Kwa Geok Choo
Co-founder of one of Singapore’s largest law firms
Kwa Geok Choo was a stellar student who topped the whole of Malaya in the 1936 Senior Cambridge examination. Then 16 years old, she joined a special class at Raffles Institution for students competing for the prestigious Queen’s Scholarship; she was the only girl in the boys’ school. It was here that she first met Lee Kuan Yew, who would become her husband and Singapore’s first prime minister.
In 1940, Geok Choo entered Raffles College where, to Kuan Yew’s consternation, she beat him in the English and Economics examinations. The Second World War interrupted her studies, and academic rivalry gave way to an enduring romance when the couple met again in the war years.
After the war, she resumed her studies at Raffles College in 1946, graduating the following year with a First Class Diploma in Arts. Meanwhile, Kuan Yew had left in 1946 to read law at Cambridge. Geok Choo won the Queen’s Scholarship and joined Kuan Yew in Cambridge in 1947 to read law.
They married while in Cambridge, and graduated together with first class honours degrees in 1949. Here again, Geok Choo had the slight edge – she did it in two years; he in three. She was the first woman in Malaya to get a first class honours law degree.
The couple returned to Singapore in 1950, and joined a local law firm. They started their own law firm, Lee & Lee, in 1955, together with Kuan Yew’s brother, Kim Yew. When Kuan Yew became Prime Minister in 1959, Geok Choo and Kim Yew remained with Lee & Lee, growing it into one of the biggest legal practices in Singapore. Geok Choo stayed in active legal practice for over 40 years as a very highly regarded and meticulous conveyancer. Kuan Yew would later say he was only able to pursue his political career because he had a wife who could be the main breadwinner.
Though she opted to stay in the political background and play the role of supportive wife, she was a founding member of the People’s Action Party (PAP). She was highly skilled in legal draftmanship, helping to draft the PAP Constitution, and later the crucial provisions that guaranteed Singapore’s continued water supply when Singapore separated from Malaysia.
A busy lawyer and wife, she raised three children, making a point to come home for lunch with them in their school years, and keeping neat files of photos and news reports of them as they grew up. Touches of her love for nature, birds and plants may be seen in the Istana grounds today, where she took walks with her children and later grandchildren. Comfortable with herself, she was solicitous of friends and strangers alike, putting them at ease with her kindness and warm smile.
A treasured present from Kuan Yew was a gold medallion inscribed 贤能内助 秀茁兰芽, a virtuous wife and capable mother nurturing outstanding offsprings. She passed away in 2010, after 62 years of marriage, proud of her children, deeply in love with her husband, and making a difference to many others in her quiet unassuming ways.
"Our society is still built on the assumption that women are the social, political and economic inferiors of men. This myth has been made the excuse for the exploitation of female labour. Many women do the same kind of work as men but do not get the same pay. Women and their families must be protected against… husbands who treat their wives as chattels and abandon their children and families without any thought for their future. We believe that women can make a valuable contribution to our political life. We believe that they can work with men in helping to remould the political future of our country"