Pa was always there for us and taught us lessons in life: PM Lee Hsien Loong at private farewell

Excerpt from the eulogy by MR LEE HSIEN LOONG at Mandai Crematorium

So much has been said about Pa's public life in the past few days. His public life is something we share with all of Singapore, with the world.

But we were privileged to know him as a father, a grandfather, an elder brother, a friend, a strict but compassionate boss, the head of the family.

Actually, Pa was the head of two families. As the eldest son, from a young age he was effectively head of his household, helping his mother - Mak - to bring up his younger brothers and sister. He remained close to them all his life. To my uncles and aunts, he was always "Kor", never "Harry".

Sai Sok (Suan Yew) would have him over to dinner every Christmas, and Ku Cheh (Monica) would cook him his favourite dishes, and teach his cook how to do them, almost to the same standard as hers. Papa made it a point to attend the Chinese New Year reunion dinner of the extended Lee family every year, even till last year, to catch up with his siblings, to meet his nephews and nieces, and later grand-nephews and grand-nieces.

Pa was also head of his own family - my mother and the three children. He had plunged deep into politics by the time we arrived.

In fact, the day I was born, when he visited Mama and the new baby in Kandang Kerbau Hospital, he told her how he was going to represent the postmen's union in their dispute with the government. This was the postmen's strike which first made his name and launched him into active politics.

So day to day, Mama ran the household, brought us up, saw to our schooling. But Papa set the tone, tracked our progress and made the big decisions.

He sent us to a Chinese school; he started us on Malay lessons with Cikgu Amin; he encouraged Yang and me to take up SAF Scholarships, to serve the nation; he persuaded Ling to become a doctor instead of a vet. He set us on the path to make our own marks in the world, and we are grateful.

We are also grateful that Pa guided and nurtured us to grow up into normal, well-adjusted people, even though we were the Prime Minister's children, always in the spotlight, in every danger of being spoilt, indulged and led astray. He and Ma decided that we would stay in Oxley Road and not move to Sri Temasek, lest we grow up thinking that the world owed us a living.

He made sure we did not get the wrong ideas - no inflated sense of self; never to be inconsiderate to others; not to throw our weight around. We may not always have done it right, but we were never left in any doubt what was the right way to behave.

He took pride in us children. When I learnt to ride a bicycle, he was there. Once when I was just getting the hang of balancing on two wheels, he pushed me off from behind to get me started. I pedalled off across the field, thinking that he was still supporting and pushing me. After a few seconds, I turned around and found I was on my own. He had let go. He was so pleased. So was I.

Like all good fathers, Papa continued to be there for us, even after we grew up. When Yang and I got married, he wrote us long and thoughtful letters sharing advice on how to make our marriages successful. Precious lessons drawn from his own long, very happy marriage with Mama.

After Ming Yang died, and especially before I remarried, he and Mama spent time with Xiuqi and Yipeng, then still infants, to fill the gap and help bring them up.

They took them for walks after dinner every night in the Istana. He was not an indulgent grandfather, but a loving one. There is a photo of Papa with four grandsons, who were then toddlers, blowing soap bubbles in the garden in front of Sri Temasek...

Papa was happy that all three children grew up to be successful, responsible people, contributing to society in our different ways. A few months after I became Prime Minister, he wrote me a letter on his Minister Mentor letterhead. It read: "These are mock-ups of my Christmas and New Year cards for this year 2005. The photograph after the swearing-in at the Istana records a memorable evening in my life. Have you any amendments or comments?"

The photo was of me shaking hands congratulating him, I as the new Prime Minister and he as the new Minister Mentor and President S R Nathan looking on. Naturally I replied that I agreed and had no amendments. He was proud of his son, but he wanted to do things in the proper way, as always.

He continued to teach us lessons in life even in his later years. We learnt from watching him grow old with Mama. She meant the world to him, and he to her. They delighted in each other's company.

