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Remembering Madam Kwa Geok Choo

 

Madam Kwa Geok Choo, who passed away on 2 October 2010, was among National Archives’ earliest oral history interviewees. In accordance with her wishes as stipulated in the interview agreement, her recording will be released to the general public on 3 October 2015.

In our oral history interview collection, there are several interviewees who spoke about their memories on Madam Kwa. Here are some excerpts:

Maurice Baker who was a RI boy who later became Singapore’s High Commissioner to India and Malaysia, recalled his impressions of her when they both studied at the Raffles Institution:
“She was very, very bright. She came with a fantastic academic record. I remember he [Lee Kuan Yew] was very determined to beat her in the exams. I think it was in economics. When the list came out, she was on top. He was really furious. Isn’t it ironic that later, he fell in love with her and after the war, courted her and eventually married her? Which is the wise thing to do. If you can’t beat the woman, you better marry her.

Geok Choo was with him right from the beginning. She is the saving factor I think where Kuan Yew is concerned.…. I think she kind of tones him down. And it’s a very important factor I think in his whole career, although you notice she is always in the background. But she is always with him. I think she is the leavening factor, the balancing factor…”
1

Madam Kwa is also remembered for her interest in music. Mr Benjamin Khoo, who was former Secretary of Raffles College’s Music Club, recalled in his oral history interview:
“I think it was Kwa Geok Choo herself as the President. She was in her third year and her personal interest was to me something very exciting…She had a personal interest in the first place to want to be part of the Music Club as the President. But her background in the Methodist Girl’s School would have already provided her with that association with music as all Methodist schools carried out a programme of music, which I think the Methodist Schools can be proud of.” 2

Mrs Jean Leembruggen who was Executive Housekeeper of Istana, 1960-64 recounted in her oral history interview:
“About a year after I came and joined the Istana, Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew had decided to refurbish Sri Temasek.  I was to liaise with Mrs Lee and the PWD. It was not a renovation. It was refurbishment - hardly any structural changes, it was an old colonial bungalow. So we worked together as a team and so that was really up my street because I liked doing interior decorating and Mrs Lee was a fine person to work with…She was always willing to listen to what everybody had to say. And if she liked something, she went with it. She liked pink, for example. So she went with a pink brocade chair and said: ''I think I like to have that in one of the guestrooms upstairs.'' So after that it was… the upstairs was very livable for State guests”.

“And Mrs Lee would come in the evening, about twenty minutes after Mr Lee arrived on the golf course. He would tee-off and she would follow after him, sometimes the children were with her. She'd come in another little car… I think it was a Morris Minor. And she would join the PM there and have their family time out on the golf course. She would knit while he was playing or she would dig out cowgrass! And well, be with the children and the children were able then to be with their father - the PM”.
3

Madam Kwa and her three children visiting a factory in Jurong Industrial Estate, 1964
Source: Singapore Press Holdings, PCD0191 - 067

Madam Kwa was among the pioneer advocates of Singapore woman’s rights. She publicly championed woman’s issues and helped make them a pillar of the PAP’s political platform. In 1959, she delivered a speech which was broadcasted over Radio Malaya. She said,
“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”. 4

Madam Kwa called for legal protection for women, supported removing gender discrimination from salaries and at the workplace, and asserted that women had an important place, not only as homemakers, but in public and political life. Many of the ideas she advocated in collaboration with other prominent PAP women’s activist at the time - Madam Chan Choy Siong, Madam Ho Puay Choo, and Madam Oh Su Chen, found their way into the landmark 1961 Woman’s Charter, which called for the practice of monogamous marriages in Singapore (unless it was part of an accepted religious practice), protected Singaporean women against physical abuse, provided them with financial protection in divorce, and gave them the right to live separately from their husbands. 5 This charter, won through the dedication of pioneer women’s activist like Madam Kwa, provides the legal basis for equality between husband and wife that Singaporean women enjoy today.


Madam Kwa was an advocate for equal rights for women and became a champion of the Women’s Charter which was gazetted in 1961







Extracted pages from the Women’s Charter, 1961

To view the complete Women's Charter, click here

 
Madam Kwa speaking at an event organised by the PAP Woman’s League at the Victoria Memorial Hall, 1960
Source: Singapore Press Holdings, PCD0688 - 0048

1 Dr Maurice Baker, Oral History Interview - Political Developments in Singapore 1945-65, Acc.000095, Reel 5.

2 Oral history interview with Benjamin Khoo, Accession No. 002911 CD 21.

3 Oral history interview with Mrs Jean Leembruggen Accession No. 002534 reel 1.

4 “Equal Pay: PAP will go Easy, says Mrs Lee - But it will see that women workers are not exploited”, The Straits Times, 9 May 1959.

5 See “Legislative Assembly Debates, State of Singapore, Second Session of the First Legislative Assembly, Part II Vol. 14, 24 May 1961 - The Woman’s Charter Bill”, also “Legislative Assembly Debates, State of Singapore, Second Session of the First Legislative Assembly, Part II Vol. 14, 22 March 1961 - Second Sitting of The Woman’s Charter Bill”.