PM Lee Hsien Loong's speech at the launch of the book "Puan Noor Aishah - Singapore's First Lady".
A very good evening to all of you.
I am very happy to be here today for the launch of Puan Noor Aishah’s book. We would all remember Singapore’s first President Encik Yusof Ishak and his wife Puan Noor Aishah.
Encik Yusof became President under unique circumstances. Singapore obtained internal self-government in June 1959. This meant that we would henceforth have our own elected government headed by a Prime Minister. We would have a Head of State who would be a ceremonial, non-executive appointment, and would be called the Yang di-Pertuan Negara. The last British Governor William Goode continued as Singapore’s Yang di-Pertuan Negara for a few months during the transition, and he left Singapore in December 1959. With William Goode’s departure, Singapore had to appoint our own Malayan-born Yang di-Pertuan Negara.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew wanted a distinguished Malay as our first Head of State to show the Federation that Singaporeans accepted Malays as their leader, and to forge good relations with Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman of Malaya and other Malay leaders in the Federation. Mr Lee decided on Encik Yusof Ishak. This must have been around the time my family went to Fraser’s Hill for a holiday in early 1959, before the 1959 May General Elections, in which the PAP came into power. Encik Yusof and his family came up from Kuala Lumpur to visit. We were staying at Singapore House in Fraser’s Hill and they brought toys for the children, and my toy was a model aeroplane made of balsa wood, powered by a rubber-band, which could really fly. I was 7 years old and it was my first meeting with Encik Yusof and his family. Later my family visited their home at Gombak. I am not sure what the adults discussed on these occasions, but I presume Mr Lee must have talked about the impending elections, and Encik Yusof’s proposed appointment as the Yang di-Pertuan Negara.
Encik Yusof answered the call of duty and was sworn in on 3 December 1959. He continued as Singapore’s first President when we became independent in 1965. He discharged his duties with dedication and dignity, and stood for enduring values that underpinned Singapore’s success: meritocracy, multi-racialism, and modernisation. Puan Noor Aishah was by Encik Yusof’s side, and witnessed with him the tumultuous years of our nation building, racial riots, separation from Malaysia, and the initial difficult years of independence until Encik Yusof passed away in November 1970.
Their lives had changed when Encik Yusof was appointed Singapore’s Head of State. They had lived a simple and frugal life but overnight they became national figures and had to get used to living under the spotlight.
Puan Noor Aishah has witnessed how Singapore, after its tentative beginnings as a nation, has prospered over the last fifty years. PM Lee Hsien Loong
Puan Noor Aishah has witnessed how Singapore, after its tentative beginnings as a nation, has prospered over the last fifty years.
PM Lee Hsien Loong
Puan Noor Aishah was only 26 years old when she arrived at the Istana with Encik Yusof and their young family. She had to manage a large household and carry out official and ceremonial duties. It was a daunting task. She even hired a teacher to teach her English so that she could communicate effectively with Singaporeans and foreign dignitaries. But Puan Noor Aishah made all these appear effortless with her grace and poise, and she touched the lives of many with her quiet determination, humility and charm.
She also insisted that her family lived simply so that her children’s lives could be as “normal” and “regular” as possible. So Encik Yusof and Puan Noor Aishah chose to live in Sri Melati, a small bungalow in the Istana compound, instead of in the main Istana building itself. Sri Melati no longer stands today but it is where the Istana lodge is and we have some of our offices there. Encik Yusof and Puan Noor Aishah were down-to-earth people you could get to know on a personal level.
I used to play with their children, Imran (Baba), Orkid and Zuriana (Nyonya) at Sri Melati. In fact, Imran taught me to ride a bicycle, on his bike.
I still have fond memories of Puan Noor Aishah’s cooking, especially on one occasion when she prepared nasi ulam. She spent days collecting more than a dozen different herbs to make sure that she got the taste to perfection. I only had it once, but I remember it till today.
I am therefore very happy that we now have a book about Puan Noor Aishah and very honoured that she has asked me to do the launch. It will record for generations of Singaporeans her life story, the role she played, and her contributions to our early nation-building days. Reading her book brought back many memories of growing up in Singapore’s early days and I would like to thank the author Mr Kevin Tan, sponsors, and others who have helped to make this book project possible.
In 1967, Mr Lee Kuan Yew moved in Parliament for Encik Yusof to be re-appointed President. It was in this Chamber that he made the speech and he said: “it would not be easy to find another citizen and his wife to carry out their duties with the same poise and graciousness.” Encik Yusof was reappointed, but unfortunately passed away three years later in 1970. He did not live to see the development and transformation of the Singapore which he had played such an important part in creating.
But Puan Noor Aishah has witnessed how Singapore, after its tentative beginnings as a nation, has prospered over the last fifty years. She celebrated SG50 with us and she should soon see Singapore have another Malay President, if all goes well.
I hope it will be a President who will bring us much distinction and honour to the office, and will be as well-loved and remembered by Singaporeans as Encik Yusof Ishak.
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