Singapore—What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year than with a look back at one of the greatest romances in the country’s history? Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, and Kwa Geok Choo, who was his partner in every sense of the word for over five decades.
Who can forget that at her eulogy in 2010, Mr Lee said, “Without her, I would be a different man, with a different life.”
The two did not start out as lovers, but as rivals, at least in academics.
Mr Lee and Madam Kwa were the top students in the late 1930s at the prestigious Raffles College, where Madam Kwa was said to be the only female student. She excelled in English and Economics, and bested him to become the top student in those subjects at the end of the first semester of their studies together.
But the academic rivals soon became friends, and eventually fell in love.
In 1946 Mr Lee left for further studies in the United Kingdom. But before he left he asked his beloved to wait for him.
Recounting the story Mr Lee said, “I asked her whether she would wait for me until I came back three years later after being called to the Bar. Choo asked if I knew that she was two and half years older than I was. I said I knew, and had considered this carefully. I wanted someone my equal, …and I was not likely to find another girl…who shared my interests. She said she would wait.”
But as it turns out, they did not have to wait after all. Madam Kwa followed him to Britain a year later, having won a scholarship to read law as well.
The couple secretly got married in December of that year—a secret that was never revealed until Mr Lee wrote his life story much later on.
When they returned to Singapore in 1949, both Mr Lee and Madam Kwa started working at a law firm called Laycock & Ong. The following year, in September 1950, they got married once again, and held the reception at the Raffles Hotel.
Of the second ceremony Mr Lee said, “I don’t think that’s an offence, to marry a woman twice, the same woman!”
Madam Kwa was a true partner to Mr Lee, in the sense that she was responsible for editing his writing, making sure his communication was crisp and clear, all the while bearing and raising their three children.
And although she famously said in 1976, “I walk two steps behind my husband like a good Asian wife,” in actuality she provided invaluable help to him, such as with drafting the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) constitution in 1954, checking and editing his speeches, and reviewing the water agreement with Malaysia together with him.
Mr Lee said of Madam Kwa, “We have never allowed the other to feel abandoned and alone in any moment of crisis. Quite the contrary, 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.”
Those close to the Prime Minister said he was never the same after her death in October 2008. Speaking at her funeral, Mr Lee said, “She was always there when I needed her. She has lived a life full of warmth and meaning. I should find solace in her 89 years of a life well-lived. But at this moment of the final parting, my heart is heavy with sorrow and grief.”