For most of us who had never met her, she was the lady by the side of the most influential and powerful man in Singapore. Little by little, over the years, we know a little more, and a little more about her.
With her existence, we glimpsed the human and familial dimensions to Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong. Through her, Singapore has its own timeless royal love story. One that has all the classic lifelong trimmings of a big heart and bigger sacrifices. And through her, we see, a privileged life notwithstanding, a model Asian wife and a model Asian mother.
As filmmakers, we try to breathe some realism into the characters of our movies. Studying human behaviour and comprehending some form of reality checks to their actions and words. For Mrs Lee Kuan Yew, most of us will never know the real person. We form our own ideas. Of late, we form more ideas from knowing her situation through reading interviews given by her husband who seems to be more vocal about her.
Reading beyond what we read, trying to reference her from people of parallel backgrounds and experiences, it is still an uphill task – to piece the pieces together for a better understanding of Singapore’s ‘first lady’. In this media age of instant information and intimate exposure of even the most private personalities, Mrs Lee may look you in the eye and say, “What you see is what you get. What you don’t see is not your business”.
What her husband, her sons and daughter said about her and her situations are the precious little anyone can piece together to know a little more about this lady. In recent months, interests in her, especially her health, has been on the steep rise. Who is this consistently quiet, poised and elegant lady next to the man who is the founding father of Singapore?
We all try to recall this person in the numerous significant and watershed events. We may or may not spot her in the crowd. But she was there. A silent witness of all events, and then some. What did she observe? What was she thinking? What advice did she give?
That she was a brilliant lawyer, a capable bread-winner, a loving wife, mother and grandmother are all documented. That she was a pillar of strength and trusted confidante have been well recounted. Was she a kind person? There is evidence of that. Was she a generous soul? There is also evidence of that.
If there was a movie, The Founding Of Singapore, she could be the unlikely female lead. How should someone brief the scriptwriter of this female character who will add the needed warmth and softer appeal to the story? The brief can start with this quote. She once said in 1976, “I walk two steps behind my husband like a good Asian wife”. She secretly married the man she loved in 1947 and married him again in 1950. Cheongsam-clad, she was a quick-witted conversationalist who loved literature, classical music and botany. She would have been 90 this December.
Beyond the stoic presence, is probably a heroine who can capture the imagination of a new generation – a pioneer in her own right. A witness to every political development of modern Singapore. Someone whose sharp observations helped shape the destiny of a nation. Someone who gives a dignified meaning to the greater lady behind a great man.
This brief will not be enough. The scriptwriter will need to ‘flesh out’ the character in ways that will be consistent and real to this sketch of a modest lady with the most immeasurable contributions. Many in Singapore are doing the same. Trying to know more about this political wife and mother – Madam Kwa Geok Choo, who passed away last evening with her daughter by her side.