SINGAPORE: Former Senior Minister of State and People's Action Party Member of Parliament Lee Khoon Choy died on Saturday (Feb 27). He was 92.
Mr Lee, who served Singapore as a politician and a diplomat, entered politics when he was elected as the Legislative Assemblyman for Bukit Panjang in 1959. He subsequently lost his seat in Bukit Panjang, but was in 1965 elected as the Assemblyman for Hong Lim in a legislative assembly by-election. Mr Lee was later a Member of Parliament for Braddell Heights before stepping down from politics in 1984.
During his political career, Mr Lee started out as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Culture, and was later promoted to Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in the 1970s.
Mr Lee's diplomatic career saw him serving as Singapore's Ambassador to Egypt, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea, among other countries. He then returned to Singapore and retired from public service in 1988.
Prior to his involvement in politics, Mr Lee was a journalist with both Mandarin and English publications, including Nanyang Siang Pau and The Straits Times.
After Mr Lee retired from politics, he founded a property firm, Eng Lee Investment Consultants, in 1990. Mr Lee has also served as an independent director to Metro Holdings, among other appointments.
‘A MAN OF COURAGE’: PM LEE
On Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a condolence letter to Mr Lee Khoon Choy’s widow, Mdm Eng Ah Siam, that he was "deeply saddened" by Mr Lee’s death.
"Mr Lee Kuan Yew once described KC (Mr Lee Khoon Choy) as a man who 'had it' – a man of courage that did not melt under pressure,” PM Lee wrote.
“In the early 1960s when the PAP was battling pro-communist factions in the party, the pro-communists targeted KC. He received a letter with a bullet, a death threat. In 1961, thousands of Chinese school students staged sit-ins. They threw rotten apples at him and shouted, '李炯才, 进棺材 (Lee Khoon Choy, enter the coffin)!' KC did not buckle. He stood with the PAP and was loyal till the end," he said.
The Hong Lim by-election in July 1965, which saw Mr Lee Khoon Choy fielded as PAP’s candidate, was a pivotal election that decided the future of Singapore, PM Lee said.
“Tension was high between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. The PAP government of Singapore was campaigning for a Malaysian Malaysia. This was anathema to the federal government in Kuala Lumpur. The federal government was testing the PAP’s support. The outcome of the election would determine whether they could take over Singapore or kick us out of Malaysia. Fortunately, KC won in Hong Lim. One month later, Singapore separated from Malaysia.”
As Singapore's ambassador to Indonesia, Mr Lee also played a crucial role in thawing relations between the two countries after Singapore hanged the two Indonesians who bombed MacDonald House in 1965, PM Lee said.
"KC persuaded Mr Lee Kuan Yew to wear a batik shirt and scatter flowers at the graves of the two men in Jakarta. This conciliatory gesture enabled Mr Lee to establish a relationship with President Suharto," he said.
In recognition of his contributions, Mr Lee Khoon Choy was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1990.
After Mr Lee retired from public service, he returned to his “first love” – writing and painting, PM Lee said. He published books about Indonesia, Japan and China and his paintings were exhibited in Singapore and the region.
One of his books, Golden Dragon and Purple Phoenix, traced the history and influence of inter-marriages between Chinese immigrants and South-East Asian natives in the region. The book was launched by PM Lee in 2013.
“KC was always interested in where we come from. He said: ‘Every human being should know his own roots. A tree without roots cannot grow. Human beings are the same.’ Indeed, as we remember his life, we remember our roots and what our pioneers like him did, to put Singapore on the path it is today,” PM Lee said.
PAYING TRIBUTE TO MR LEE
President Tony Tan also paid tribute to Mr Lee on Saturday evening. Referring to him as a "remarkable man", Dr Tan said he first knew Mr Lee when he was elected to Parliament in 1979 and joined the Cabinet as Senior Minister of State for Education.
"Mr Lee was always helpful and readily shared his experience and advice on the workings of the Cabinet and Parliament," said Dr Tan in a Facebook post, adding that they both kept in touch after Mr Lee retired from politics.
"It was a privilege for me to have worked with him as a Cabinet colleague and Member of Parliament. His passing is a loss to Singapore and to many of us," Dr Tan said.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in a Facebook post on Saturday afternoon that Mr Lee was "a giant of our times".
"He played a key role in putting our relations with Indonesia on a firm footing in the early 1970s after Konfrontasi and the MacDonald House bombing when he was ambassador in Jakarta. May he rest in peace and may current and future generations learn from the past for a peaceful and better future," said DPM Teo.
Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan also took to Facebook on Saturday evening to pay tribute to Mr Lee, "a pioneer leader of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs".
"I recall vividly Mr Lee Kuan Yew explaining to new cabinet members the pivotal role that Mr Lee Khoon Choy played in resetting the strained relations between Singapore and Indonesia in the aftermath of Konfrontasi in our early years of independence. It was his deep appreciation of culture and history that gave him that special insight and tact that is so essential in diplomacy," said Dr Balakrishnan.
He added that whenever they met in recent years, Mr Lee displayed a "sharp and inquisitive" mind.
"We all owe him a great debt. May his soul rest in peace," Dr Balakrishnan wrote.
"Mr Lee dedicated his life to serving his country, retiring from politics in 1984 as Senior Minister of State and MP for Braddell Heights and going onto another illustrious career as one of Singapore's longest serving Ambassadors," said Member of Parliament Alex Yam in a Facebook post paying tribute to Mr Lee.
MP for Marine Parade GRC Seah Kian Peng, who looks after the Braddell Heights area, remembered Mr Lee as the first MP of Braddell Heights constituency. In a statement on Facebook, Mr Seah said Mr Lee would accept their invitation to major events held at their constituency when he could.
"We will all miss him. Thank you Mr Lee for your long and distinguished services to our country," Mr Seah wrote.
Mr Lee is survived by his second wife Mdm Eng Ah Siam, his seven children and 11 grandchildren, said Mr Yam.