The day Lee cried and changed me forever

I saw Lee Kuan Yew cry

Lee Kuan Yee and Kwa Geok Choo

Lee Kuan Yew and his wife Kwa Geok Choo who died in 2010. This picture was among those of the loving couple published after Mr Lee’s death.

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By Paul Jansen

I saw Lee Kuan Yew cry. No, not when he announced the Separation of Singapore from Malaysia on August 9, 1965 and was broadcast sobbing.

That was his reaction to a political calculation, or some might say, miscalculation.

But this … this was personal.

It was in April 2003. It was 13 years since Mr. Lee had handed over the Prime Minister’s Office to Goh Chok Tong. But the country he was instrumental in creating was facing a threat of epic proportions and he wanted to talk about it.

SARS had reached our shores. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome was striking fear. People were dying in Singapore. Business and pleasure travel were being curtailed. Even the daily Singapore-Kuala Lumpur train service was cancelled due to a significant drop in demand. The economy was being hit.

Worldwide, there were concerns that the epidemic could turn into a pandemic, transforming from a sporadic killer of hundreds into an efficient executioner of millions, as had happened with a few other viruses before.

For Singapore, an aviation and maritime hub, which had healthy tourism receipts and was a meeting place for bigwigs to do business deals, and without a hinterland to fall back on, the global sweep of SARS was troubling, as was the reaction to it. People were avoiding people.

The national media was invited to a press conference at the Istana by Senior Minister Lee. I went as editor of the Streats daily.

It was a small group. We assembled in a room and sat waiting in a row of chairs, line abreast. TV crews and photographers readied their equipment.

Across from us was a wall with windows opening to a corridor, which Mr. Lee would enter from. As we chatted about the purpose of the presscon, I saw a shadow fall across the curtain of the window furthest to the left. It progressed from window to window.

It was not Mr. Lee, I told myself. It seemed more like a shadow of a stooped person, looking, from where I sat, as though bent through disability or distraction. It could not be that of the tall, commanding and sometimes pugnacious Lee I had come to expect, having covered several events featuring him over the years as a journalist.

Then something remarkable happened. As I watched it pass the last windows, the shadow straightened. Mr. Lee came through the door, eyes gleaming, a slight smile on his lips, upright and striding.

He sat. Mics were checked. And we began.

He was concerned. He was angry. Mr. Lee, who had faced his share of potential disasters, described SARS as “more serious than other crises”.

A few days earlier, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had taken the extraordinary step of writing a letter to the public appealing to people to heed the advice of the authorities and not put others in danger through inconsiderate behavior.

There were a few instances of people who fell sick, but went about their business instead of seeing their doctor to determine if they had this highly contagious disease. Mr Goh’s letter mentioned the case of a family of eight whose relative worked in the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre (where two people contracted SARS and one died) coming down with fever. They saw a General Practitioner, but instead of waiting for the special ambulance, took off the masks he had given them and went to a nearby food centre.

rime Minister Goh Chok Tong's Open Letter during the SARS crises

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s Open Letter during the SARS crises

I had taken the unusual decision to carry the entire letter on the front page of my tabloid newspaper.

Looking grim, Mr. Lee referred to the family. He warned that all the measures put in place to stem the spread of SARS would be negated by irresponsible behavior. (Later, the family would give their reasons why they did not stay put.)

Tracking and isolating individuals while trying to determine if they had SARS was already difficult, inconveniencing many and hurting  livelihoods. But far worse was in store, including death, if people refused to listen to the health officials.

He was in full Lee lecture mode. Stern voice. Laser eyes. Expressive gestures.

The Singapore he had invested so much of himself in was threatened by a new and unexpected danger on a national level and he was  doing what he had been doing his adult life, whether as Prime Minister or as Senior Minister: face it head on and rally the nation to overcome it.

Then he dropped a bombshell. He and his family very nearly became part of Singapore’s SARS statistics.

“You can be a completely innocent victim.”

He related how, on April 3, 2003, as the country wrestled with transmissions, his wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo, had gone to Singapore General Hospital for treatment for a frozen shoulder. She was brought to an ultrasound room for a scan of the affected area.

