Kwa Geok Choo

Kwa Geok Choo (Chinese: 柯玉芝; pinyin: Kē Yùzhī; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Koa Gio̍k-tsi; 21 December 1920 – 2 October 2010)[3] was a Singaporean lawyer. She was the wife of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the mother of current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.[4] She was also the co-founder and partner of law firm Lee & Lee.

Kwa Geok Choo
Kwa Geok Choo.jpg
Kwa in 1985
Spouse of the Prime Minister of Singapore
In role
5 June 1959 – 28 November 1990
Prime MinisterLee Kuan Yew
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byTan Choo Leng
Personal details
Kwa Geok Choo

(1920-12-21)21 December 1920
Singapore, Straits Settlements, British Malaya
Died2 October 2010(2010-10-02) (aged 89)
Resting placeMandai Crematorium
Political partyPeople's Action Party (1959–1990)
(m. 1950)
ChildrenLee Hsien Loong (son)
Lee Wei Ling (daughter)
Lee Hsien Yang (son)
Parent(s)Kwa Siew Tee (father)
Wee Yew Neo (mother)
EducationMethodist Girls' School[1]
Raffles Institution
Alma materRaffles College
Girton College, Cambridge (BA)


Kwa was the daughter of Kwa Siew Tee,[5] former general manager of Oversea-Chinese Bank and Singapore Municipal Commissioner who was a Tong'anese on his paternal side who also had a Teochew mother, and Wee Yew Neo, Geok Choo's Teochew mother was from Shantou.[6][7][8] Kwa attended the Methodist Girls' School, Raffles Institution and Raffles College, and was a Queen's Scholar of Malaya.[9] According to Lee Kuan Yew's memoirs, by 1939, Kwa and Lee were both top students in Raffles, often coming first and second in exams.[10] They continued their courtship during the Japanese occupation when their studies were disrupted. After the war, Kwa resumed her studies at Raffles College in 1946 while Lee left Singapore to pursue his law degree at the University of Cambridge. Kwa was admitted to Girton College in 1947, after Lee petitioned for her, saying she was "a very bright girl, brighter than I was".[10] She graduated with first-class honours in 1949[11] and was called to the bar in the subsequent year.[12] She returned to Singapore and was admitted to the Colony Bar in 1951.[5] Kwa was one of the few female lawyers of the country then, practising at Laycock & Ong.[13]

Kwa married Lee in secret in London in 1947 and then remarried in Singapore on 30 September 1950. They had two sons – Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Hsien Yang – and a daughter – Lee Wei Ling. Her brother, Kwa Soon Bee, served as a Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health. She had three sisters: Mrs Cheah, a teacher at Methodist Girls' School; Mrs Yong, the wife of Yong Nyuk Lin; and Mrs Earnest Lau, who was also a teacher at Methodist Girls School.[14]

On 1 September 1955, Kwa founded law firm Lee & Lee with Lee Kuan Yew and Dennis Lee Kim Yew.[15] Kwa practised conveyancing and legal draftsmanship.[16] She retired from partnership in 1987 but stayed on as a consultant thereafter.[17]

During Lee's years as Prime Minister and Senior Minister, Kwa was frequently seen with her husband, especially on diplomatic trips and meetings with other foreign ministers. After suffering two strokes in May and June 2008, she was bedridden and developed locked-in syndrome,[18] being unable to speak, but remained conscious and able to understand speech.[19]

Civil and political workEdit

Kwa was a founding member of the People’s Action Party (PAP) and helped to draft the PAP Constitution. She made her first political speech on Radio Malaya on PAP's policy on women before the 1959 elections, advocating equal pay for women and for monogamous marriages.[20] She mostly stayed out of the political limelight throughout her husband's career.[21]

When Singapore separated from the Malaysian Federation, Kwa drafted the clauses in the Separation Agreement for the guarantee of the water agreements between the Malaysian state of Johor and Singapore. This guarantee was done via an amendment to the Federal Constitution of Malaysia.[22]

