Former PAP old guard MP Lee Khoon Choy dies

Former journalist- turned-politician Lee Khoon Choy.
Former journalist- turned-politician Lee Khoon Choy.PHOTO: ST FILE
Former journalist- turned-politician Lee Khoon Choy.
Former journalist- turned-politician Lee Khoon Choy.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Former politician Lee Khoon Choy, a member of the People's Action Party old guard MPs who also served as Singapore's ambassador to Indonesia in the 1970s, died on Saturday morning at the age of 92.

The eldest of his seven children, deputy director of the National University Heart Centre Lee Chuen Neng, told The Straits Times that he passed away "in tranquility" at the National University Hospital after battling pneumonia for the last two weeks.

He said: "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."

Recounting the time the younger Mr Lee was asked to repeat his Secondary 1 education after failing his examinations, Prof Lee said: "My father looked me in the eyes and told me, 'You're going to be okay.'"

Former senior parliamentary secretary Ho Kah Leong, who was introduced to politics by Mr Lee, said he had recently met Mr Lee at a dinner.

"He was a good man, always ready to help, and he made many efforts to promote Chinese education and culture," said Mr Ho.

Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean on Saturday described Mr Lee as "a giant of our times" in a Facebook tribute.

Mr Teo said: "He played a key role in putting our relations with Indonesia on a firm footing in the early 1970s after Konfrontasi and the MacDonald House bombing when he was ambassador in Jakarta. May he rest in peace and may current and future generations learn from the past for a peaceful and better future."

Mr Lee was among one of 43 PAP candidates who won in the 1959 Legislative Assembly election that swept the party to power. He was elected as assemblyman for Bukit Panjang.

During a political career that spanned 25 years, he had also been MP for Hong Lim and Braddell Heights, and had been appointed to office.

He started out as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Culture, and had been promoted to Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.

After he stepped down in 1984, he kept busy working as an investment consultant, writing books and practising the guzheng. A second volume of his memoirs on his life in politics was due to be published later this year.

Mr Lee, who was born in Penang had also worked as a journalist before joining politics, and was a reporter with The Straits Times for two years.

As a journalist in Malaya and Singapore from 1946 to 1959, he had covered several important historical events in the region, such as the Baling Talks in 1955, when the then newly-elected Malayan Chief Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman met the Malayan Communist Party chief Chin Peng in an attempt to persuade him to give up his party's armed struggle.

Mr Lee later joined politics as he was interested in gaining independence for Singapore and Malaya.

During Singapore's early years as an independent nation, Mr Lee, well-known for his tact, was also sent on sensitive diplomatic missions.

The most famous was when he helped improve the strained relations between Singapore and Indonesia after the end of Kronfrontasi, an armed conflict from 1963 to 1966 by Indonesia to oppose the formation of the Federation of Malaysia.

Mr Lee was appointed ambassador to Indonesia from 1970 to 1974, a tough assignment as Singapore had hanged two Indonesian marines in 1968 for plating a bomb at MacDonald House which killed three people.

Tempers in Indonesia flared after Singapore turned down appeals for clemency from President Suharto.

Mr Lee used his understanding of Javanese culture to pave the way for smoother ties. He persuaded then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, on an official visit to Indonesia in 1973, to wear the Indonesian batik shirt and to scatter flowers over the graves of the two men, according to Javanese custom.

The gesture went a long way towards mending ties, and the following year, President Suharto visited Singapore.

Academic Barry Desker, who was Singapore’s ambassador to Indonesia from 1986 to 1993, said Mr Lee was an outstanding ambassador who helped rebuild Singapore's ties with Indonesia.

"He also made a tremendous effort to understand Indonesian culture, particularly the Javanese majority whose culture he appreciated and wrote extensively about. He was someone who was prepared to learn about other societies, open to new experiences, and always conscious of new opportunities for Singapore," said Mr Desker.

During his time in the diplomatic corps, Mr Lee also served as ambassador to other countries such as Ethiopia, Japan and South Korea.

In 1974, he was promoted to Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.

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

After retiring from politics in 1984, he published Singapore's first set of memoirs on politics and, in 1990, founded his own business consultancy.

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order by the Singapore Government in 1990 and made an honorary member to the Chinese National Academy of Social Sciences in China in 1997.

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

Members of the public can attend the wake at Mount Vernon Sanctuary on Monday (Feb 29) and Tuesday (Mar 1).