Oct 4, 2010
'When she hears my voice, she knows it's me'
Over the course of 2008 and last year, Straits Times journalists conducted 16 interviews with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew for an upcoming book on issues critical to Singapore's future. In one interview, Mr Lee paid a quiet yet moving tribute to his wife of 63 years, who was by then bedridden. Here are extracts from Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, due out in January next year.
Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew at MacRitchie Reservoir in a photo taken in September 1946, when he was 23 and she was 25. They had first met at Raffles Institution in the late 1930s, and married in 1947 in Stratford-upon-Avon while they were law students at Cambridge University. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE LEE FAMILY
Well, at the beginning it was. When it happened in May last year it was traumatic...She had recovered from her first stroke in 2003, reasonably unimpaired. We dashed her to hospital - the National Neuroscience Institute. There they found a new bleed (in the brain), this time in a more difficult position where it affects the movements. But there was still hope that she would recover with some physiotherapy, although maybe the quality of life would not be as good as before. Then while she was undergoing therapy, within the first two weeks she had two more strokes, one after another. The doctor said it's no use, physiotherapy cannot do anything because it was traumatic. So we brought her home, and I had to shift into my study room, which is next to my bedroom, because she had to have nurses round the clock. All the trauma meant I could not sleep. I developed a heart flutter and all sorts of problems that may have come on a few years later but came on earlier because of the stress.
After a while you adjust yourself mentally. I can do nothing except provide good nursing, so I've resigned myself. So have my children. She's gradually losing more and more of her faculties. There must have been more minor bleeds. Now she has cognition but she can't speak. But that's life. I was thinking to myself when I fell off the bicycle recently - had I knocked my head against the floor, I would be in a similar condition. We can't choose how we go. It's a difficult way of going but life is like that. So I've adjusted and accepted the inevitable. The doctors say even though you expect it, when it happens it's still a blow. I can only wait and see, and I've mentally sort of prepared myself.
It also reminded me of my own mortality and how quickly it can change in the flicker of a second if there's an internal bleed. That's life. I cannot choose how I'm going to go. I just carry on my life and that's that. If you start thinking about it, you will go downhill. Every day is a bonus, so let's carry on.
I'm the one she recognises the most. When she hears my voice, she knows it's me. This is after 62 years together, which makes it more difficult for her and for me. Because there's full cognition - when I tell her, look, our daughter is in hospital with some problem, she's suddenly alert and listens. But the hours of cognition are becoming less and less because she's sleeping more and more. Energy levels go down...
I have to psychologically make adjustments. I've adjusted. But there will be another adjustment when she finally isn't here. Then this big house will be empty. Fortunately I'm able to concentrate on my other work, so life goes on. I travel and do all the things I have been doing. If I don't carry on with life, I will degrade. If you think you're going to sit down and read novels and play golf, you're foolish - you'll just go downhill. Every day is a challenge. Every day has problems to be solved.
I would say my wife.
I do that every night. I read to her, I tell her what I've been doing for the day and the news of the day from The Straits Times, IHT and Wall Street Journal. Then I read her the poems that she likes and has flagged over the years.
She blinks. Yes, one blink; no, two blinks.
Well, my greatest joy was when my wife won the Queen's scholarship and I managed to get her into Cambridge immediately after that, because that meant she didn't have to wait for me for three or four years in Singapore. Had she not got a scholarship, I'd have gone back (to Singapore) in three years and finished the bar exams as soon as possible. Before I left, she had said, after three years we will become strangers to each other. I said, no, we won't. In the end, she took a risk and so did I, because we might have drifted apart. She got the scholarship, I got her a place and we got married that December (in 1947) quietly in Stratford-upon-Avon. Then we came back and remarried again in 1950. I don't think that's an offence (laughs), to marry a woman twice, the same woman!
First of all, we accommodated each other. There was nothing we fundamentally disagreed on. She knew my quirks and I knew her eccentricities. She's a voracious reader. She read Horace, the Iliad and Gibbon's Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire. She read books on fishes, on food - the books on her bookshelf at home. I'm not interested in those subjects but she is. I'm interested in what I am doing. In the case of my memoirs, she would read my drafts and would simplify the English to make it easier to read and understand. Because as a conveyancing lawyer she's particular about the meanings of words, they should be clear, they should be simple. As a result, she influenced my writing style. I used to write convoluted sentences, the way I speak. She says, no, no, speaking is all right because you can repeat yourself and you can pick up where you left off. But in writing, you write a sentence and you move on. So you make it clear and crisp. If you look at my writings before my memoirs, my written style has more loops. She cured me of loops. She said, you want this to be read by O-level students. Don't use multisyllable words when you can use a single-syllable word, which is what (British style guide writer) Ernest Gowers advised. It was good advice. One of my doctors told me, I read your book and I found it very simple. So my wife succeeded. We adjust to each other.
In almost everything. I left the domestic chores to her. She runs the household and the maids. Now I have a problem. I got a man who fixes things up and looks after the maids. It's not satisfactory because he doesn't know what the maids do in the bedroom and it's not cleaned as before. It's a problem. I have to get my sister to teach the cook because my daughter is not interested in these things. She's interested in her work and writing the next article and her BlackBerry. Her cooking is to take raw salmon and put it in the microwave. My wife is a good cook and she gave instructions to the maid on how to cook.
She'll know when something is not right. She's got highly sensitive taste buds and sensitive nostrils. She can tell straight away, oh, you've put too much lengkuas (galangal) and so on, reduce it. I would not have known what was wrong. I just knew it didn't taste good. She would know. I miss all that. Life goes on. Now my sister helps to train the cook. She's a good cook. Life means adjustment. We make do after a while.