A few days later, he received a call from her doctor, who asked: “Is your wife with you? … The radiographer who helped her and took her temperature has gone down with SARS.”

The radiographer had been infected by a patient who had not notified the staff that she was having a fever. Mr. Lee said that patient had been in the same room as his wife, with only a curtain separating them. Madam Kwa had to be quarantined and her temperature checked regularly for a prescribed period before she could be considered out of the woods.

As he described this, the thought that she could so easily have been lost must have gripped him. He looked at us. Stopped talking. His eyes teared. He looked down at his hands.

No one spoke. Pens stopped writing. We averted our eyes. Looked hard at our notebooks. He wiped his face and cleared his throat.

We continued. He moved back to the national picture. The interview was published. But no one mentioned Mr. Lee’s moment of anguish.

Nothing was the same for me again. Up to that point, my impression of him was of a hard man with a single-minded devotion to the survival and success of Singapore and a knuckle-duster approach to politics.

There had been nothing to endear him to me. But I had benefited from his achievements in unexpected ways.

For instance, as a young journalist on the ultimate road trip in the United States in 1982 as a World Press Fellow, I found myself time and time again receiving special treatment because of his reputation.

I was with nine journalists from France, Spain, Australia, Ireland, Venezuela, Columbia, Morocco, Ivory Coast and Tunisia, travelling slowly through the continent from north to south, east to west, in search of a deeper understanding of what made the nation tick.

When we stopped at the world headquarters of heavy equipment manufacturer John Deere in Illinois, chairman William Hewitt, who had taken sales from US$300 million in 1955 to US$5 Billion in 1982, greeted us at the hall of the acclaimed Eero Saarinen-designed building and asked: “Who is the Fellow from Singapore?”

He then arranged it so that I was seated next to him at the conference room and plied me with questions about Singapore and said how impressed he was by Mr. Lee.

This happened on other occasions during the trip, so that by the time we arrived at the United Nations headquarters in New York for tea with Secretary-General Perez de Cueller, I was not surprised when I found myself being seated next to the UN chief who then started the group meeting by asking me how Mr. Lee was doing.

My fellow roadies, particularly from the larger countries, were surprised by these exchanges. Initially, so was I. But surprise turned to pride. Pride in my country.

As the years passed and I met both detractors and lovers of Singapore, that pride grew. Yet, while I knew that Mr. Lee had played a large part in putting Singapore on the map, there was “a missing link”. I felt that he had received his just reward: power to mould his people, pay to match his efforts, fame to let him sleep well.

But on April 25, 2003, the equation in my head changed. His reaction to what could have happened to his “Choo”, spoke volumes to me, not about what he had gained, but what he had lost.

In building his country, he had given up full control of the most precious treasure each of us receives when we are born: a finite amount of time. He spent a large part of his store on fire-fighting politics, a smaller part on his own family, with Choo.

Now the pieces fit. My missing link was found.

Lee Kuan Yew had expended his life trying to make us, Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians, into a united Family, and to make this little red dot on the map our Home. It must have seemed a monumental task in 1965. But for a man driven by logic, it must have seemed one worthy of great sacrifice. And it was a sacrifice that very few of us would ever know.

Just as he must have shrugged off any worries of a concerned spouse and transformed himself back into a confident chief in the few steps it took to reach the Istana room where we waited that April 2003, I am sure that he had always treated his public appearances as theatre, where Lee the Man must necessarily be replaced by Lee the Leader. But I saw him cry and in those few tears I glimpsed what he meant when he said: “At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.”

On March 25, 2015, I shuffled in line for hours with people of all ilk. As my wife Marjorie Chong, our friend Sally Loh, and I, entered Parliament Hall, the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, assembled on the grand staircase. Looking on was Mr. Lee’s son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Precisely as we reached Mr. Lee’s casket, the chorister sang:

This is home truly, where I know I must be
Where my dreams wait for me, where the river always flows
This is home surely, as my senses tell me
This is where I won’t be alone, for this is where I know it’s home

The words rolled over Mr. Lee, his son, me and the scores of people there, ringing through the hall and resonating in our hearts.

This is Home, truly. Because you made it so, Mr. Lee. And the hundreds of thousands who lined up to see you in Parliament House, and the million who visited the tribute centres, and the men, women and children who remained unwavering in lines under a torrential downpour to wave farewell to you on your last trip through the heartlands, in a spontaneous outpouring of grief and gratitude, will forever be your Family.

