Lee Kuan Yew: The last farewell to my wife

Lee Kuan Yew: The last farewell to my wife

This eulogy by Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was delivered at the funeral service of his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, at a private ceremony at Mandai Crematorium on Wednesday.

Kwa Geok Choo 1920-2010

Ancient peoples developed and ritualised mourning practices to express the shared grief of family and friends, and together show not fear or distaste for death, but respect for the dead one; and to give comfort to the living who will miss the deceased.

I recall the ritual mourning when my maternal grandmother died some 75 years ago. For five nights the family gathered to sing her praises and wail and mourn at her departure, led by a practised professional mourner.

Such rituals are no longer observed. My family's sorrow is to be expressed in personal tributes to the matriarch of our family.

In October 2003 when she had her first stroke, we had a strong intimation of our mortality.

My wife and I have been together since 1947 for more than three quarters of our lives. My grief at her passing cannot be expressed in words. But today (Wednesday), when recounting our lives together, I would like to celebrate her life.

As a young man with an interrupted education at Raffles College, and no steady job or profession, her parents did not look upon me as a desirable son-in-law. But she had faith in me.

We had committed ourselves to each other. I decided to leave for England in September 1946 to read law, leaving her to return to Raffles College to try to win one of the two Queen's Scholarships awarded yearly. We knew that only one Singaporean would be awarded. I had the resources, and sailed for England, and hoped that she would join me after winning the Queen's Scholarship. If she did not win it, she would have to wait for me for three years. In June the next year, 1947, she did win it. 

We have kept each other company ever since. We married privately in December 1947 at Stratford-upon-Avon. At Cambridge, we both put in our best efforts. She took a first in two years in Law Tripos II. I took a double first, and a starred first for the finals, but in three years.

Returning to Singapore, we both were taken on as legal assistants in Laycock & Ong, a thriving law firm in Malacca Street. Then we married officially a second time that September 1950 to please our parents and friends. She practised conveyancing and draftsmanship, I did litigation.

In February 1952, our first son, Hsien Loong, was born. She took maternity leave for a year.

That February, I was asked by John Laycock, the Senior Partner, to take up the case of the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union, the postmen's union.

They were negotiating with the government for better terms and conditions of service. After a fortnight, they won concessions from the government. Choo, who was at home on maternity leave, pencilled through my draft statements, making them simple and clear.

Over the years, she influenced my writing style. Now I write in short sentences, in the active voice. We gradually influenced each other's ways and habits as we adjusted to and accommodated each other.

We knew that we could not stay starry-eyed lovers all our lives; that life was an on-going challenge with new problems to resolve and manage.

We had two more children, Wei Ling in 1955 and Hsien Yang in 1957. She brought them up to be well-behaved, polite, considerate and never to throw their weight around as the prime minister's children.

As a lawyer, she earned enough to free me from worries about the future of our children.

She saw the price I paid for not having mastered Mandarin when I was young. We decided to send all three children to Chinese kindergarten and schools. She made sure they learned English and Malay well at home. Her nurturing has equipped them for life in a multi-lingual region.

We never argued over the upbringing of our children, nor over financial matters. Our earnings and assets were jointly held. We were each other's confidant.

She had simple pleasures. We would walk around the Istana gardens in the evening, and I would hit golf balls to relax. Later, when we had grandchildren, she would take them to feed the fish and the swans in the Istana ponds. Then we would swim.

She was interested in her surroundings, for instance, that many bird varieties were pushed out by mynahs and crows eating up the insects and vegetation. She discovered the curator of the gardens had cleared wild grasses and swing fogged for mosquitoes, killing off insects they fed on. She stopped this and the bird varieties returned. She surrounded the swimming pool with free flowering scented flowers and derived great pleasure smelling them as she swam.

She knew each flower by its popular and botanical names. She had an enormous capacity for words.

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