A life well-lived

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Lee Kuan Yew was a pioneer Singaporean who braced himself early on in life to face history's tumultuous tides full-on. While he was the founding father of modern Singapore, he was also a happy child and a competitive student.

In adulthood, he was a devoted husband, loving father, and an exacting albeit compassionate boss and colleague. Although Western-educated, and English was the primary language he spoke at home, Mr Lee subscribed to Confucian values. In particular, the importance of family, community and country and one's duty to others.


Born on 16 September 1923 at 92, Kampong Java Road to middle-class, English-educated parents, a family friend came up with an auspicious name for Lee Chin Koon and Chua Jim Neo's first child: Kuan Yew, which meant "light and brightness".

The couple went on to have three more sons - Kim Yew, Thiam Yew and Suan Yew - and a daughter, Kim Mon.

Mr Lee grew up with his siblings and seven cousins in a house in Telok Kurau, where he enjoyed playing with tops, marbles and flying kites with other Chinese and Malay children in the neighbouring kampong.


A student at Raffles Institution, he came first in school for the 1938 Junior Cambridge examination and received both the Raffles Institution and Tan Jiak Kim scholarships. He bought a Raleigh bicycle with the $350 scholarship money. It was his first purchase in life.

War interrupted his education. During the Japanese Occupation, he worked as a clerk, an English Language editor in the Japanese military radio station and moonlighted as a broker on the black market, trading commodities like whisky, brandy, cigarettes, jewellery.

After the war, he headed for England to read law at the University of Cambridge and graduated with a double First Class honours.

But it was earlier, before he set off for his further studies, that he met the woman who would partner him for life.


To my horror, I discovered I was not the best in either English or Economics. I was in second place, way behind a certain Miss Kwa Geok Choo.

In 1939, he met Kwa Geok Choo at Raffles Institution. Two and a half years older than him, Miss Kwa was the only girl in the allboys' school. She had joined a special class of students competing for the prestigious Queen's Scholarship.

Mr Lee once said: "To my horror, I discovered I was not the best in either English or Economics. I was in second place, way behind a certain Miss Kwa Geok Choo."

Their courtship soon started. They often met for dinners and picnics. Mr Lee rode a motorbike and Miss Kwa's mother was initially angry when she saw her daughter, one of eight children raised in a moderately well-off family, riding pillion. Later, Mr Lee acquired a car. "That was the happiest time of my life," recalled Mr Lee, on the courtship.

Before leaving for England, Mr Lee invited Miss Kwa to a seaside mansion party and asked if she would wait for him for three years. She said yes.

But just a year later, she won the Queen's Scholarship and could join Mr Lee in England in October 1947. Unconventional at that time, they married secretly in England without the knowledge of their parents. After returning to Singapore, Mr Lee sought and obtained blessings from his wife's father.

And the couple was finally able to seal their union publicly. In September 1950, they went through a second official ceremony at Singapore's Registry of Marriages.

Their marriage was a true partnership. While Mr Lee devoted his energy to nation-building, his wife practised law, ran the household at 38 Oxley Road and raised their children. She also edited his books and speeches.

Mr Lee said: "My great advantage was that I have a wife who could be the sole breadwinner and bring the children up. And that was my insurance policy."

Mr Lee and his wife had three children: Hsien Loong, Hsien Yang and Wei Ling. Mr Othman Wok, a PAP stalwart and former ambassador, recalls seeing the family when they went on holiday in Kuala Lumpur: "They (children) listened to Mr Lee. Once he says, don't do it, they would stop. They were more scared of their father than their mother."

When Mrs Lee suffered a stroke in 2003, and two more in 2008, Mr Lee would sit by her bedside, tell her about his day and read her favourite poems. She died on October 2, 2010. At her funeral, he said: "Without her, I would be a different man, with a different life."


My great advantage was that I have a wife who could be the sole breadwinner and bring the children up. And that was my insurance policy.

Professionally, he despised wasting time and this also meant that he did not like his time to be wasted by others.

Mr Othman, who used to have coffee with Mr Lee after party meetings, said: "To people who came to see him, he would say, 'I've got four minutes, say what you want'. You mustn't speak nonsense. You must be to the point, clear and concise."

Likewise, Mr Lee did not like to see others wasting resource of any sort, be it time, money or material.

"Look at the furniture in this PAP branch (Tanjong Pagar). It's all old, except for the photocopier. That's how Mr Lee was, always careful with money," said Henry Chang, 71. He was the Spottiswoode Park Residents' Committee chairman from 1984 to 2003 and continues to be a member of the RC.

"Another example of his prudence was when we suggested air-conditioning the community club when we saw him sweating during a National Day gathering. He turned around and asked us 'How often do you use it?' We never raised it again!'', said Mr Chang.

Mr Lee paid a great deal of attention to detail, in person and at work.

Mr Hooi Kok Wai, 75, a long-time grassroots activist of Tanjong Pagar, recalls that Mr Lee was relentless about detail: "He (Mr Lee) always said if you cannot look after small things, how can you govern a country?"

He was also famously determined and he finished what he set out to achieve. This was apparent even in his personal life.

Mr Lee grew up speaking Malay, English and Cantonese. Later, he decided to acquire Hokkien and Mandarin and his arduous journey to learning Mandarin has been well-documented in his book titled 'My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore's Bilingual Journey'.

Mr Ch'ng Jit Koon, who was MP from 1968 to 1996 and who also helped Mr Lee look after Tanjong Pagar, notes: "Once he made up his mind, he was very serious. He decided he should speak Mandarin and he practised very hard. He used to visit Taiwan and Chiang Ching-kuo was a close friend. To communicate with him, Mr Lee would practise speaking Mandarin to his teacher and Chinese-educated colleagues."

He used to take a Chinese conversationalist along with him on his travels, just so he could practise speaking Mandarin every day.

Colleagues and grassroots activists who worked closely with Mr Lee also remember a softer side to the man.

Mr Cheong Seck Wee, a long-time PAP member who was beaten up by anti-PAP gangsters in the early 1960s while putting up PAP campaign posters, recalls: "Mr Lee visited me in hospital. I was surprised and touched."

Mr Othman, who was a reporter with Utusan Melayu, met Mr Lee for the first time in the early 50s when he was covering negotiations between the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union and the government. Mr Lee represented the union: "Mr Lee was very friendly and approachable, and explained to me all matters related to the strike," said Mr Othman.

Residents' Committee member Mr Chang recalls the last time he met Mr Lee, at the 2014 Tanjong Pagar-Tiong Bahru National Day celebration: "We were told not to shake his hand because of his fragile health. I was part of the welcoming line, standing towards the end. When he saw me, he recognised me and his eyes lit up. He extended his hand to shake my hand."

Indeed, when Mr Lee was asked to reflect on his life a decade ago, he said: "I'm grateful that I got where I am, happy that I've made a contribution to many people, and reassured that I have helped select a team of people who can keep Singapore going… At the end of the day, all I have to cherish are human relationships. It is the friends you have made, your family ties, which sustain your spirit with a certain warmth and comfort."

This was first published in 'Thank You Comrade Lee Kuan Yew: A Special Tribute From the People's Action Party'

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Published by and at the directions of People's Action Party
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