2010/10/04

Singaporeans worry over Lee's health after wife's death

SINGAPORE, October  4, 2010 (AFP) - Singaporeans paid tribute on Monday to the late wife of founding leader Lee Kuan Yew amid growing concern over the elder statesman's own health.

Kwa Geok Choo, 89, died after a long illness on Saturday while her husband was under treatment in hospital for a chest infection following a working trip to Europe, one of several missions he continues to carry out each year.

Lee, who turned 87 on September 16, has not issued any public statement since his wife of 63 years died. The couple's physician daughter Lee Wei Ling, 55, was reportedly at her bedside.

Their son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 58, immediately flew back from Brussels and skipped an Asia-Europe summit starting Monday.

The public was allowed to view Kwa lying in state at the Istana government complex on Monday and Tuesday before a private funeral on Wednesday.

Lee Kuan Yew still wields tremendous influence as a cabinet adviser with the special title of "minister mentor", and serves as a global ambassador for the city-state he led to independence in 1965.

His counsel is now sought by foreign leaders and global corporations seeking lessons from Singapore's rapid rise from an economic backwater to an industrialised nation under his watch as prime minister from 1959 to 1990.

Singapore gained self-rule from Britain in 1959 and joined the Malaysian federation in 1963, only to be expelled two years later after a bitter row over racial policies and other issues.

President S.R. Nathan, a close family friend, paid tribute to Kwa's quiet but influential role in Singapore's history as wife to the republic's first prime minister and an accomplished lawyer in her own right.

"We send our deepest condolences to Minister Mentor, whose grief over her passing away must be heavy and immeasurable," Nathan added.

Ordinary Singaporeans urged Lee -- popularly known as "MM Lee" -- to take care of his health in an outpouring of support for the family.

"MM Lee, stay strong, take good care of your health," a reader who signed off as Jenny Tan wrote on popular portal xinmsn.

Yahoo Singapore reader Yuen Shya wrote: "To MM Lee, the father of our nation, please hang in there. We love you!"

But dissident website The Temasek Review said a growing number of its readers were urging Lee to retire and give up his official post following his wife's death -- a call likely to be ignored.

In an interview for an upcoming book, excerpts of which were published in the Straits Times on Monday, Lee said he was mentally prepared for his wife's death and indicated he would continue working whatever happened.

"I cannot choose how I'm going to go. I just carry on my life and that's that. If you start thinking about it, you will go downhill. Every day is a bonus, so let's carry on," Lee said.