Eulogy by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at Cremation Service of the Late Mr Lee Kuan Yew
Family and Friends
We are gathered here to say our final farewells to Papa – Mr Lee Kuan Yew. After the formalities of the Lying in State and the State Funeral Service, in this final hour Papa is with his family, his friends of a lifetime, his immediate staff who served him loyally and well, his security team who kept him safe and sound, and his medical team who took such good care of him.
So much has been said about Papa’s public life in the past few days. His public life is something we share with all of Singaporeans, with the world. But we were privileged to know him as a father, a grandfather, an elder brother, a friend, a strict but compassionate boss, the head of the family.
Actually, Papa was the head of two families. As the eldest son, from a young age he was effectively head of his household, helping his mother – Mak – to bring up his younger brothers and sister. He remained close to them all his life. To my uncles and aunts, he was always “Kor”, never “Harry”. Sai Sok (Suan Yew) would have him over to dinner every Christmas, and Ku Cheh (Auntie Monica) would cook him his favourite dishes, and teach his cook how to do them, almost to the same standard as hers. Papa made it a point to attend the Chinese New Year reunions of the extended Lee family every year, even till last year, to catch up with his siblings, to meet his nephews and nieces, and later grand-nephews and grand-nieces. I think there are a few great grand nephews and nieces but I am not sure if they are here.
Pa was also head of his own family – my mother and the three children. He had plunged deep into politics by the time we arrived. In fact, the day I was born, when he visited Mama and the new baby in Kandang Kerbau Hospital. Instead of talking about the baby, he told her how he was going to represent the postmen’s union in their dispute with the government. This was the postmen’s strike which first made his name and launched him into active politics. So day to day Mama ran the household, brought us up, saw to our schooling. But Papa set the tone, tracked our progress, and made the big decisions. He sent us to a Chinese school; he started us on Malay lessons with Cikgu Amin, wife is Cikgu Jamilah; he encouraged Yang and me to take up SAF Scholarships, to serve the nation; he persuaded Ling to become a doctor instead of a vet. He set us on the path to make our own marks in the world, and we are grateful.
We are also grateful that Papa guided and nurtured us to grow up into normal, well-adjusted people, even though we were the Prime Minister’s children, always in the spotlight, in every danger of being spoilt, indulged, and led astray. He and Mama decided that we would stay in Oxley Road and not move to Sri Temasek, lest we grow up thinking that the world owed us a living. He made sure we did not get the wrong ideas – no inflated sense of self; never to be inconsiderate to others; not to throw our weight around. We may not always have done it right, but we were never left in any doubt as to what was the right way to behave.
He took pride in us children. When I learned to ride a bicycle, he was there. Once when I was just getting the hang of balancing on two wheels, he pushed me off from behind to get me started. I pedalled off across the field, thinking that he was still supporting and pushing me. Then I looked back after a few minutes and and few seconds later I found that actually he had let go, and I was cycling on my own! He was so pleased, and so was I.
Like all good fathers, Pa continued to be there for us, even after we grew up. When Yang and I got married, he wrote us long and thoughtful letters sharing advice on how to make our marriages successful. Precious lessons drawn from his own long and very happy marriage with Ma.
After Ming Yang died, and especially before I remarried, he and Mama spent time with our two little children Xiuqi and Yipeng, then still infants, to fill the gap and help bring them up. They took them for walks after dinner every night in the Istana. He was not an indulgent grandfather, but a loving one. There is a photo of Pa with the four grandsons, who were then toddlers, blowing soap bubbles in the garden in front of Sri Temasek.
When I was undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma, Papa once rang up all the way from the Philippines. He was on some official trip. He called back and I thought it was something important. But actually he called to say he had arranged to send me some durians. He wanted to make sure I was properly nourished during my chemotherapy.
Pa was happy that all three children grew up to be successful and responsible people, contributing to society in our different ways. A few months after I became Prime Minister, he wrote me a letter on his Minister Mentor letterhead. It may be the only letter I will receive from him on that letterhead. It read: “These are mock-ups of my Christmas and New Year cards for the year 2005. The photograph after the swearing-in at the Istana records a memorable evening in my life. Have you any amendments or comments?” The photo was of me shaking hands congratulating him, I as the new Prime Minister and he as the new Minister Mentor and President S R Nathan looking. Naturally I replied that I agreed and had no amendments. He was proud of his son, but he wanted to do things in the proper way, as always.
He continued to teach us lessons in life even into his later years. We learnt from watching him grow old with Mama. She meant the world to him, as he to her. They delighted in each other’s company. After Ma’s stroke in 2003, he nursed her back to health, encouraged her to exercise and stay active, and continued to take her on trips abroad. He even learnt to measure her blood pressure using a traditional sphygmomanometer and stethoscope, and faithfully did this twice a day, everyday and emailed her results and report to her doctors. He would tell her: “Life is an endless series of adjustments. As you grow older, you adjust. Think how lucky we are and how much worse off we could be. Always look on the bright side of things”.