Kwa was also a pioneer advocate of women's rights in Singapore.[23] She spoke on family planning,[24] and supported legal protection for women. Together with other women’s activists such as Chan Choy Siong, Kwa's suggestions were included into the landmark 1961 Women’s Charter, which sought to improve and protect the legal rights of women.[23]


Kwa died in her sleep at home, following a long illness on 2 October 2010 around 05:40 AM hours SST.[3] She was given a state funeral and cremated at Mandai Crematorium on 7 October 2010.[25]


In 2011, the Singapore Management University named its new law library,[26] a new scholars programme and a top law graduate award after Kwa. In the same year, the National University of Singapore established a professorship in property law, a distinguished visitors programme, bursaries and scholarships in her honour.[27] Nanyang Girls' High School also unveiled a bust of Kwa at its Yu Zhi Library, which is named after her.[28] Her alma mater, the Methodist Girls' School, named their auditorium in her honour after it was refurbished in 2011.[29]

Singapore's Peranakan Museum currently displays Kwa's barrister wig on its third floor.[30]

Cultural depictionsEdit

In 2011, former Far Eastern Economic Review comic artist Morgan Chua released In Memory of Kwa Geok Choo (1920-2010), a book of sketches and political cartoons in tribute to her.[31]

In October 2014, the Madame Tussauds Singapore museum unveiled wax figures of Kwa and Lee Kuan Yew seated and smiling together against a backdrop of red flowers formed in the shape of two hearts. The statues were created based on a photograph that was taken by Kwa's niece, Kwa Kim Li, of the pair on Valentine's Day in 2008 at Sentosa.[32][33]

In the same month, Cultural Medallion recipient Tan Swie Hian completed a painting of Kwa and Lee Kuan Yew entitled A Couple. The painting, which took Tan five years to complete, was partially damaged by a fire in 2013. It depicts Kwa and Lee in their youth, is based on a 1946 black-and-white photograph of the couple in the University of Cambridge, and incorporates in its background Tan's poem written in memory of Kwa. Tan said, "I have always felt [Madam Kwa] was a great woman who, despite her intelligence and capability, was also a humble and dedicated wife." A Couple was donated to the National Library of Singapore in 2017 and is displayed at the National Library Building in Victoria Street.[34]

In 2022, Toy Factory Productions produced a play, Madam Kwa Geok Choo, a monologue where Tan Rui Shan protrayed as Kwa.[35]

Honours and awardsEdit

  •   Philippines: Golden Heart Presidential Award (15 January 1974)


