Kwa Geok Choo, wife of former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, dies at 89

By Alex Kennedy, AP
Saturday, October 2, 2010

Wife of Singapore founder Lee Kuan Yew dies at 89

SINGAPORE — Kwa Geok Choo, the wife of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who described her as his “tower of strength,” and mother of the city-state’s current prime minister, died Saturday. She was 89.

Kwa suffered a stroke and brain hemorrhage in 2008 and had been bedridden and unable to speak since then.

Kwa “passed away peacefully at home,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement. It did not specify the cause of death.

She is survived by her husband, two sons — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Hsien Yang — and a daughter, neurologist Lee Wei Ling.

Lee Kuan Yew, who is 87, stepped down as prime minister in 1990 but continues to wield influence in his son’s Cabinet under the title of minister mentor. He is also in frail health and was hospitalized Wednesday with a chest infection.

Although sometimes criticized as too authoritarian, Lee is credited with transforming Singapore from a sleepy port city into a gleaming regional center for commerce and a model of social order and low corruption.

Born on Dec. 21, 1920, to a well-to-do family, Kwa attended Methodist Girls’ School and Raffles Institute in Singapore and England’s Cambridge University, where she studied law as a Queen’s Scholar. Kwa met fellow Cambridge student Lee in 1944 and the two married in Singapore in 1950.

“I had 61 years of happiness,” Lee said in an interview with the New York Times published last month, adding that he had been distraught at times over his wife’s illness.

“I tell her about my day’s work, read her favorite poems,” Lee said. “I try to busy myself, but from time to time in idle moments, my mind goes back to the happy days we were up and about together.”

Kwa was a partner in the Lee & Lee law firm, which she founded with her husband and Lee’s brother Lee Kim Yew in 1955. After Lee became prime minister in 1959, Kwa stayed on to help run the firm.

She was not known as a campaigner or speech giver and remained a deeply private person. Most Singaporeans remember her for wearing traditional Chinese cheongsam dresses while accompanying her husband on official trips abroad.

In a rare interview with The Straits Times in 2003, Kwa was asked how she would describe the years of marriage and family life with the former prime minister and law firm colleague.

“They have been happy and at times exciting years,” Kwa responded. “Would you believe me if I say we never disagree or quarrel?”

Lee dedicated his first political memoir, “The Singapore Story,” to Kwa, whom he called “Choo.”

“Choo was a tower of strength, giving me constant emotional and intellectual support,” he wrote in the preface. He said she corrected drafts of speeches that he dictated and transcripts of his remarks in Parliament or in interviews.

“She went over every word that I wrote, many times. We had endless arguments,” he wrote.

He credited his wife with raising their children to become “well-mannered and self-disciplined, never throwing their weight around.”

Kwa was asked in the 2003 interview whether her husband was romantic.

“If romantic means sentimental, then the answer is ‘no.’ He is practical. Neither of us would care for candlelit dinners,” she replied.

Prime Minister Lee is currently on an official trip to Brussels and will return to Singapore immediately, television station Channel NewsAsia reported.

A public wake will be held at the prime minister’s official residence on Oct. 4-5 and a private funeral will take place Oct. 6, the Prime Minister’s Office said.

Associated Press Writer Gillian Wong in Beijing contributed to this report.

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