Lee Kuan Yew wouldn’t have been Lee Kuan Yew had it not been for his wife Kwa Geok Choo. True or false?
Yeah, mostly true.
Lee Kuan Yew is a man who needs no introduction, but we’d give it to him anyways.
He is a myth. He is the legend. He is despised and revered in the same breath.
A no-nonsense visionary who is practical and perpetually ahead of the curve, he contributed to the cold game of realpolitik as much as he allowed it to dictate his politics.
A leader of other men both by his own choosing and by circumstance, he has a proficiency with languages unseen and unheard of in any current leader in Singapore having learnt Japanese during World War II to make life easier, crammed Mandarin lessons into his hectic schedule and forced himself to pick up Hokkien when he was 38 years old just to win elections.
He is famous for being undefeated in his electoral battles, despite being unpopular and infamous as a non-populist.
He is a hardliner, a friend of Henry Kissinger, a modern-day Machiavelli, and overall, a big fish in a small pond.
But would Lee Kuan Yew have been Lee Kuan Yew had it not been for his closest friend/ confidante/ soul mate/ wife and mother of his three children, Kwa Geok Choo?
The short answer: No.
The longer answer is as follows.
He was smart. But she was smarter.
Right from the start, it was obvious who was intellectually superior.
Lee and Kwa studied at Raffles College in Singapore (now National University of Singapore). She was the only female student in the school. They were fierce academic rivals.
Kwa topped the cohort with her results in Economic Science and English. Lee came in second. He was in awe of her — and maybe a tad annoyed at himself — because she was better than him.
She was older, independent and leading him on.
Lee decided to leave for England to study law in September 1946. This was after his Raffles College education was disrupted by the Japanese Occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945. He would have been gone for three years.
Kwa had the option of joining him — if she could attain one of the two Queen’s Scholarships awarded annually to a Singaporean at Raffles College.
If she couldn’t elope with him to England, she would have to wait for him to return, bearing in mind she was two-and-a-half-years older than he was.
However, writing in his 1998 memoir, The Singapore Story, Lee recalled how he was determined to match her maturity way back then:
“I was mature for my age and most of my friends were older than me anyway. Moreover, I wanted someone my equal, not someone who was not really grown up and needed looking after, and I was not likely to find another girl who was my equal and who shared my interests. She said she would wait.”
She stuck with him despite her family’s slight misgivings about him.
Lee might have had his sights set on Kwa, but this wasn’t even the 1950s: Her family had a say too.
Kwa’s parents weren’t particularly impressed with Lee, who is the eldest son of a Peranakan family and perceived to be someone who probably couldn’t even crack an egg to cook to save his life. They did not think him worthy as a son-in-law.
He was without a steady profession or job due to WWII disrupting his Raffles College education.
Kwa, on the other hand, kept the faith.
She eventually received the scholarship in June the next year in 1947 and accompanied Lee in England.
She took him up on his ideas — besides being a sounding board.
When Lee proposed the idea of a secret marriage, Kwa was up for it. According to Kwa, the alternative to a secret marriage, would be to “cohabit” or “to live in sin”. That wouldn’t do.
Unbeknownst to their parents even until their deaths, this secret marriage was a tightly guarded secret which was only revealed in Lee’s memoirs.
In December 1947, they got hitched secretly at William Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon.
It was a rush job: On the way to Stratford-upon-Avon, Lee bought a platinum wedding ring in London. Upon arrival at Stratford-upon-Avon, they notified the local Registrar of Marriages of their intention to get married.
Two weeks later, they were officially man and wife.
She did his legal work — while on maternity leave
Upon the couple’s return to Singapore, they joined a law firm, Laycock & Ong, as legal assistants. Kwa did draftsmanship and conveyancing. Lee practised litigation.
In September 1950, they got married a second time to placate their parents and friends.
In February 1952, Kwa gave birth to the couple’s first son, Lee Hsien Loong, who would become one of the future prime ministers of Singapore.
Kwa went on maternity leave for a year. That same month, Lee undertook the case of the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union, where the postmen union were in talks with the government for better terms and conditions of service and won concessions two weeks later.
This win was Kwa’s doing. She edited Lee’s draft statements from home while on maternity leave, making the text clear and simple.
Kwa has been credited with influencing Lee’s succinct writing style in short sentences, which utilised an active voice.
In 1955, their daughter, Lee Wei Ling was conceived. Two years later, their younger son, Lee Hsien Yang was born.
She was the one who drafted the constitution of the PAP
Even though Kwa was obviously on par or even ahead of Lee in certain matters, she knew when to pull back.
Kwa famously said before: “I walk two steps behind my husband like a good Asian wife.”
She was willing to lower herself and play second fiddle to her husband — while being a confidante and advisor at the same time.
Because in 1954, she helped Lee draft the People’s Action Party Constitution.
She was able to read people unlike him
Lee has said before that Kwa had the ability to read a person’s character and often it turned out to be right. She was better than him in this regard.
Kwa foresaw that the 1963 Singapore-Malaysia merger would fall through because of the differences in lifestyle and the way the Malay leaders handled politics.
This came to pass: Singapore was subsequently booted out by Malaysia in 1965.
And when Law Minister Eddie Barker drafted a separation legislation, but left out a clause to safeguard Singapore’s water supply from Malaysia, Lee asked his wife to include that in the Separation Agreement.
One plausible sounding theory as to why Singapore never ran out of water was due to Kwa’s diligence.
She was the locus of his vitality and reason of being.
Kwa suffered her first stroke in 2003. She suffered a second stroke in May 2008.
Her debilitated state wore Lee down.
To him, her ailment was even harder to pull through in comparison to the political stress he felt when Singapore was expelled from Malaysia.
As he spent time by her side every day to accompany her, a well-known anecdote described how Lee hurt himself while reading poetry to her one night when she was bedridden, as he had fallen asleep and dashed his head against the book stand.
Lee Kuan Yew was really Lee Kuan Yew when Kwa Geok Choo was around
When Kwa eventually passed away in 2010 after being bedridden for two years, she was 89.
Kwa and Lee were, until that point, married for 63 years.
A grieving Lee was seen walking to her casket at the funeral, barely able to support his 87-year-old body. It was as if a rug had been pulled out from underneath his feet.
After Kwa’s death, Lee has been increasingly drained of his vitality.
His overall weakening of the spirit and his mental faculties was reported on in an AFP News report on Aug. 6, 2013, in relation to his book, One Man’s View of the World.
The book is dedicated to the Asian statesman’s views on international affairs but an entire chapter contains his musings on death, religion and other personal issues. The 400-page work is dedicated to his late wife Kwa Geok Choo, whose death in 2010 shattered the normally stoic veteran politician.
Lee has visibly weakened since then and revealed in the book that despite daily exercise and a disciplined lifestyle, “with every passing day I am physically less energetic and less active.”
“There is an end to everything and I want mine to come as quickly and painlessly as possible, not with me incapacitated, half in coma in bed and with a tube going into my nostrils and down to my stomach,” he wrote.
Not taking his contributions to Singapore away, is there any doubt that Lee Kuan Yew could still have been the Lee Kuan Yew we know if it weren’t for Kwa Geok Choo?