The quiet humility and charm of Noor Aishah

The newly installed Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak and his wife Noor Aishah attending their very first official function, Aneka Ragam Surat-Surat Khabar, a newspaper variety show, at the Happy World Stadium on Dec 3, 1959. The event was part of a
The newly installed Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak and his wife Noor Aishah attending their very first official function, Aneka Ragam Surat-Surat Khabar, a newspaper variety show, at the Happy World Stadium on Dec 3, 1959. The event was part of activities to kick off "Loyalty Week" in celebration of Singapore's statehood.PHOTO: COURTESY OF NOOR AISHAH; YUSOF ISHAK COLLECTION, COURTESY OF NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF SINGAPORE; SINGAPORE PRESS HOLDINGS
The newly installed Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak and his wife Noor Aishah attending their very first official function, Aneka Ragam Surat-Surat Khabar, a newspaper variety show, at the Happy World Stadium on Dec 3, 1959. The event was part of a
As patron of the Girl Guides, Puan Noor Aishah spoke during an enrolment ceremony at the association's old headquarters in Buyong Road, on Aug 3, 1961.PHOTO: COURTESY OF NOOR AISHAH; YUSOF ISHAK COLLECTION, COURTESY OF NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF SINGAPORE; SINGAPORE PRESS HOLDINGS
The newly installed Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak and his wife Noor Aishah attending their very first official function, Aneka Ragam Surat-Surat Khabar, a newspaper variety show, at the Happy World Stadium on Dec 3, 1959. The event was part of a
Puan Noor Aishah, daughter Orkid Kamariah (back row, left) and guests at their home in Gombak Setia, Kuala Lumpur, where they lived in the late 1950s before Mr Yusof became Yang di-Pertuan Negara.PHOTO: COURTESY OF NOOR AISHAH; YUSOF ISHAK COLLECTION, COURTESY OF NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF SINGAPORE; SINGAPORE PRESS HOLDINGS
The newly installed Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak and his wife Noor Aishah attending their very first official function, Aneka Ragam Surat-Surat Khabar, a newspaper variety show, at the Happy World Stadium on Dec 3, 1959. The event was part of a
Mr Yusof and Puan Noor Aishah enjoying a meal with relatives at Melati, the bungalow on the grounds of the Istana where they lived.PHOTO: COURTESY OF NOOR AISHAH; YUSOF ISHAK COLLECTION, COURTESY OF NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF SINGAPORE; SINGAPORE PRESS HOLDINGS

A new book by Dr Kevin Y. L. Tan, published by Straits Times Press, tells the story of Puan Noor Aishah, wife of Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak. She became a national figure overnight with her husband's appointment as Yang di-Pertuan Negara in 1959. She was then 26 years old and a mother of three young children. She went on to touch the lives of many with her quiet determination, humility and charm, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at last Tuesday's book launch. Here is an excerpt from the book.

On the evening of 2 December 1959, as the last British Governor Sir William Goode left Singapore, Yusof and his family moved into the Istana Negara, the stately 19th century mansion that had been home to Governors of the Straits Settlements and then of Singapore since 1869.

Designed by Colonial Engineer Major J. F. A. McNair, the building - known throughout the first 90 years of its history as Government House - was built by Indian convict labour between 1867 and 1869. It was renamed Istana Negara (National Palace) when Singapore attained self-government in 1959. All the British governors from the time of Sir Harry Ord had lived and worked at Government House, and while Singapore was now a self-governing state, its new Head of State would do the same. Sir William Goode had not lived in the main Istana building (known to all as Istana Besar, or the Big Palace) but instead in the adjoining Annexe. This would also be the new home for Yusof and his family.

Since their return to Singapore in July 1959, Noor Aishah had been preparing herself and her children for the transition. As far as she was concerned, Yusof's new appointment was a job like any other and she was determined to ensure that their family should lead as "normal" and "regular" a life as possible. Moreover, it was constitutionally stipulated that his term would be for four years. So, come 1963, Yusof might not have a job at the end of his term. Therefore they should not get used to living too comfortably, for eventually they would need to leave the Istana. Both she and Yusof were simple, frugal and unostentatious and continued living that way even at the Istana. Indeed, despite the very modest salary he received as Yang di-Pertuan Negara, he continued to help his siblings and their spouses financially. In any case, Yusof was already 49 years old and very set in his ways and so remained very much the same person even after assuming high office. Noor Aishah also prepared their children mentally for the change and while they knew that their father was going to become someone really important, they were too young to care. Their main concern was that they were going to miss their parents since they were away from the home a lot.

