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