A Singapore love story: how wife’s death left a tragic void in Lee Kuan Yew’s life

A Singapore love story: how wife’s death left a tragic void in Lee Kuan Yew’s life

Lee held his wife in such high regard he said he would have been a ‘different man’ without her

 Lee and wife Kwa Geok Choo celebrating his 80th birthday. Photo: EPA

“Without her, I would be a different man, with a different life”, the late founding prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew said in his eulogy for his wife Kwa Geok Choo at her funeral in 2010. It was a testament to the couple’s 63-year-long love story.

The two had been fierce rivals in school, at least on Lee’s part as he found out that she had beaten him to be the top student in English and economics at the end of the first term when they were both studying at Raffles College.

In 1946, after the Japanese occupation of the Singapore, Lee left to study in Britain. A year later, Kwa, who won a scholarship, also joined him in Britain and read law.

Lee Kuan Yew (left) shares a light moment with his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, right, during the Labour Day Rally in Singapore. Photo: AP

She was totally committed. I sensed it. I was equally determined to keep my commitment to her,” Lee wrote in his memoirs in 1999.

The two married privately in 1947 while both were undergraduates in Cambridge. Three years later, they returned to Singapore and held a formal wedding witnessed by parents and friends.

In 1952, Kwa gave birth to their first son, Lee Hsien Loong, who in 2004 became Singapore’s third and incumbent prime minister. Three years later, together with Lee’s brother, they set up their own law firm Lee & Lee.

It was at that time when Lee formed the People’s Action Party and launched his political career.

Lee Kuan Yew (left) and his wife join Americans living in the city state at a candlelight ceremony in Singapore on September 23, 2001, for victims of the September 11 attacks in the United States. Photo: Reuters

Kwa participated in drafting the party’s constitution and gave a speech on radio urging women to vote for the party in the upcoming elections.

Throughout the years, Kwa was always Lee’s unofficial speech checker, helping him tighten his text. And, as one of the best lawyers in Singapore, Kwa also helped to draft clauses in the Separation Agreement when Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia, after an ill-fated merger that lasted 22 months. Behind the scenes, Kwa took care of their children while also running the law firm.

Throughout the years their relationship was not without challenges, but the two were always able to sort them out, Lee said.

“We have faced all major crises in our lives together, sharing our fears and hopes, and our subsequent grief and exultation. These moments of crisis have bonded us closer together,” Lee wrote advising his younger son about marriage in 1981.

Lee Kuan Yew (left) and his wife, Kwa Geok Choo (centre), attends a dinner at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Photo: Benson Lo

Kwa’s health slowly deteriorated after 2003 following a number of strokes. By 2008, she was bedridden and unable to speak. But Lee would still spend an hour or more by her side everyday to tell her of his activities and read her favourite poems.

“The great tragedy of Lee’s life was that his beloved wife was felled by a stroke that left her a prisoner in her body, unable to communicate or receive communication … He had faith that she understood despite the evidence to the contrary,” said former US envoy Henry Kissinger.

Kwa died in her sleep on October 2, 2010. At her state funeral, Lee bid farewell, saying: “I have precious memories of our 63 years together. Without her, I would be a different man, with a different life.”Lee Kuan Yew (In black tie) along with his son, Lee Hsien Loong (behind) and family members walk behind the hearse of Kwa Geok Choo during a funeral ceremony in Singapore. Photo: AFP

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Robert Chaen

Global CEO-Founder of ChangeU and Movsha Movers & Shakers, Hero-CEO Whisperer, Writer, The #1 Alpha Change Expert, Father of Asian FireWalking Robert Chaen is an International Keynote Speaker, writer, researcher, and corp games designer. He is famously known to be the “Hero-CEO Whisperer”, 1-on1 coaching with many CEOs and Celebrities for corporate strategies, staff & office political issues, personal branding, and even public figure OSHA safety drilling called Drager Defense. He has transformed CEOs and managers in Coca-Cola China, TVB Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong Airport Services, VADS, TM, Public Bank, Auditor General's Office Maldives, etc. He is the prolific creator and online Author of innovative management tools such as DragonCEO, Diamond Leader, Papillon Personal Effectiveness, OSHA Drager Defense, KPI Bank, etc. He is also the Founder of Movsha, an international networking with monthly mingles with MOVers & SHAkers, Angels, Entrepreneurs, CEOs, Celebrities, HR-PR-CSR, HODs, and the Most Influential IDEA people. ​Chaen is widely considered as one of the top International Platform Keynote Speakers for Resorts World Genting Senior Management Conference (Manila), 7-Eleven HK, Samsung, Coca-Cola China Mini-MBA @Tsing Hua University, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong Jockey Club, The Story Conference where he interviewed Datuk Kamarudin (Chairman of AirAsia) and Siti Nurhaliza. He has been widely featured in TVB, AWSJ, CNBC, SCMP, The Star, and Sin Chew. As “The Father of Asian FireWalking”, he coached TVB celebrities (Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin) to walk on 650°C fire; and raised HK$68M in the world’s 1st and only live TV Charity FireWalk (TVB Tung Wah Charity Show), before Tony Robbins even came to Asia. If Robert can get you to walk on 650⁰C fire, he can inspire you to be THE BEST. He champions CN-HK-EU-US Tycoons to be philanthropic, and to be angel investors to support the next generation of Jack Mas, Steve Jobs, Richard Bransons, Steven Spielbergs, or Barrack Obamas. With some slick motivational speakers with fake doctorates out there, graduates often describe Robert to be "the most credible, empowering, truthful Coach" who believe in his graduates to believe in themselves. ​However, clients have described Robert as "The #1 Cool Badass Alpha Change Expert". He has the coolest first class stature, rapport and trust from clients. He will not hesitate to tell the badass truth ever so gently because clients are paying him big bucks to reveal the truth, find solutions, persuade the hostile HODs, and align cross-teams within the organization. Originally based in Hong Kong for 20+ years, he had worked with top Branding/Ad agencies at J Walter Thompson and Leo Burnett, and was a certified FranklinCovey (7 Habits) in USA, and NLP MasterCoach (USA). His warmth is known to soften the most hardened, resistant sceptics. He will inspire your team to Go for Top 1, or to be a Dragon CEO. With boundless energies, Robert owns 15+ successful business Joint-Ventures, and created unique products under his global VC network called Chaen's Angels VC. He is deeply passionate about ChangeUTH Youth CSR, Science-Based Medicine (vs. quackery), short films and Reality TV. Touched by a personal tragedy through the loss of his HK-born Portuguese wife, co-coach and business partner, Brenda José of 18 years, Robert explores the many ways in which the spirit world is communicating with the living with real scientific studies and evidence. He gives inspiring conferences on The Secret Afterlife.

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