Thank you.

Copyright: Paul Jansen 2015. All rights reserved.

Paul Jansen is a media professional with extensive experience in journalism with The Straits Times and Singapore Press Holdings. He is the founding editor of The Straits Times Interactive, now, conceptualised and led the multiple award-winning search and directory engine, and played a role in the start-up of the telco M1 and other companies. He has left the editorial and marketing trenches and is currently advising firms on dealing with the press on a daily basis and especially in a crises. He is also co-founder and executive chairman of aSpecial Media Pte Ltd, an award-winning company which specialises in collecting and analysing behavioural data for public and private institutions, policy-makers and marketers. But mostly he flies.

21 Responses to The day Lee cried and changed me forever

  1. Robert Tan says:

    Truly a great man indeed. Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a passionate, committed and a steadfast leader for his country and his people. His sense of purpose was defined and clear. Without love for his country and people, Singapore would not be what it is today. As a people, we would not have been so united and progressive. However, Mr Lee’s efforts are only the beginning of a nation’s journey.
    We must build upon the zeal and strength of our inner souls to bring out the best in every individual. We must strive to be a nation of strength and love, caring for all regardless of race and religion.
    To date, Singapore after Mr Lee Kuan Yew seems to be a more materialistic society. Our leaders ought to be passionate too and be of service to the people. Why is there some disconnect between the leaders today and some sectors of the population? Is the motivation to serve the people different from the motivation of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team?
    We must improve from here. We must connect with the people and be transparent with them. Good opposition members must be respected and be given responsibilities to harness their talents. Everyone counts. More effort must be spent to be with the people. Our leaders must be strong and united. They must speak out fearlessly and be accountable for their actions. My deep respect also goes to other past leaders like Dr. Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam, former Presidents Yusoff Ishak, Benjamin Sheares, Ong Teng Cheong, Wee Kim Wee and even Devan Nair. There are many more who sacrificed their lives and worked together to see to the success of Singapore.
    I wish that Singapore will continue to be blessed with more great leaders and not followers. Like Ralph Nader, an American political activist, said on leadership: “I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers”
    God bless this loving nation, its leaders and their people.

  2. Jayme Lim says:

    Thank you for sharing!

    The Greatest of all is Love.
    Love for his country, his people,
    his family and especially his beloved wife, Choo.

    God bless.

  3. Diana Chua says:

    I remembered during a crisis period, a political leader interviewed said that not to worry if this small country is very strong and has very clever people, they can ride through any crisis.
    Although inwardly very admirable of Mr Lee but outwardly always showing differences but yet implement many policies of Singapore for his country. Mr Lee had made it great for us all. We will remember and carry on his legacy to our generations to come and continue to unite the spirit of Singapore.

  4. Jimmy Ho says:

    Mr.LKY is a truly exceptional and extraordinary man.

  5. Rosalind Teo says:

    Thank you, Paul, for sharing. It just adds onto the list of many unknowns about the late Mr Lee…that he was really a very Special gift to Singapore. His undying attachment and devotion to his “Choo” for almost a century on this Earth and then continuing into eternity will also probably be the greatest love story of all time…we will miss him and we will also remember how he loved us and gave up his life for us. Thank you, Mr Lee.

  6. GL says:

    Thank you, your article made my eyes teary again.

  7. Peter Boudewyn says:

    No doubt there have been numerous LKY pieces in the recent past. Your’s & Ken Jalleh Jr’s captured something that no others did.

  8. May Lim says:

    Thank you very much Mr Lee. You have given up
    All your life to make Singapore what it is today.
    A strong country and stable home. You will
    Forever be missed. With love.

  9. Brenda Leong says:

    It is strange that no matter how much we try to tell everyone the great things LKY has done, there are some who still dwell on how cruel he is, how he jailed / brought down opponents, how he is manipulative, what a dictator he is, anyone from his cabinet could have made it work eg Goh Keng Swee, Ong Teng Cheong or Rajaratnam. And if we try to talk sense into them, they accuse us of being pro-PAP. As long as they don’t separate fact from fiction and come to their senses and count their blessings, I am worried about Singapore’s future.

