Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew: Tender side that not many see

Ng Kok Song, 67, is the former chief investment officer of Government of Singapore Investment Corporation

When my wife Patricia was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer in July 2003, I saw a side of Mr Lee Kuan Yew that not many see.

Two weeks after the diagnosis, Patricia told me she was going to write a letter to Mr Lee, who was then Senior Minister. It had nothing to do with my job, she said, but my job was to deliver it. This is what she wrote:

"Dear SM Lee,

When National Day approaches each year, I feel fortunate and blessed to live in Singapore. And I've always wanted to express my deep gratitude to you, but lacked the courage to do so. Now I feel a sense of urgency as this may be my last National Day, as I have recently been diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer.

On this auspicious occasion of the 38th birthday of Singapore, I thank God that we have been blessed with a leader who has a gifted vision, and the courage, will and ability to make his dream a reality. I have the deepest respect and admiration for you and regard you as truly the Father of our Nation.

My husband Kok Song and I raised three children in our 31 years of married life, and we are all proud to be Singaporeans. Happy National Day.

Yours respectfully,

Patricia."

Four days later, Mr Lee replied, thanked her for her letter and said:

"I am grateful and deeply moved that you wrote this letter at a time when you are burdened with the thought of leaving your loved ones behind. I have heard from my son Hsien Loong that Kok Song's wife had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Three children, two grown up, and one still a minor. I am sad at this cruel act of fate.

"I understand how you and your family must feel. My family experienced it when we were told that Hsien Loong himself was diagnosed with cancer of the lymphatic glands. It was a traumatic blow. It is so unfair. One small consolation is that modern medicine can make your suffering less unbearable. My wife and I send you and your family our sympathy, understanding and support. Kok Song will need them most of all.

I have no words to describe our sadness, or to comfort him, your family, your daughters and you."

He wrote once more to Patricia, saying: "Many things in life can make or unmake a person. But the single most important factor is that someone who shares your life with you. In that respect, my wife and I have been very fortunate. We are happy for you, Patricia, that you have a soulmate in your husband Kok Song. It is a relationship that evolves with time and circumstance, and grows with age."

I am sharing this exchange of letters because I think the way Patricia felt is probably how my generation, and maybe the older generation, felt about Mr Lee.

We are proud to be Singaporeans because of what he did for Singapore. He gave us hope when the future was bleak. When we separated from Malaysia, he inspired us to believe in ourselves, to defy the odds to prosper economically as an independent country.

But another thing that came out from those letters is that while Mr Lee can come across as a stern person, you can feel from the way he responded to Patricia's letter that he is a man with a tender heart.

Soon after, Mrs Lee had a stroke and was bedridden. Patricia lived on for another 19 months.

During that time, he always asked about Patricia, telling me to tell her: "Don't give up. Soldier on."

Once he said to me: "Now we are in the same boat. You are looking after your wife and I am looking after my wife."

I had begun meditating with him. One evening in 2011, after our session, I asked him about rumours swirling that he was very ill, when he was actually perfectly all right.

"Don't you think the Government should put out a statement to rebut the rumours that you are seriously ill in hospital?" I asked.

He looked at me and said: "No, no, Kok Song, there's no point. Because one day it is going to happen."

Then he added: "I have lived such a long life. I hope that I can live on for maybe another five to seven years. By then, the Marina Bay developments would be completed, the water barrage would be operating, the whole Tanjong Rhu area and the reservoir will be finished. And our entire landscape will be changed. The city is going to be so beautiful."

He was always looking forward to Singapore's future progress.

It was as though he had captured all this in his imagination, and just hoped he would be able to see it before he passed on.