice," said his youngest sibling, Dr Lee Suan Yew.

Mr Lee had two sons and a daughter, whose achievements he was proud of. "He was not a demonstrative person, which was common with many of his generation," said younger son Hsien Yang.

Most of all, though, he was a devoted husband in a long, happy marriage. His wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo, who died in 2010 at 89, was the bedrock of his life.

She was a partner of the law firm Lee & Lee, and he had been prime minister, but their home at 38 Oxley Road was a rambling pre-war bungalow filled with furniture from an earlier era.

They had no shower for the longest time, preferring to scoop water from a large earthenware jar at bath-time. It was only after Mrs Lee had a stroke in London in 2003 that their children installed a shower before she returned home.

"It's a very humble house. The furniture has probably never been changed. Some of the pictures are yellow already," said Associate Professor Koo Tsai Kee, an MP for 20 years in Mr Lee's Tanjong Pagar GRC, who visited in 2002.

The house had been Mr Lee's home since 1945, and his wife moved in after they were married in 1950. They did not move to the official Sri Temasek residence in the Istana compound after he became prime minister, because they did not want to give their children "a false sense of life".

Their two sons left home when they got married. Daughter Wei Ling still lives there today.

Life with Choo

IT WAS in his beloved Choo that Mr Lee found his intellectual equal and soulmate, someone whose love, loyalty and judgment he trusted completely. He, in turn, was at the centre of everything she did.

"I have precious memories of our 63 years together," he said at her funeral. "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."

It was at Raffles Institution that he first met her. Her father was a banker at the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation and a Java-born Chinese like Mr Lee's father and paternal grandmother. Her mother was a Straits-born Nonya, like his own mother.

"We had similar backgrounds, spoke the same language at home and shared the same social norms," he once said of Mrs Lee.

Their paths crossed again in Raffles College when she caught his attention after she outscored him in both the English and economics exams.

Their education was interrupted by World War II. By chance, he knew her brother-in-law Yong Nyuk Lin, and while the two men ran a small business making stationery gum during the Japanese Occupation, he and Choo developed a relationship.

After the war, he decided not to return to Raffles College and compete for the Queen's Scholarship. Instead, he went to London and sought admission into the law faculty of the London School of Economics. He later transferred to Cambridge University.

By the time he set sail for Britain in 1946, he and Choo were sweethearts and had pledged their love to each other. The next year, she won the Queen's Scholarship and he helped her get a place to study law in Cambridge too.

"My greatest joy was when my wife won the Queen's Scholarship and I managed to get her into Cambridge immediately after that, because that meant she didn't have to wait for me for three or four years in Singapore," he would say later.

They married secretly in beautiful Stratford-upon-Avon in December 1947 and spent many happy days in Britain. She wore his ring as a necklace pendant. Their "official wedding" in Singapore took place in September 1950, when they returned with their degrees.

Mrs Lee was a working mother, an astute woman and a good judge of people. She was not one to mince her words, but had a kind heart. Former minister Othman Wok described her as "the refrigerator to cool his fiery gas cooker personality".

Prof Koo recalled Istana private dinners where Mr Lee would sometimes get excited about an issue. If she felt he needed to calm down, Mrs Lee would just say: "Harry." And that was that.

"Mrs Lee had tremendous influence on him on the good side. She tempered his mood," said Prof Koo.

Professor Chan Heng Chee, Singapore's former ambassador to the United States who accompanied the Lees on overseas trips in the 1990s when he was senior minister and later minister mentor, recalled a couple very much in sync.

"They were always bantering and communicating with each other, and he was very courteous to her," Prof Chan said.

Mrs Lee, in turn, watched over his health like a hawk. "She always told me, don't overwork MM - I tended to pack his schedule - and he would wave her off and say, 'It's okay, Choo'."

Dr Lee Suan Yew recalled mealtimes with his brother and sister-in-law: "When it came to dessert, he had a soft spot for chocolate cake and Mrs Lee, in her diplomatic way, would say, 'Oh Harry, I'll have half of that'. He couldn't say no. So he would say, 'OK, OK, you take half.' What she was trying to do was to cut down his weight and calories."