Singapore's "First Family" did not stay in the Istana for long. Noor Aishah said that they were simply not used to the immensity and grandeur of their new home and having staff wait on them hand and foot. They were just not used to such formality and being attended to by waiters and butlers who would stand behind them attentively throughout their meals. Noor Aishah spoke to Yusof about this:

"I told him that we could not live like this for the next four years. It would be very difficult to adjust to a normal life after his four-year term was up. I had to be very practical and to think like this."

Yusof spoke to Lee Kuan Yew and told him how uncomfortable he and his family were in the huge building and asked for a smaller house. When Lee told him that he could not leave the Istana grounds, Yusof replied that they were fine living in the Istana grounds provided they lived in a smaller house. On 11 December, just nine days after Yusof and his family moved into the Istana, Lee told the Legislative Assembly:

"He has, from the evening of the 2nd of December, moved into the domain which we now call Istana Negara, but he has expressed to me his desire not to reside in the Istana itself. He has informed me that he would prefer his private capacity to be distinct from his official capacity. He has therefore chosen to live in a bungalow inside the domain which used to be occupied by the former Under-Secretaries. He will, however, discharge the functions of his office - both the ceremonial and the official functions - from Government House. Istana Negara will be his official place for State business."

The newly installed Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak and his wife Noor Aishah attending their very first official function, Aneka Ragam Surat-Surat Khabar, a newspaper variety show, at the Happy World Stadium on Dec 3, 1959. The event was part of a
Mr Yusof Ishak and Puan Noor Aishah did not want to live in the Istana Negara and chose to move into a smaller bungalow on the grounds instead. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NOOR AISHAH; YUSOF ISHAK COLLECTION, COURTESY OF NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF SINGAPORE; SINGAPORE PRESS HOLDINGS

The largest bungalow on the Istana grounds was the one previously occupied by the Colonial Secretary. It would have been the logical building for Yusof and his family to move into. However, this building, which was also built in 1869, was now officially named "Sri Temasek" and had been designated by Lee as the venue for official state functions since August 1959. Noor Aishah and Yusof looked instead at the smaller bungalow situated behind Sri Temasek, close to the Cavenagh Gate of the Istana domain, and found it suitable for their use. It had previously been the official residence of the Under-Secretary of the Straits Settlements. The bungalow, which Yusof named "Melati" (literally Jasmine) was cleaned up and by the end of December 1959, Yusof and his family had settled comfortably into the house.

Noor Aishah was pleased with the move to Melati, but it had come at a cost. Unknown to many people, Yusof had to pay the rent for Melati out of his own salary. As Lee Kuan Yew explained in the Legislative Assembly, the upkeep and maintenance of the Istana was "completely out of state funds" but the "household commitments in the bungalow inside the domain will be on his personal account".

The newly installed Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak and his wife Noor Aishah attending their very first official function, Aneka Ragam Surat-Surat Khabar, a newspaper variety show, at the Happy World Stadium on Dec 3, 1959. The event was part of a
The couple preparing food in the kitchen of their home, for which Mr Yusof had to pay the rent out of his own salary. For them, it was a necessary price to pay for maintaining a sense of normalcy for the family. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NOOR AISHAH; YUSOF ISHAK COLLECTION, COURTESY OF NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF SINGAPORE; SINGAPORE PRESS HOLDINGS

For Yusof and Noor Aishah, it was a necessary price to pay for maintaining a sense of normalcy for the family. At Melati, they would be much more comfortable and the children could grow up away from the public glare especially since the bungalow was shielded from general view by a series of hedges. At the time, Orkid Kamariah was 11 years old, Imran 10, and Zuriana, six.

Yusof and his family were the only official residents of the Istana domain. The only other people living there were the Istana staff and servants. Occasionally, Lee Kuan Yew would bring his children to Sri Temasek to play with Yusof's, while he himself played a round of golf. Imran, who was a year older than Lee's elder son Hsien Loong, remembers playing with him and teaching him how to ride a bicycle. Lee's office was, at this time, still at City Hall and it was not till 1971 that he moved the Prime Minister's office to the Istana Annexe.