  10. Siti Zaleha says:

    Can I share this with my students? It is such a great read.

    Whenever I read about Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his ‘Choo’, I will always tear. Their love story and devotion to each other is so admirable. Most of us see him as a hard-hearted leader cos he rarely showed the gentle / kinder side of him. He will definitely be missed.

  11. Tima_Lynne says:

    My dad, I would say is not a fan of late Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He felt most policies by him too rigid and regimented. However upon learning of his passing, dad shed tears when he watched the late Mr Lee on Tv. I always told dad I am proud of my homeland whenever I travel as I always miss Singapore when I am away. Nothing beats the heartbeat of my homeland, Singapore. Majulah Singapura!

  12. Saradhuram K.K. says:

    My late father was filled with admiration & spoke of all the good deeds our founding father Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had done for our nation. Every statement he made was, “because of LKY…….” What Singapore is today wouldn’t have happened if not for LKY’s foresight & vision. We are ever grateful to be born here. Some may or may not agree with his methods of ruling but deep down in their hearts, they have realised in one way or other, his ways were right from the very beginning and that’s how we as Singaporeans are much respected all over the world as being honest & trustworthy. There is so much to say & I don’t know where to begin or where to end. This much I can say for sure, LKY has lived a long & fulfilled life (he would have lived longer if his beloved wife was still with him) & has gone back to be with his beloved wife to continue blessing us from up above. LKY was the chosen one, the One and Only.

  13. Selina Wee says:

    Thank you for sharing in this article.

    I love LKY and extremely gratefully for all that he had done for Singapore and our people.
    Thank you.

  14. jeffrey tan says:

    Lest we forget with PM Lee Kuan Yew at the helm, his 1st cabinet team of old guards together with the unyielding support of our early generation of Singaporeans of a young nation who had independence thrust upon them with nothing but a belief & courage to challenge the odds & and iron will to succeed so that we can have the Singapore of today.
    There are no words I can find to express my gratitude to all of them, just that it was my privilege & honor to have grown up during the time when Mr Lee Kuan Yew & his illustrious cabinet team members carved out nothing short of an economic miracle on this island we call home, our Singapore.

  15. Catherine Teo says:

    You are writing about Mr Lee crying unknowingly in the press conference but do you know I am also crying as I read this post? I am totally touched by his love for his Choo.

    I believe that it is precisely because of this love that is driving his love for Singapore too. The idea of nearly losing her must have traumatised him in a way. But it has not stopped him from putting on his business front and to address the heart of the issue in his way.

    That really makes him a really admirable hero, in my opinion, and it must be really hard to be playing the bad guy in order to achieve a far greater goal in his vision for Singapore.

    Mr Lee had put Singapore on the world map in his lifetime, transforming this little red dot into a beacon of light and for that, no amount of gratitude can ever thank him enough for his effort.

    Thank you, Mr Lee, and goodbye.

  16. Daniel Ong says:

    If I were a Journalist or writer with your talent my feelings and words would be the same. Thank U Paul …from an old school mate

    • The Editor says:

      Hi Daniel,

      Words are often unnecessary. That outpouring of grief and gratitude manifested in the unmoving crowds waiting patiently along the roads under the torrential downpour for Mr Lee’s hearse to pass said it all.


      • Helen says:

        Thanks Paul for sharing. Till today I can’t stop tearing each time when I read about Mr Lee, I always shared with people around me that wihout Mr Lee Singapore will not have a roof over our heads. He provided us with proper and clean housing for our younger generations. Unfortunately, there are some who never appreciate what he has sacrificed for all of us.
        Rest in peace Mr Lee.
        God Bless

  17. James Sim says:

    I remembered during that period of time when the world was unable to control or treat SARS, Mr Lee was very reassuring that in the history of man, we will find solutions for all challenges and SARS is no exception. Can someone verify this?

    Mr. Lee KY is truly a giant and Singapore a home for all Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans who benefit from our survival and partnership. He makes us value foreigners who are partners and friends.

  18. Nicholas Cheang says:

    Heaven rejoice again each time one recognised what Mr. Lee Kuan Yew went through because of his people.
    God bless you.

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