But he did not always heed his wife's efforts to watch what he ate. Former Cabinet minister Yeo Cheow Tong remembered an overseas trip when the Singapore delegation was at a dinner and Mrs Lee said before leaving the group: "Harry, remember, no ice cream."

After she was gone and the waiters came to ask about dessert, Mr Lee said: "I might as well have my ice cream now."

Mr Yeo said: "We all laughed. It showed that he was very human. They were very close, and you could see their relationship, they were very relaxed, and because of her, he was relaxed with us. She spoke in very easy tones, so whenever she was around, the staff felt relieved. She brought out the softer side in him."

Dr Lee said that after Mrs Lee fell ill and was bedridden, Mr Lee made it a point to read to her her favourite poems and books every night. "We'd have dinner together. At 10 o'clock he'd look at his watch and say, 'Sorry, I have to leave you all now. I am going to read to Choo.' That was very touching. It happened many times," he said.

Father and grandpa

MR LEE'S children knew he always had their interests at heart, but they saw more of their mother, who ran the home.

"He was always preoccupied with work," recalled Hsien Yang. "We would see more of him when we were on holiday;  when we were young, the holidays were mostly to Fraser's Hill and Cameron Highlands, and then after 1965 we just went to Changi for holidays." 

In the earlier years, the family would spend evenings at Sri Temasek. Mr Lee would come from work and play golf there while the children would cycle around or play with the children of the Istana staff who lived in quarters on the compound.

Given his exacting standards as a leader, it is easy to imagine the weight of expectations he might have placed on his children.

Mr Lee described eldest child Hsien Loong, who became Prime Minister in 2004, as having the best mix of both his and Mrs Lee's genes. In daughter Wei Ling, he saw his fierce temperament. He described Hsien Yang as "sensible and practical".

Hsien Yang said his father would prod, but ultimately left the children to decide their own way. He wanted both sons to learn golf early, saying it would be a good life skill. They did as he suggested, but neither liked the sport much and both stopped playing. He did not push further.

Similarly, he thought Hsien Yang and Wei Ling should learn German. Both started, but dropped it after a while.

Said Hsien Yang: "At key junctures, he would give advice on what he thought we should do in terms of academic choices. But we were left to make the decisions ourselves, though we were probably nudged along.  Sometimes the nudging worked, and sometimes it didn't!

"For instance, the family had a longstanding connection with Harvard, with my father and older siblings having spent time there.  There was more than a nudge that I should attend post-graduate school at Harvard, consistent with family tradition.   However, I chose to go to Stanford, and he eventually became a huge admirer of the university."

Mr Lee was close to his eldest grandson Yipeng, whom he called "good-natured, and the best-behaved and most likeable" of his seven grandchildren. Yipeng, who has albinism, is Hsien Loong's eldest son.

As the grandchildren got older, some would engage him on his favourite subject - politics - over Sunday lunch. But overall, he tried not to interfere in their lives beyond asking about school and what they were doing.

"My wife decided early on that she will not quarrel with her in-laws or her daughters-in-law," he once said. "The children are their responsibility. We just take them out for outings."

The big brother

IF THERE was a circle of trust beyond his wife and children, it was formed by his brothers and sister - Dennis, a founding partner of law firm Lee & Lee, who died in 2003 at age 77; Freddy, former chairman of stockbroking firm Vickers Ballas before it merged with DBS Securities, who died in 2012 at age 85; and surviving siblings Monica, 85, and Dr Lee, 81.

"We are a close family, not just my sons and daughter and my wife and my parents, but my brothers and my sister," Mr Lee once said. "If they are in trouble, they will look me up. If I'm in trouble, I know that my brothers and sister will not let me down."

Monica and Dr Lee remember him as the caring eldest brother who was bright and enterprising through their growing up years and the Japanese Occupation, and who helped his siblings make their career choices.

Resuming her education after World War II, Monica was not keen to persevere but he insisted that she should at least finish her Senior Cambridge. She did so and went on to marry businessman George Chan, who died in 2012.

Dr Lee said of his "Big Brother": "He was very responsible. We always felt that if you wanted to ask for advice, he was the right person to go to."