Melati was very spacious, with two large bedrooms. Throughout the house, there were wide verandahs to keep it cool. Later on, Noor Aishah had partitions installed in the bedrooms to create smaller rooms for the children. The Istana provided Yusof with a non-live-in domestic helper to assist the couple with looking after their children, and he employed another to help with the cooking and housework as Noor Aishah could no longer just stay at home to tend to the family needs. As the First Lady, she would have numerous duties. As The Straits Times - spelling her name wrongly as "Norisha" - publicly noted:

"For Che Norisha, the 'quiet girl' from Penang, the coming days are going to be the most hectic in her life. From today she will be the First Lady of Singapore. No more the quiet life with her husband and their three children... When the family moves into Government House, now named the Istana Negara, Che Norisha will be faced with 325 members of the staff and their families, many diplomatic functions, invitations to be the patron of social organisations, and all the other responsibilities that face a First Lady."

The newly installed Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak and his wife Noor Aishah attending their very first official function, Aneka Ragam Surat-Surat Khabar, a newspaper variety show, at the Happy World Stadium on Dec 3, 1959. The event was part of a

Yusof also bought a small car - a burgundy Peugeot 204 with number plate SK5000 - and employed an elderly driver to take the children to school and Noor Aishah to the market or to wherever she needed to go. Noor Aishah enjoyed doing her own marketing at the Tekka Market (the old Kandang Kerbau Market) and was friendly with many of its stallholders. She recalls that it was at this market where one day, she was introduced to "Mama Lee" or Mrs Lee Chin Koon (1907-1980), mother of the Prime Minister. Her vegetable seller had told her that "Mama Lee" was looking for her because she had heard that she did all the cooking at the Istana. Mrs Lee was herself a famous cook and had authored the popular Mrs Lee's Cookbook. She was keen to go to the Istana to learn from Noor Aishah how to make her version of ondeh-ondeh. The two became fast friends afterwards and Mrs Lee was a regular visitor to Melati.

Yusof and Noor Aishah did not have many friends, but their solitary existence in Melati was punctuated by occasional visits from friends and relatives. Naturally, security clearances had to be obtained, but once in a while they played host to old friends from Malaya, and even some of Yusof's old schoolmates from Raffles Institution. Another regular guest for informal meals at Melati was the Istana's Comptroller of Household Jean Leembruggen and her family. Like a civil servant, Yusof was entitled to two weeks' leave each year which he took with his family in Penang.

A PRAGMATIC WOMAN

I told him that we could not live like this for the next four years. It would be very difficult to adjust to a normal life after his four-year term was up. I had to be very practical and to think like this.

PUAN NOOR AISHAH, speaking to Mr Yusof about their new home in the Istana.

As the new year approached, Yusof and Noor Aishah prepared for their new official roles and made major adjustments to their home schedules. For Yusof, it was much easier as he had worked his entire adult life, whereas for Noor Aishah, whose preoccupation was looking after her children, keeping house and taking on the occasional embroidery job, it would be a complete change in lifestyle. Each morning, she would be up early, as usual, to make sure the children were dressed, fed and sent to school. Practical mother that she was, Noor Aishah enrolled her children at nearby schools: Imran at Newton Boys' School and her two girls at St Anthony's Girls School. After seeing them off to school, she would get ready for her first function or meeting which would typically be scheduled for 9am. At around 11am, she would take a short break and Yusof would return to Melati for lunch. After lunch, he would leave again for the office.

In the evenings, she and Yusof would both be involved in one function or reception or other. For Noor Aishah, evening receptions were the hardest for she often undertook the task of overseeing everything from the table arrangements to the food that was served. On the evenings when they were not out, as well as on weekends, Yusof and Noor Aishah would make sure they sat down for a good meal with their children. Ismail bin Abdul Ghani, who worked as a young "house-boy" at Melati from 1963 to 1966, observed that at lunch, Yusof and his family would eat at the dining table with nice porcelain crockery and cutlery, but at dinner, they would just "roll out a carpet, sit on the floor and eat with their fingers" in traditional Malay style because they wanted their children to grow up knowing their Malay traditions.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 23, 2017, with the headline 'The quiet humility and charm of Noor Aishah'. Print Edition | Subscribe