Mama’s passing five years ago was a huge blow to him. But the pictures of them together kept Papa company, to remind him of their 63 happy years together.
All his life, Pa kept up with his old friends – Yong Pung How, Chia Chwee Leong, Hon Sui Sen, and after Sui Sen died his widow Annie. As the years went by, their number dwindled. In recent years, he would occasionally host dinners for his tutors, doctors, his staff and friends, usually at Raffles Hotel, courtesy of Jennie Chua, in order to stay in touch and show his appreciation. And every fortnight or so Kim Li, his niece, on my mother’s side, would take him out for meals, and for a change of surroundings. They would go to Underwater World Sentosa, or to Changi Airport to see progress on Project Jewel or for a boat ride in the harbour. He enjoyed the outings and the company. A few other friends would join in, and take turns to host him – Wai Keung, Stephen Lee, Ong Beng Seng, Liew Mun Leong, Peter Seah, Robert Ng, among others. We are grateful to Kim Li, and to them.
I would also like to thank the medical team of doctors, nurses, and physiotherapists, led by Professor Fong Kok Yong, for taking such good care of my father. You have been competent, dedicated, and compassionate. Pa used to say that his father lived till 94 and his mother till 73. So if he made it to the average of these two ages, he would count himself lucky, and anything more would be a bonus. Pa was lucky to have such a great medical team taking care of him, and he enjoyed many bonus years, and we were lucky to enjoy him for many bonus years too.
For many years, Yang has made it a custom to host a family dinner at his home on our parents’ birthdays. On Pa’s 90th birthday, we had our usual cosy meal. I was taking pictures at the dinner table. Pa gave a radiant smile. I decided to soak in the moment and not grab my camera and scramble to capture the photo. So I do not have a photo but I have a memory that will be there forever.
Thank you to the Security Command team who have protected my father. You not only ensured his security, but were always by his side, round the clock, beyond the call of duty. You became friends, and almost part of the family. Thanks particularly to the SOs who served as coffin bearers just now, for carrying my father today, on his last journey. And to the pall bearers here at Mandai, who were the SOs, doctors and nurses, for doing my father this honour.
Thank you also to Papa’s personal staff, especially Lin Hoe and YY, who have served him for more than 20 years each. Lin Hoe, his Private Secretary, helped to take care of my father in the office. YY did much more than would be expected of a Press Secretary. She made the video you saw earlier, before the service started and it was a labour of love.
I would also like to thank my sister Ling, who lived with Papa in Oxley Road, and did so much to help take care of him. You were not only his daughter, but also his doctor, one of them. You were his close companion throughout. You travelled with him, watched over him closely, and made sure he got medical treatment in time when problems were brewing and before any disaster could happen. You took on more than your fair share of our filial duties. Thank you, Ling.
Finally, I want to thank the dedicated grassroots volunteers from Teck Ghee and Tanjong Pagar. You have served for many years on the ground, helping Mr Lee and me to look after our residents. Over this last week, you have helped take care of arrangements and guests at the private wake at Sri Temasek, as well as the State Funeral Service and this Cremation Service today. My family and I are deeply grateful.
When we are young, we think our parents will always be there. After we grow up, as we watch them age and grow frail, we know rationally that one day we will have to say farewell, yet emotionally we find it hard to imagine it happening. Then one day our parents are really gone, and so we are left with a sense of loss and pain. That is the human condition.
Papa had thought long and hard about this, as he had about many things. When preparing what to say today, I remembered that once upon a time he had made a speech about growing old and dying, to a gathering of doctors. I asked for it. Nobody else remembered it, except Janadas so that gave me confidence that I had not imagined it. We searched for the speech, and eventually after heroic effort, YY found it. Papa had made it to a congress of cardiologists, very long ago – in fact in 1972, 43 years ago! I must have read it at the time, and it left such an impression on me that I remembered it across four decades – or it could be I am just growing old and remembering long ago things.
I re-read the speech with delight. It was vintage Lee Kuan Yew – thoughtful, erudite, elegant, witty, but with a deeper point. Sadly, nobody makes such after-dinner speeches like that anymore. He titled it “Life is better when it is short, healthy and full”. He talked about cardiac health, decrepitude, the right to die, advanced medical directives (even though the term had not yet been invented), and much more. You have to read the full speech yourself, because it is impossible to summarise and it is well worth reading. But I will just share one quote: “Life is better short, healthy and full than long, unhealthy and dismal. We all have to die. I hope mine will be painless. As de Gaulle said: ‘Never fear, even de Gaulle must die’, and he did.”
Papa had a long and full life. He was healthy, active and vigorous, until advanced old age. He used to say that life is a marathon, not a sprint. Papa’s marathon is done. He went away peacefully. He will leave a big hole in our lives, and in our hearts. But his values, his love, and his words – these will stay with us, inspire us, and live on in us for a long, long time.
Farewell, and rest in peace, Papa.
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