Founding Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew and his wife Madam Kwa Geok Choo during their university years in Cambridge. Image: ST file photo
Why Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew chose to get married secretly
Ms Irene Ng, Member of Parliament (Tampines GRC) in the Parliament of Singapore and a former journalist, had the opportunity to interview Founding Prime Minister of Singapore Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his wife in 1998 on the subject of their secret marriage.
Read her piece below, to discover more about the story behind Mr and Mrs Lee’s quiet wedding ceremony, which was held in Stratford-on-Avon in 1947.
As a political journalist who has tracked Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s career in politics, I was aware that his wife Kwa Geok Choo had always sought a low profile. She was a deeply private person and was not known to give interviews to the press, preferring her husband to take the spotlight.
So I was very privileged when, in 1998, she agreed to an interview on her role in her husband’s memoirs and her thoughts on them, and finally broke her silence. She also shed some surprising light on their “secret marriage” in 1947 at Stratford-on-Avon, which Mr Lee had written about briefly in his memoirs.
But true to her shy nature, she preferred to give me written replies rather than do a face-to-face interview. In her three-page reply to me, her directness and candour shone through. (See other article below headlined ‘Why I said yes to secret marriage’)
I was then a Senior Political Correspondent with The Straits Times. She knew me and my work – for some years until then, I had been quietly helping Mr Lee to edit both volumes of his memoirs – I had also been covering some of his events in Singapore and visits abroad.
One evening mid-way through one of my interviews with Mr Lee in his office at the Istana, Mrs Lee came in and sat in a far corner of the room, observing us. She was in her jogging shoes and waiting for Mr Lee to go for their daily evening walk around the Istana grounds.
Mr Lee had spoken casually about his wife to me often in the course of various conversations over the years. They were a devoted couple.
Observing how they behaved towards one another, it is evident that theirs was a deeply loving marriage, based on mutual respect and complete commitment to one another. They complemented one another.
They worked as a team, as they had from the start: As his girlfriend then, she was there at his first political speech in 1950 in Britain. Back in Singapore, they were partners in the law firm Lee & Lee from 1955 to 1959. She was a top conveyancing lawyer, and had helped to support and raise the family while Mr Lee was busy with his political duties. She was an independent woman.
By taking care of household matters, she left her husband free to concentrate on the big issues which confront the nation.
At the same time, she was there for him when he needed her by his side for his political duties, which was often. She was his companion on his many foreign visits, and for many functions, and co-hosted his many dinners. She clearly took care of herself, being trim and poised, and often dressed in the understated elegance of cheongsam.
She would turn up in Parliament to give him moral support whenever he made major speeches. She would sit in the public gallery, her face a picture of concentration.
She was also there for him, looking visibly worried, when he held a press conference on his health condition after his angioplasty in 1996.
When he kept very late nights working on his memoirs, she stayed up too, sometimes until 4 am. She laboured together with him, proof-reading, scribbling corrections and comments on the drafts and sometimes, arguing with him over them.
“If there are no drafts for me to run through, I will read some book,” she told me.
No wonder Mr Lee called her his “tower of strength”.
IRENE NG’S INTERVIEW WITH MRS LEE KUAN YEW
First published in The Straits Times, October 3, 1998
‘Why I said yes to secret marriage’
Rather than risk the disapproval of her parents and college, Mrs Lee Kuan Yew kept her marriage a secret
When her steady boyfriend, Lee Kuan Yew, discussed the idea of a secret marriage with her, the young Miss Kwa Geok Choo had no hesitation in saying “yes”.
Both were then in their mid-20s and law undergraduates in Cambridge. Both were in love. They had made up their minds about each other.
“What was the alternative? To “cohabit” as they say now, or “to live in sin” as they would have said 50 years ago?” asks Mrs Lee, or “Choo’ as her husband, the Senior Minister, refers to her in his memoirs.
Better to marry. So they did, quietly, one December day 51 years ago in Stratford-on-Avon, the birthplace of British playwright William Shakespeare.
Mrs Lee, however, was hesitant about whether her husband should write about their secret marriage in his memoirs.
A deeply private person, she was reluctant initially. “I was afraid the press would make a big fuss about it. That would give me goose pimples.”
But she weighed the implications: if the secret was suppressed and found out later, it would be said that Mr Lee might also have hidden many other facts when writing his memoirs.
Like her husband, she believed that there was no point in writing a biography unless the truth – the whole truth – was told.
So while they decided to tell the story of how they were married quietly in Britain, Mr Lee had deliberately written about it in a “cool, factual way”, she notes.
Indeed, this is how Mr Lee recounted their big day: “Once we arrived (in Stratford-on-Avon), we notified the local Registrar of Marriages of our intention, and after two weeks of residence were duly married.”
Just as the recent decision to make public their secret was made carefully, so it was with their decision to keep mum about it 51 years ago.
The reasons: Mrs Lee’s parents would have been upset had they been asked, Mr Lee revealed in his memoirs. Girton College, where she was studying as a Queen’s Scholar, might not have approved. The Queen’s scholarship authorities might have raised difficulties.
Reveals Mrs Lee: “We both knew our minds. We kept it secret even after both his parents and mine had passed away. It was no longer relevant to anyone.”
About three years after their secret marriage, they went through a second ceremony at the Registry of Marriages upon their return to Singapore. Their parents held a reception for relatives and friends at the Raffles Hotel.
In his book, Mr Lee adopted the same matter-of-fact approach when writing about their courtship. There were no “moonlight” or “balcony” scenes in the book, his wife notes.
“Yet these words found their way into some reports.” While she does not identify the publications, they might include the September 25 issue of Asiaweek which relates how their relationship “blossoms to the point where Mr Lee makes a midnight balcony proposal to “Choo’ in a scene Shakespeare might have penned”.
This is how Mr Lee had in fact recorded their commitment to each other: “Just before the party broke up, I led her out into the garden facing the sea. I told her that I no longer planned to return to Raffles College, but would go to England to read law. I asked her whether she would wait for me until I came back three years later after being called to the Bar … She said she would wait.” No moonlight, no balcony, no goose pimples.
Mr Lee on their 1946 commitment:
“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 she was 2 1/2 years older than I was. I said I knew, and had considered this carefully.
I was mature for my age and most of my friends were older than me anyway. Moreover, I wanted someone my equal, not someone who was not really grown up and needed looking after, and I was not likely to find another girl who was my equal and who shared my interests. She said she would wait.’
Their 1947 secret wedding:
“Once we arrived (in Stratford-on-Avon), we notified the local Registrar of Marriages of our intention, and after two weeks of residence were duly married. On the way to Stratford-on-Avon, we had stopped in London, where I bought Choo a platinum wedding ring from a jeweller in Regent Street. But when we went back to Cambridge, she wore the ring on a chain around her neck.”
Their 1950 “official marriage”
“The registrar, Mr Grosse, was 15 minutes late. I was furious and told him off. An appointment had been made yet he kept all of us waiting. Later that afternoon, our parents held a reception for relatives and friends at the Raffles Hotel.”