After Mama's stroke in 2003, he nursed her back to health, encouraged her to exercise and stay active, and continued to take her on trips abroad. He even learnt to measure her blood pressure using a traditional sphygmomanometer and stethoscope, and faithfully did this twice a day every day and e-mailed the results to her doctors. He would tell her: "Life is an endless series of adjustments. As you grow older, you adjust. Think how lucky we are and how much worse off we could be. Always look on the bright side of things."

Mama's passing five years ago was a huge blow to him. But the pictures of them together kept Papa company, to remind him of their 63 happy years together.

All his life, Papa kept up with his old friends - Yong Pung How, Chia Chwee Leong, Hon Sui Sen, and after Sui Sen died his widow Annie. As the years went by, the numbers of his old friends dwindled. In recent years, he would occasionally host dinners for his tutors, doctors, staff and friends, usually at Raffles Hotel, courtesy of Jennie Chua, to stay in touch and show his appreciation.

And every fortnight or so, Kim Li, his niece, would take him out for meals, and for a change of surroundings. They would go to Underwater World Sentosa, Changi Airport to see Project Jewel, to take a boat ride in the harbour. He enjoyed the outings and the company. A few friends would join in and take turns to host him - Wai Keung, Stephen Lee, Ong Beng Seng, Ban Leong, Peter Seah, Robert Ng, among others. We are grateful to Kim Li, and to them.

I would also like to thank the medical team of doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, specialists of all kinds led by Professor Fong Kok Yong, for taking such good care of my father... For many years, Yang has made it a custom to host a family dinner at his home on our parents' birthdays. On Papa's 90th birthday, we had our usual cosy meal. I was taking pictures at the dinner table. Papa gave a radiant smile. I decided to soak in the moment and not scramble to capture the photo. I don't have the photo but it's a memory. It will be there forever.

Thank you to the Security Command team who have protected my father. You not only ensured his security, but were always by his side, round the clock, beyond the call of duty. You became friends, and almost part of the family. Thank you also to Papa's personal staff, especially Lin Hoe and YY, who have served him for more than 20 years each. I would like to thank my sister Ling, who lived with Papa in Oxley Road, and did so much to help take care of him. You were not only his daughter, but also his doctor. You were his close companion throughout. You travelled with him, watched over him closely, and made sure he got medical treatment in time when problems were brewing. You took on more than your fair share of our filial duties. Thank you, Ling.

Finally, I want to thank the dedicated grassroots volunteers from Teck Ghee and Tanjong Pagar. You served for many years on the ground, helping Mr Lee and me to look after our residents.

When we are young, we think our parents will always be there. After we grow up, as we watch them age and grow frail, we know rationally that one day we will have to say farewell, yet emotionally we find it hard to imagine it happening. Then one day our parents are really gone, and we are left with a sense of loss and pain. That is the human condition.

Papa had thought long and hard about this. When preparing what to say today, I remembered that once upon a time he had made a speech about growing old and dying, to a gathering of doctors. Nobody else remembered it, except Janadas. We searched for the speech, and eventually after a heroic effort, YY found it. Papa had made it to a congress of cardiologists, very long ago - in 1972! I must have read it at the time, and it left such an impression on me that I remembered it across four decades.

I re-read the speech with delight. It was vintage Lee Kuan Yew - thoughtful, erudite, elegant, witty, but with a deeper point. Sadly, nobody makes after-dinner speeches like that any more. He titled it "Life is better when it is short, healthy and full".

He talked about cardiac health, decrepitude, the right to die, advanced medical directives (though the term had not yet been invented), and much more. You have to read the full speech yourself, because it is impossible to summarise. I will just share one quote: "Life is better short, healthy and full than long, unhealthy and dismal. We all have to die. I hope mine will be painless. As de Gaulle said: 'Never fear, even de Gaulle must die', and he did."

Papa had a long and full life. He was healthy, active and vigorous, until advanced old age. He used to say that life is a marathon, not a sprint. Papa's marathon is done. He went away peacefully. He will leave a big hole in our lives, and in our hearts. But his values, his love, and his words - these will stay with us, inspire us, and live on in us for a long, long time. Farewell, and rest in peace, Papa.

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