  1. ^ "Orbituary of Mdm Kwa Geok Choo, 1920 – 2010". Archived from the original on 8 January 2015. Retrieved 8 January 2015.
  2. ^ "Kwa Geok Choo". Singapore Council of Women's Organisations (SCWO). Archived from the original on 23 March 2014. Retrieved 8 January 2015.
  3. ^ a b "Mrs Lee Kuan Yew dies at age 89". MediaCorp Channel NewsAsia. 2 October 2010. Archived from the original on 3 November 2010. Retrieved 2 October 2010.
  4. ^ "Goodbye Mrs Lee Kuan Yew (Madam Kwa Geok Choo), we shall miss you dearly". Mathew's Photography Singapore. Archived from the original on 13 July 2015. Retrieved 8 January 2015.
  5. ^ a b "The Lees make legal history". The Straits Times. 8 August 1951. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  6. ^ "Oversea Bank". Malaya Tribune. 17 July 1935. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  7. ^ "Commissioner resigns". The Singapore Free Press. 1 February 1949. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  8. ^ "记者与受访者相互扶持共成长:走遍古墓拼凑被遗忘过去". 早报. 6 September 2018. Retrieved 16 August 2019.
  9. ^ "Public service commission scholarships – History & Evolution – The 1950s". Government of Singapore. 2007. Retrieved 2 October 2010.
  10. ^ a b Lee, Kuan Yew (1998). The Singapore Story - Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Times Editions. pp. Ch 2–4. ISBN 978-9812049834.
  11. ^ "Law Degrees for S'pore Students". The Straits Times. 19 June 1949. Retrieved 17 October 2017.
  12. ^ "Called to Bar". The Straits Times. 1 July 1950. Retrieved 17 October 2017.
  13. ^ "Only Woman Lawyer in S'pore". The Straits Times. 8 November 1950. Retrieved 17 October 2017.
  14. ^ "The patriarch: Kwa Geok Choo's father". Veritas. Retrieved 8 January 2015.
  15. ^ "The Firm". Lee and Lee. Retrieved 17 October 2017. On 1 September 1955, Lee & Lee was founded by Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Kim Yew and Kwa Geok Choo. While Lee Kuan Yew went on to become the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kim Yew and Kwa Geok Choo took over the reins of the fledgling law practice and turned it into one of the largest law firms in Singapore.
  16. ^ Chang, Rachel (17 October 2015). "PM recounts legal legacy of the founders of Lee & Lee". The Straits Times. Retrieved 17 October 2017.
  17. ^ "The law firm Mr Lee tapped for political talent". The Straits Times. 17 October 2015. Retrieved 17 October 2017.
  18. ^ "Eulogy by granddaughter Li Xiuqi, 29". The Straits Times. 7 October 2010. The most terrible thing was when she got locked-in syndrome and could no longer move nor communicate.
  19. ^ Government of Singapore (1 September 2010). "Lee Kuan Yew's interview with Seth Mydans" (PDF). SG Press Centre. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 July 2011. Retrieved 2 October 2010.
  20. ^ "Equal pay: PAP will go easy, says Mrs. Lee". The Straits Times. 9 May 1959. Retrieved 17 October 2017.
  21. ^ "Kwa Geok Choo". Singapore Women's Hall of Fame. Retrieved 17 October 2017.
  22. ^ "Special Tribute to Madam Kwa Geok Choo". Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies. 5 October 2010. Retrieved 20 May 2011.
  23. ^ a b "Remembering Madam Kwa Geok Choo". Archives Online. National Archives of Singapore. Retrieved 8 January 2015.
  24. ^ "Family planning should be taught to young... even if abused: Mrs Lee". The Straits Times. 17 December 1960. Retrieved 17 October 2017.
  25. ^ "Heroine's funeral for wife of Lee Kuan Yew". Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Archived from the original on 23 November 2014. Retrieved 8 January 2015.
  26. ^ "Kwa Geok Choo Law Library | Singapore Management University Libraries". Retrieved 16 August 2019.
  27. ^ "SMU and NUS to Pay Tribute to the Late Madam Kwa Geok Choo". Newshub - NUS' News Portal. NUS. Retrieved 29 October 2014.
  28. ^ "Founder's Day 2011 and the Unveiling of the Bust of Late Mrs Lee Kuan Yew". Nanyang Girls' High School. Archived from the original on 29 October 2014. Retrieved 29 October 2014.
  29. ^ "MGS Names Auditorium After The Late Mdm Kwa Geok Choo". National Library. Retrieved 6 February 2018.
  30. ^ Khong, Swee Lin. "Holding Court Beyond the Kitchen" (PDF). PASSAGE. Retrieved 29 October 2014.
  31. ^ "In Memory of Madam Kwa Geok Choo". BooksActually Blog. Retrieved 29 October 2014.
  32. ^ Singh, Bryna (23 October 2014). "Wax figures of Lee Kuan Yew and his late wife unveiled at Madame Tussauds Singapore". Singapore Press Holdings. The Straits Times. Retrieved 24 October 2014.
  33. ^ "Kuan Yew & late wife immortalised in romantic tribute at Madame Tussauds". The Malay Chronicle. 23 October 2014. Retrieved 24 October 2014.
  34. ^ "Log In or Sign Up to View". Archived from the original on 26 February 2022. Retrieved 16 August 2019.
  35. ^ Boonlong, Pailin. "This local play uncovers the untold stories of Madam Kwa Geok Choo, LKY's wife". Time Out Singapore. Retrieved 2 September 2022.

External linksEdit

  Media related to Kwa Geok Choo at Wikimedia Commons