In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times dated May 9, 1993, Mr Lee Kuan Yew tells BERTHA HENSON how his family reacted to the news of Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s cancer.
The Lees kept up their public duties while coping privately with the tragedy before the news was made public last November. But BG Lee’s Cancer hit more than his family — it affected the Government, and Singapore.
As he underwent a series of medical tests and treatment, a nagging question for his family, as for Singaporeans, was: What if?
IT WAS 11.15 am on Day Four of Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s South African trip when his elder son, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, called from home with news that was to stun Singaporeans.
But Mr Lee was unable to take the call as he was delivering a keynote speech at an investment conference at a Johannesburg hotel. After his question-and-answer session, he went out to the coffee lounge where his personal assistant, Miss Wong Lin Hoe, told him that his son had asked that he return the call. With Mrs Lee, he went to a corner and called home.
“Loong was on the line and he told me that the biopsy showed lymphoma. That was the first we heard of it,” he said softly. “Of course, I did not know much about lymphoma except that it’s a cancer. We were both shocked.”
There was another reason why the news came “like a bolt from the blue”.
Three weeks before they left for South Africa, the doctors found three small polyps in BG Lee’s rectum. He had earlier complained of bleeding. The doctors said that they were benign, and left the operation to a convenient time.
The Lees went on their trip thinking that all was well. Now the polyps turned out to be intermediate-grade malignant lymphoma.
“That’s the way these things happen,” said SM Lee.
That’s the way these things happen. That’s life. Life goes on. The phrases would recur throughout the hour-long interview with SM Lee.
But though they might convey a certain philosophical approach to his son’s sudden illness, there was no doubt that it hit him and his family — real hard.
Tragedy had already struck BG Lee once, in 1982, when his first wife, Dr Wong Ming Yang, died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving behind their 19-month-old daughter and three-week-old son. But he had pulled himself together, entered politics in December 1984 and made his mark almost immediately when he successfully steered an economic committee to pull Singapore out of its first recession in years.
Theirs was a close-knit family which met regularly. Every Sunday, BG Lee, 41, his wife, Ho Ching, 40, and their four children would go to his parents’ Oxley Road home for lunch. His younger brother, Hsien Yang, 35, and his family would have dinner there at least once a week.
“They grew up at home, they didn’t go to boarding school. They didn’t leave the house until they went to national service and the university, my two boys,” said SM Lee.
The cancer threw up all sorts of fearful questions concerning BG Lee’s immediate family. If the illness turned bad, what would happen to the children? How would they be brought up and educated? How could the wife cope?
His mother, Mrs Lee, was upset by the news. She took it very much to heart and found the going much harder than her husband did.
For SM Lee, his experience told him that what was needed was a cool, rational mind to think through the possible developments and find ways to deal with them. He advised BG Lee to go through all the necessary tests and take the best medical opinion available.
SM Lee had to decide if he should cut short his trip and return home. The Lees still had another seven days to go in South Africa and were due to fly to Mauritius for a three-day visit after that. Both the South Africans and Mauritians had taken pains to prepare their programme. He decided against it.
“I’m not a doctor. What could I do if I were back in Singapore with my wife? Comfort him? Will that make a difference? Maybe psychologically. In practical terms, what difference does it make? Nothing.
“What can I do in Singapore which I cannot do in South Africa with a telephone? Nothing. So let’s get on with it. That’s the kind of decisions I have been accustomed to making. But I stayed in touch.”