The proud father ‘I’ve got three children I’m very proud of.’
23 March 2015
Away from the public eye, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was an “Eastern” father who, while not ostentatious about showing love and affection, made it evident to his family.
His family was his greatest personal achievement, he once said: “… I’ve got a good, happy family. I’ve got a happy marriage. I’ve got three children I’m very proud of. I can’t ask for more.”
Elder son Hsien Loong was born in 1952, daughter Wei Ling in 1955 and son Hsien Yang two years later. Mr Lee and his wife took pains to ensure they grew up living normal lives after he became Prime Minister in 1959 when they were aged seven, five and two, respectively.
For one thing, they decided not to live at Sri Temasek, the Prime Minister’s official residence at the Istana, “because that would be a very bad thing for them. You’d get an inflated idea of who you are, what you are, with all the servants around and the gardeners”.
But watching his children grow up also “constantly reminded” Mr Lee of “the need to build a safe and wholesome environment for our children to live in”.
Mrs Lee did most of the nurturing and would return from work to their Oxley Road home daily to have lunch with the kids. She would use the cane when they were very naughty, but for Mr Lee, “a stern rebuke was effective enough”, he said. “Having a violent father turned me against using physical force.”
Mr Lee made a point of spending time with his children. At least once a year, sometimes twice, he would take the family to Cameron Highlands or Fraser’s Hill for two weeks. His brother Mr Lee Suan Yew said: “He’s not a physical person; he’s not a man who’ll hug you and so on, but his love for the children was also tremendous.” His kind of love was “very Eastern, not Western in style”.
Mr Lee was also a practical father. At a time when he himself, being raised English-speaking, was picking up Mandarin to win political support among the Chinese-speaking masses, his three children spent the first 12 years of their education at Chinese-medium schools.
He said: “I spoke to my kids in Mandarin until they got to secondary school … Geok Choo, my wife, spoke to the kids in English. From the age of six, they had Malay tuition at home.”
His elder son was even made to join the Scouts, where he could interact with Malay children. “Education in three languages was very important with the merger with Malaysia a reality. It was a chance for the children to expand their social circle,” Mr Lee explained.
The education of his children was a very important responsibility to him as a father and he was satisfied when all three earned scholarships. “Loong” followed in his political footsteps and later became Prime Minister of Singapore; Mr Lee Hsien Yang took the business track, helming Singapore Telecommunications and other firms, for example; while Ms Lee Wei Ling went the medical route and became director of the National Neuroscience Institute.
HIS SON’S CANCER
One of Mr Lee’s most anxious moments was when Mr Lee Hsien Loong, then Deputy Prime Minister, was diagnosed with lymphoma in October 1992. The elder Mr Lee, who was in Johannesburg with his wife, got a call from his son. “I immediately rang back, fearing bad news. It was devastating. A biopsy of a polyp found in his colon had been diagnosed as cancer, a lymphoma.”
Former minister George Yeo said Mr Lee was distressed and had to take Valium as he could not sleep. “But when he met the South Africans, you could not tell … he kept up the pretence until the matter came out after he left South Africa. Watching him … and the anguish that he must have had as a father — it reminds me of this Chinese expression of the knife’s edge on your heart and maintaining appearances nonetheless.”
In the end, intensive chemotherapy cleared up the cancer cells. The specialists said that if the cancer did not recur in five years, he would be considered cured. “We waited anxiously for the five years to elapse. October 1997 came and passed without mishap,” said Mr Lee.
HIS DAUGHTER’S COMPANIONSHIP
In the last few years of his life, it was his daughter who gave Singaporeans rare glimpses of the man her father was, in her newspaper columns for The Sunday Times. She described, for instance, his devoted care of her mother when she was ill and how, after her death, his health and spirits deteriorated.
In October 2011, she wrote of how she now travelled overseas with Mr Lee. “Like my mother did when she was alive, I accompany him so that I can keep an eye on him and also keep him company. After my mother became too ill to travel, he missed having a family member with whom he could speak frankly after a long, tiring day of meetings.”
Though more frail than he used to be, he insisted on travelling and doing what had to be done to benefit Singapore. “For my part, I keep him company when he is not preoccupied with work and I make sure he has enough rest,” said the single Dr Lee, who lived in the family home with her father.
She has also written about what it was like growing up as the daughter of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. “My every move, every word, is scrutinised … One friend said I lived in a glass house. After my father’s recent comment on my lack of culinary skills, another observed, ‘You live in a house without any walls.’ Fortunately, I am not easily embarrassed.”
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