Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew: Brother used his wits to help family

Monica Lee, 85, is Mr Lee Kuan Yew's only sister

One of my mother's favourite stories of LKY was about the time she taught him his ABCs.

In those days, colourful alphabet toys were not available, so my mother made her own by cutting out letters from The Straits Times' headlines.

She said she showed the alphabet to LKY only once and when she shuffled the letters, my brother - who was just a few years old - managed to put all the letters back in the right order.

It was then, my mother said, that she realised how smart LKY was. And from then on, she always told him: "You have to be a lawyer!" Maybe that was partly why he took up law. He was also made for it because he was very good at debates in school, at arguments.

He had a very sharp mind and was always coming up with clever solutions whenever the family found itself in a fix.

When the Japanese invaded Singapore on Feb 8, 1942, my mother's biggest worry was whether we would have enough to eat.

LKY knew the Japanese soldiers would scrounge around, so he devised a way to keep our rice safe at our Norfolk Road home.

It was common then for homes to have earthenware jars filled with sand to put out fires if there was an air raid. He took these jars and filled them instead with rice. Then he covered the grains with newspapers or cloth, and put sand at the very top of the jars. This made it look as though the jars were filled with sand.

His ingenious method of hiding our rice in plain sight helped tide us through a good part of the four-year war. We could always count on him to take care of us.

He always wanted to do things perfectly, and if something had to be done, it had to be done right now with no delays. The Lee family is a little bit hot-tempered on my father's side. Those on my mother's side are very quiet and patient.

I remember when my second brother Dennis wanted to go to university in America in 1949, LKY did not approve. He was in Cambridge and wanted to make sure Dennis would find a steady job when he came home.

So LKY wrote to my mother and said: "I don't want that boy fooling around in America. I will make him come over to Cambridge and do law."

Sure enough, Dennis did law at Cambridge as instructed. Six years later in 1955, they started their own law practice with Mrs Lee, called Lee and Lee.

He always cared about us. As we got older, he turned his concern towards my health and well-being. If he saw I was sad or didn't look well, he would summon me to his office to find out why.

Both of us suffered from the same illnesses. We both had pacemakers and sensitive skin and were allergic to the same things. We lost two brothers younger than him - Dennis at 77 in 2003 and Freddy at 85 in 2012. He wanted to make sure Suan Yew, who is 81, and I did not go before he did.

With only three of us left in the family, LKY, Suan and I made it a point to see one another more regularly. We met for Japanese cuisine, which LKY enjoyed.

When it came to food, the taste my brother missed most was that of my mother's famous Nonya cooking.

We all do.

So when he started losing weight after Mrs Lee died in 2010, he called me, saying: "I have lost 21/2 pounds. What can you teach the maid so I can gain the weight back?"

His maid came to my Morley Road home and I taught her a few of my mother's recipes. His favourites were rojak, mee siam, satay and gado gado.

To whet his appetite, I presented the dishes on special plates I had hand-carried from Italy, with fruit in the middle and vegetables on the side. He got so excited that he called out to his daughter Wei Ling: "See what your Gu Ma ("auntie" in Mandarin) has done. Come and join me!"

Sometimes, he would want to eat desserts, tiramisu or caramel pudding or souffle. If I'd forgotten how to do it, I'd tell my cook, "Let's have a rehearsal, it's been 30 years since I made tiramisu and souffle."

Well, he liked my cooking, that's for sure. I do a lot of cooking for my family; my kitchen is like a 24-hour coffee house. The Nonya families are all like that, they always have food ready for visitors, friends and family.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.