The siblings remember Mr Lee as a stickler for cleanliness and neatness even as a boy, and having a quick temper like their father. Both recalled, separately, an unforgettable incident when Dennis used a pair of his eldest brother's slippers without permission. Mr Lee had a habit of stacking his slippers neatly at the front of the house. One day, he came home to find his slippers not only missing from their usual spot but also strewn inside the house - and dirty.

"He went berserk. He said, 'You used my shoes and made it dirty!'," recalled Dr Lee with a laugh. "You see, Dennis was more chin-chye (easygoing). They didn't come to blows but he showed his anger. He was really annoyed - very, very annoyed."

Over the decades, the Lee siblings remained close and met regularly. When their father was alive, the extended family would gather at Oxley Road for the first day of Chinese New Year. But as the family grew bigger, they got together for the reunion dinner and exchanged greetings then.

Monica said her eldest brother stayed protective of his younger siblings over the years. But he had his quirks too. "LKY shared my mother's appreciation for the way European women looked well-groomed and he was particular about the way I dressed, as I was his only sister," she said.

"Whenever he found my dressing to be too shabby, he would ask me, 'You don't have enough money to buy clothes?' He expected me to look polished, with no exception."

One Chinese New Year, however, she wore a pair of dangling diamond earrings her mother had given her for her wedding.

"The moment LKY saw me, he exclaimed with obvious disdain, 'What on earth have you got on?' He found them far too flashy. It was all I needed to leave those earrings at home for good. I reset the diamonds onto a brooch."

He himself was a man of simple tastes in dressing, and from the 1960s his work shirts were from the CYC custom-made shirt shop. Managing director Fong Loo Fern said Mr Lee's favourite colour was pink, but patterned fabric was "very unlikely".

"He wasn't very concerned about what he wore, Mrs Lee always took care of all that," she said.

Once asked by a journalist how long he had owned a jacket he wore to many interviews, Mr Lee said it was almost 20 years old. "It's a very comfortable jacket," he said. "The man who tailored it for me is dead."

Beyond the family

MR LEE did not have a wide circle of close friends. From his Raffles College days, there were two. Dr Fong Kim Heng, a former MP, was a classmate whom he brought into politics. But he died in 1975, at the age of 52.

Mr Chia Chwee Leong was the other friend, and they stayed in touch. For decades, Mr Lee would pay him a visit every second day of the Chinese New Year, and the two would chat about their families and growing old.

He became fast friends with Mr Hon Sui Sen during the Japanese Occupation. They and their families remained close. Mr Hon became finance minister and died in 1983 at age 67.

Mr Yong Pung How attended Cambridge with the Lees, and shared his notes with Mr Lee for a term he had missed. He was later persuaded by Mr Lee to become chief justice. Mr Lee said: "They are not friends I make to get advantage out of. They are friends because we spent time together, we found each other agreeable and we maintained the friendship."

That sense of friendship and the importance of relationships came across to Mr Ng Kok Song,former chief investment officer at the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC).

"I think he cared deeply about people. But as a leader he had to take tough decisions, always facing reality," said Mr Ng, who taught Mr Lee how to meditate.

"From time to time in the GIC, we would deal with certain investment matters that involved past relationships with business leaders, or with families.

"He would tell me, 'Always honour your friendship with people, never forget your friends, the people who helped you when you were down, when you were never as fortunate. Never forget that.'

"And I have seen in action, time and again, when we had to deal with business matters that involved past relationships, he would always emphasise the importance of honouring that relationship."

Mr Lee was not one for hobbies. He had long given up golf, and said he had no time for movies. "Some people collect watches, shoes, pens, rare books, art but... he never did," said Hsien Yang. "Material things never enticed or interested him."

In fact, he had no concept of how much even basic items cost. "He didn't go to the supermarket or the shops, he did not buy things, he used his clothes till they were old, and then some more, and was extremely thrifty, so he had no reference point," said Hsien Yang. "Until very recently, he didn't know what his financial position was.  For a very long time, I just kept an eye and watched his finances for him. He was not bothered or interested in money or material things."

Mr Lee was once asked in an interview what he thought of how others perceived him. He replied: "They think they know me. But they only know the public me."

Asked if he ever felt like giving it all up - the politics, the struggles, the critics - he replied: "No, this is a lifelong commitment.

"What are the things important to me in my life? My family and my country."

chanckr@sph.com.sg

sumiko@sph.com.sg