by Wong Kah Wei
There is little that has yet to be discovered about Singapore’s late founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Books, articles, and even musicals have been written to that end, exploring his early years, his lifelong dedication to his wife, the late Madam Kwa Geok Choo, and the many turbulent years before and after Independence. Perhaps one less-explored facet of Mr Lee is his ethnic heritage. I was prompted to ask myself this question after reading the fascinating Great Peranakans: Fifty Remarkable Lives, compiled by the National Heritage Board (NHB).
Inspired, I went around the office, asking colleagues whom they thought was the most renowned Baba. A librarian, who had strong Southeast Asian knowledge, immediately shouted across the office, “Lim Boon Keng!”.
“Really?”, I asked. “Why not Lee Kuan Yew?”
She paused and looked at me. Before she could reply, another librarian, very well-versed in Singapore and Malaysia subjects, glared at me and said matter-of-factly, “Mr Lee is not Baba. He is Hakka. He has never said he was a Baba.”
This piqued my curiosity. Why did I think that Mr Lee had Straits Chinese heritage? Was he a Baba or not?
Thus I embarked on a knowledge quest that harkened back to my rookie-librarian days of research to find the answer.
My starting point was Great Peranakans, which contended that Mr Lee “never publicly declared himself a Peranakan, since his chief concern for the nation was to foster a collective sense of identity that would surmount ethnic divisions. Nonetheless, his wife said: ‘Both Kuan Yew and I come from Peranakan families, speaking no Chinese, not even dialect.’ ”
So NHB relied on a quote from Madam Kwa Geok Choo to confirm that her husband was Baba. But where did the quote come from? No source was cited.
My search started with looking for this source.
Googling would help but now, I heard there is a new kid on the block. One that seemed to have an answer for everything, and was on the lips of everyone.
So I asked ChatGPT, “Was Mr Lee Kuan Yew Baba?”
The response was a definite “Yes”. ChatGPT contended that Mr Lee’s father, Lee Chin Koon was “a wealthy Straits-Chinese businessman” and his mother, Chua Jim Neo “was also of Peranakan descent”. However, when I asked for historical sources to back this response, ChatGPT apologized and confessed that as “an AI language model”, it “did not have direct access to historical records and primary sources”.
How about secondary sources then? Five of these sources ChatGPT gave most readily. Digging deeper into these five sources, two did not exist, and two did not allude to Mr Lee’s Peranakan roots at all. Only one, Lee Kuan Yew: A life in pictures, said, “Born on September 16, 1923 to a wealthy Straits Chinese family, Lee Kuan Yew was the eldest of five children…” (emphasis mine). Alas, this book did not cite its source for that claim.
I guess ChatGPT is just a new kid on the block who needs some growing up!
So I went back to good old-fashioned digging through NUS Libraries’ resources. I finally found out that Madam Kwa did state that both her husband and she were from Peranakan families in an e-mail interview with M. Nirmala, published in Straits Times on 14 September 2003. (This article is not accessible in the public domain but is accessible via a newspaper database at NUS Libraries).
A research colleague also directed me to Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s eulogy given at his father’s cremation service. He spoke of his “…papa [who] did not have a good commandment of Chinese and came from a Peranakan household ….”.
Well, two immediate members of Mr Lee’s family have said that he was indeed Peranakan. Quotes from authoritative, original sources. But that’s not good enough. As a research librarian, one search strategy that we practice is to compare at least 3 sources. I set out to find one more source to triangulate this. And one more source I did find, in the form of another family member – Dr Lee Suan Yew, Mr Lee’s younger brother.
In the first issue (2015) of The Peranakan, Dr Lee Suan Yew talks about growing up in his Peranakan family. It was heart-warming to read about Mr Lee Kuan Yew as a caring brother, family man and “uhau” (filial) son, his favorite food his mother cooked and memories of his many relatives. I enjoyed reading this personal story the most.
It was very well that I had three authoritative primary sources to confirm that Mr Lee Kuan Yew was Baba. But my curiousity needs to be satisfied! I wanted to make one last push to see what else I could unearth. After much searching and browsing I found some interesting sources.
One was a photo from a brochure of the Straits Chinese British (SBCA) Association Golden Jubilee dated 1950. The photo showed committee members – including a certain Mr Lee Kuan Yew standing in the back row. Back in the 1900s, ordinary membership of SBCA was limited to “Chinese with British nationality” (Lee, 1960). Mr Lee was a former Secretary of SBCA. A 1960 thesis written by Lee Yong Hock titled A History of the Straits Chinese British Association (1900-1959) tells of a quarrel the President of SBCA had with Mr Lee on the post-war role SBCA should play. Mr Lee was by then Secretary-General of Peoples’ Action Party. Glimpses of this were mentioned in a Straits Times article dated 9 May 1955 titled Queen’s Chinese – by Lee which continues in another section of the newspaper. Mr Lee stated that “if SBCA did not understand the new renaissance in Malaya, then its influence will wane and dwindle into nothing”. He also declared that “We [Babas] do not wish to remain the Crown Colony of Singapore. We want to be part of a united independent Malaya.”
This last source I found helped me understand somewhat why Mr Lee did not declare publicly that he was a Baba. Also in this same article Mr Lee is quoted as being “only technically a baba and not one in spirit.”
While I had answered my initial question “Was LKY a Baba?”, it wasn’t so much arriving at the conclusion that satisfied me the most. I found myself doing what I enjoyed most in being a librarian. Back to the good old days of digging.
Images of LKY by Wikimedia Commons, licensed under public domain.