Love story of the Lees capture public's imagination

Last night, a change was made to the now-familiar image of a black ribbon that framed Mr Lee Kuan Yew's profile.

This time, the ubiquitous black ribbon turned into a heart with a facing profile of Madam Kwa Geok Choo, who died in October 2010.

It is a fitting image, one that encapsulated the couple's abiding love story.

Out of all of the tributes, the one that recaptured the popular imagination is the love story between him and his wife.

Singaporeans, used to seeing Mr Lee as man of steel, have been sharing the many anecdotes and video clips of the marriage that lasted 63 years.

One of those who have come to see Mr Lee in a new light is 27-year-old music teacher Renee Seow.

She said: "I've heard of their love story, but I had not really paid attention until this week. And it was really sad to watch the re-runs of some clips."

Like the gutting scene at Madam Kwa's funeral service when Mr Lee walked to her casket and placed a stalk of red rose

Then, gripping the sides of the casket for support, he reached for his beloved Choo's face with his right hand.

He brought his hand back, kissed his fingers and placed them on her forehead. Twice.

In that one simple gesture, his stern facade vanished for 33-year-old accountant Monica Tan.

Others like housewife Anizah Aishah, 50, said she "laughed and cried at the same time" when she watched the clip in which Mrs Lee described her husband in his "jaunty youth" and called him a "handsome young man".

"His eyes lit up when he heard that, and oh, that hearty laughter," she said.

Then there was the scene where his wife gently brushed his forehead as they prepared his appearance for a TV recording.

"What's that? There's paper? Oh, it doesn't matter..." Mr Lee's voice trailed off as Madam Kwa continued, oblivious to the rolling cameras and the media presence.

Financial planner Leonard Soon, 30, said: "When you watch those scenes, you realise that Mr Lee was like any one of us. He had a heart filled with love for the woman of his life."

Mr Soon, who is getting married to his secondary school sweetheart in August, added: "My fiancee asked me, will you promise to love me the same way?

"I can't promise that I will read to her every night, but I can promise to love her until death do us part."

Former president S R Nathan told The New Paper in an interview before Mr Lee's death: "They seemed to have a lot to talk about, even after so many years of marriage, after so many children.

"It was an unusual relationship even for an observer like me. I often wondered why they had so much to talk about.''

At Parliament House on Friday night, Mr and Mrs Lim Guangcheng paid their respects.

They have been married for 57 years and had twice, in their younger days, "almost separated and filed for divorce".

Mr Lim, 82, a retiree, says in Mandarin: "There's a Chinese phrase 'Marriage is the tomb of love', but clearly, our founding father has proven it's not the case.

"Marriages in our generation were mostly match-made, it wasn't about marrying the woman you love. So, Mr Lee's love story is very fascinating."

He has shared that aspect of Mr Lee with his six grandchildren, aged between 17 and 24.

"I think the younger generation, my grandchildren included, have the impression that Mr Lee was a hard man. He seemed so formidable and unapproachable," he says.

Mr Lee's elder son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on Thursday shared three photos on Facebook: "My parents at the Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge.

"They took a picture there when they were students and would try to see it again every time they visited Cambridge.

"The second picture was when they came for my graduation in 1974 - so I must had been standing around somewhere.

"The third was in old age, happy and healthy, in 2000.

"Now they have both left. May they rest in peace."

Today, Mr Lee will have his wish - in a note he addressed to his three children - fulfilled: "For reasons of sentiment, I would like part of my ashes to be mixed up with Mama's, and both her ashes and mine put side by side in the columbarium.

We were joined in life and I would like our ashes to be joined after this life."

The love of a lifetime
Between 1952 and 1957, they had three children, Hsien Loong, Wei Ling and Hsien Yang.

Smack in the middle of the horror of the Japanese Occupation during World War II, a love story that would help shape the future of Singapore blossomed.

When Miss Kwa Geok Choo topped the 1936 Malaya cohort for the Senior Cambridge Examinations, she drew the attention of the younger Lee Kuan Yew.

He pursued her academically, topping the 1940 cohort, and then romantically.

As Mr Lee would recount later, the time spent courting Miss Choo in wartime Singapore of the 1940s "was the happiest of his life".

"(Choo) told me later she was waiting for her Prince Charming. I turned up, not on a white horse, but on a bicycle with solid tyres!"

Mr Lee said in 1994: "You either have the Western view - you marry the woman you love, or the Eastern view - you love the woman you marry. Well, I tried to match both, and I think it wasn't a bad choice."

The roles were clear in the family. Even though Mrs Lee was a highly successful lawyer, widely known to be among the best conveyancing lawyers in town, she ran the Lee household.

She would go home to have lunch with the children.

Mr Lee described her as his "source of strength", his intellectual equal if not better and a "powerful critic and helper".

Maurice Baker, who later became Singapore's High Commissioner to India and Malaysia, recalled his impressions of her when they both studied at Raffles Institution: "Geok Choo was with him right from the beginning. She is the saving factor I think where Kuan Yew is concerned.

"I think she kind of tones him down. And it's a very important factor I think in his whole career, although you notice she is always in the background. But she is always with him. I think she is the leavening factor, the balancing factor."

Said their daughter Lee Wei Ling: "Even in private, they have rarely demonstrated their love for each other with hugs or kisses. It was only after my mother's second stroke that I saw my father kiss my mother on her forehead to comfort her."

Mrs Lee was known as "Shadow" by the security team.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew publicly signalled his interest in Miss Kwa Geok Choo when he invited her to his 21st birthday dinner at Great World Amusement Park on Sept 16, 1944.

They married secretly in an inn at Stratford-upon-Avon (William Shakespeare's birthplace) on Dec 23, 1947. He had proposed before leaving for England at a New Year's Eve party in December 1945. In a garden facing the sea, he asked whether she would wait three years for him to return.

They returned to Singapore in 1950 and were formally married on Sept 30.

Mrs Lee also used to attend the People's Action Party meetings and was a calming influence on him. Whenever he got very fierce at the meetings, she would say, "Harry, Harry, cool down", and he would.

She was his intellectual equal and helped with important documents.

She helped him draft the constitution of the People's Action Party, and an undertaking in the Federation of Malaysia Constitution to guarantee the two water agreements between the PUB and the Johor state government.

Said Mr Lee: "When I was in government, I often had no time to polish my speeches. So I'd tell her what I wanted to speak on and she would polish and tighten the structure of the text."

"We would walk around the Istana gardens in the evening, and I 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."

- Mr Lee on his wife

After she suffered a second stroke in 2008, Mr Lee would spend two hours every night by her bedside. He would regale her with his day's activities and read aloud her favourite poems.

One night, he sat down to read to his beloved wife, despite being tired out by long hours at work. He nodded off and slumped forward, hitting his face on the heavy-duty metal stand used to hold the poetry book.

He suffered abrasions on his face but the very next night, he was back at her bedside, reading aloud to her.

"One of (Geok Choo)'s proudest possessions was a gold pendant that (I) commissioned for her." He had a calligrapher engrave the following Chinese characters on the pendant: "xian qi liang mu" and "nei xian wai de".

The first four characters mean "virtuous wife and caring mother". The second phrase means "wise in looking after the family, virtuous in behaviour towards the outside world". 

This article was first published on Mar 29, 2015.
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