The Singapore Story

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One day, after a tutorial on constitutional law [at the London School of Economics], I approached the lecturer, Glanville L. Williams. I had seen from the lse calendar that he was from St. John's College, Cambridge, where he had taken a Ph.D. I asked him about Cambridge and the life there. He said it was a small town whose existence centered on the university, very different from London. The pace of life was more leisurely. Students and dons moved around on bicycles. It sounded attractive, and I decided to visit it.

I went up in late November 1946 and met a Raffles College student, Cecil Wong, who had got into Fitzwilliam House, a non-collegiate body for poorer students where the fees were much lower. Cecil took me to see the censor of Fitzwilliam, W.S. Thatcher, who was the equivalent of the master of a college. He took a liking to me and offered to take me in that same academic year when the Lent term started in early January 1947.

Cambridge was a great relief after London. In the immediate post-war years it was a blissfully quiet provincial market town. There was little traffic--many bicycles, but only a few private cars and some buses and trucks. Most of the dons, the fellows of colleges, tutors, lecturers and professors, and even the censor of Fitzwilliam rode bicycles. I bought myself a second-hand bicycle for 8 and cycled everywhere, even in the rain.

For exercise, I decided to join the Boat Club. I had first to practice, not by going out on the boat, but by "tubbing" on the river bank: sitting in a stationary tub and being instructed how to hold the oar, how to stretch myself and pull it back, where to put my feet. After two practices a week for three weeks, I made it to a boat. On the afternoon of my second scheduled outing , a snowstorm broke and I assumed the practice was cancelled. I was severely reproached. Seven others and the cox had turned up but could not take the rowing eight out because I was missing. I decided that the English were mad and left the Boat Club.

At the end of June, Choo wrote that she had taken a Class I diploma. Toward the end of July came the best news of all, a cable from Choo that she had been awarded the Queen's scholarship [for study in England]. But the Colonial Office could find no place for her in any university for the academic year beginning October 1947. She would have to wait until 1948. Stirred to action, I puzzled over how to get her into Cambridge.

I wrote and asked to see Miss Butler, the mistress of Girton [a Cambridge women's college]. She was willing to see me, and I turned up at the appointed time. I told her that my friend, Miss Kwa, was a very bright girl, brighter than I was, and that she had come top of the list, ahead of me in Raffles College on many occasions. Miss Butler was amused at this young Chinese boy talking in glowing terms of his lady friend being a better student than he was, and intrigued by the idea that perhaps the girl was exceptional. That same day I cabled Choo: "Girton accepts. Official correspondence following. Get cracking."

She boarded a troopship in Singapore in late August. I was waiting impatiently at the docks when she finally arrived in Liverpool in early October and was overjoyed to see her after a long year of separation. We went off at once to London by train, and after five days there we went on to Cambridge.

After a few weeks of hectic adjustments, she told me she found me a changed man. I was no longer the cheerful, optimistic go-getter, the anything-can-be-done fellow, bubbling with joie de vivre. I appeared to have become deeply anti-British, particularly of the colonial regime in Malaya and Singapore, which I was determined to end. One year in London and Cambridge had crystallized in me changes that had started with the Japanese capture of Singapore in 1942. I had now seen the British in their own country, and I questioned their ability to govern these territories for the good of the locals.

Meanwhile, Choo and I discussed our life in Britain with an eye to the future. We decided that it would be best if we got married quietly in December during the Christmas vacation and kept it a secret. Choo's parents would have been most upset had they been asked; Girton College might not have approved; and the Queen's scholarship authorities might have raised difficulties. We were already mature, in our mid-20s, and we had made up our minds. Unaware of our true motive, a friend recommended an inn at Stratford-on-Avon as a place to spend Christmas and to visit the renowned Shakespeare theater. Once we arrived, we notified the local Registrar of Marriages of our intention, and after two weeks of residence were duly married. On the way to Stratford-on-Avon we had stopped in London, where I bought Choo a platinum wedding ring from a jeweler in Regent Street. But when we went back to Cambridge, she wore the ring on a chain around her neck.

We took our final law examinations in May 1949, and when the results came out in June, I was satisfied. I had made a First and won the only star for Distinction on the final Law Tripos II honors list. Choo also made a First, and we cabled the good news to our parents. It was a good cachet for the next stage of my life.

I was happy at the prospect of going home, but looked back on my four years in England with satisfaction and some pleasure. I had seen a Britain scarred by war, yet whose people were not defeatist about the losses they had suffered, nor arrogant about the victory they had scored. Every bomb site in the City of London was neatly tended, with bricks and rubble piled to one side, and often flowers and shrubs planted to soften the ruins. It was part of their understated pride and discipline.

Choo and I sailed home on a Dutch liner, the Willem Ruys. It was the best ship plying between Southampton and Singapore--new, air-conditioned, with excellent Indonesian and Dutch food, and wonderful service provided by literally hundreds of djongos, or Javanese waiters, dressed in native costume. It was a farewell fling. We traveled first class in adjoining cabins, and had a wonderful time--except when I got seasick in the Bay of Biscay and again on the Arabian Sea, and was reduced to a diet of dry toast and dried beef. Otherwise, it was a memorable journey.

We reached Singapore on 1 August. It was good to be home. I knew I was entering a different phase of my life. I was quickly reminded of its hazards. Although we were traveling first class, the immigration officer, a Mr. Fox who came on board wearing a natty bow tie, made sure that I knew my place. He kept Choo and me waiting to the very last. Then he looked through Choo's passport and mine and said enigmatically, "I suppose we will hear more about you, Mr. Lee." I glared at him and ignored his remark. He intended to intimidate, and I was not going to be intimidated.

While Mr. Fox kept me waiting in the first class lounge of the Willem Ruys, I popped out on deck to wave to my family--Father, Mother, Fred, Monica and Suan--on the quay with some friends. Choo's family was also waiting for her, but when we disembarked, we parted company. She went back with her parents to Pasir Panjang, I to Oxley Road. We parted as friends, not giving away the secret of our marriage in Britain.

Excerpted from The Singapore Story by Lee Kuan Yew, published by Times Editions, Singapore (680 pages). 1998 Lee Kuan Yew

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