Team Wildchild goes behind the scenes with playwright Ovidia Yu and lead actress Tan Rui Shan for a raw, honest, and open look at an upcoming play, Kwa Geok Choo: Singapore and the story of Mrs Lee Kuan Yew. Read on for a taster of the story behind this little-known trailblazer who lit the way forward for the young nation and generations of Singaporean women.
“One is not born, but becomes a woman.” — Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)
When I read Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming, I postulated that its publication was a way for Michelle to reclaim her identity as an individual. Published after the Obama administration ended its tenure, it granted her independence from affixes to her identity — wife of President and First Lady of the United States — which had previously taken center stage.
Similarly, as the wife of Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), the late Mdm Kwa Geok Choo’s raison d’être could very much be seen as defined by that of her husband, children, and nation. Despite her many contributions, little is known about Mdm Kwa, which leaves me wondering who she was as a person.
Enter Kwa Geok Choo: Singapore and the story of Mrs Lee Kuan Yew. This play, which has been on Director Goh Boon Teck’s mind for the past decade, premieres on 8th July. When she was first approached to bring the play to fruition, playwright Ovidia Yu faced many challenges. The dearth of information on Mdm Kwa aside, the daunting task of doing her justice was also on Ovidia’s mind,
“Everybody knows her; she is like an icon. She was actually quite a rebel for her time. What worried me was how we’d bring up that side of her when everybody has got that image of that stately old lady standing two steps behind her husband. She was a spunky young girl who broke a lot of rules.
For instance, in the old days, no junior colleges took girls. So Raffles Institution had to open up a special class for her. If that’s not groundbreaking, what is? She did better than LKY in some exams and he always remembers her as “the one who beat me”. Back then both of them got a scholarship to go to the United Kingdom for law [in] Cambridge, but there was no place for a local girl [from Malaya]. She was both a foreigner and a girl. So LKY went there and said, “you think I’m smart, she’s smarter than me”. He got her into Cambridge.
She was clearly good at fighting her own way up, she had to take her own exams, study on her own, everything; but she also made good partnerships and new alliances with people who knew her well enough and were willing to fight for her.”
Alluding to the sociopolitical context then, Ovidia added,
“It must’ve been scary too, [to have] everybody around you telling you to get married and settle down. And yet she did it. People would also ask her why she worked so much with men. Why only men? Because there were no other women lawyers at the time! She was the first female conveyance lawyer. She, her husband, and her brother opened the law firm so that she could work.
So you think that she was strong and pushy, but she was this girl who liked floral cheongsams, plants, poetry, nature, knitting, and she had a girlish laugh. She did not mind working any hours and was willing to do what it takes to get what she wants. Fiercely loyal to LKY, she wouldn’t have let anybody hurt him.”
When asked about the format of the play, Ovidia says,
“We realized you can’t portray her as it was because there is no “as it was”. Even in one person. That’s why we decided to do it from different points of view. It’s a Singapore story because it is told from the perspectives of different Singaporeans.
And it is akin to finding out more about your grandmother. You wouldn’t be here without her, but to you, she’s always been that distant figure, sitting in the chair or the ancestral altar. [Mdm Kwa] was there all along.
And now in this play, the focus is on her, she’s at the forefront. She’s speaking and the men are mostly silent, supporting her. Singapore wouldn’t be what it is today without her.”
Lead actress Rui Shan adds,
“There are many parts of her that we don’t know, that we’ll never know. There’s room for the audience to also interpret who she might be herself. And we’re just [offering a small] percentage of what we think she might be [like].
It is also such a moving love story. I was sitting on the bed when I first read the script, and I just bawled. [At this point, Ovidia gleefully exclaims, “Success!”] My husband was shocked and quickly asked if I was okay. Marriages like the one Mdm Kwa shared with LKY are so rare today.”
It is evident that this play is more than a singularly focused recount of Mdm Kwa’s life. Apart from giving her a voice, this play is also very much a love story that captures the devotion present between two individuals who were equals in every sense of the word — till death did they part.
Women Hold Up Half of Singapore’s Sky
Mdm Kwa played a part in altering the course of Singapore’s history and her influences came in both direct and indirect forms. From the Women’s Charter to Singapore’s Water Agreement, her overt contributions are in plain sight. Delving deeper, she also had to juggle multiple roles.
Apart from being the family’s sole breadwinner when LKY was busy with elections, she performed the double shift, which included raising the three children and tending to the household. Helping her husband with his speeches and memoirs, she demonstrated what women are capable of. And the sacrifices she made, for both the country and generations of women, have indubitably contributed to Singapore’s success.
Reminding us that Mdm Kwa’s “innovations” have become “institutions” for us today, Ovidia hopes this play would give the audience food for thought. Rui Shan also states,
“Equality is not about women being allowed to play football, but about males forming cheerleading squads to support the females. What was most striking to me was [that] Mdm Kwa doesn’t allow society to dictate how she should live or dream as a woman. And I think that spirit is very important now. Men should also open their hearts and minds.”
It is, thus, unsurprising that both women have had the courage to pursue passions that were considered unconventional by societal standards. Ovidia recounts her choice to leave an illustrious career as a medical doctor behind to chase her dreams of being an author, while Rui Shan shares how her family initially had reservations about her choice to devote her life to the arts.
Our interview wrapped. And the conversation that followed invoked for me a moment of solidarity, an unspoken bond of sisterhood as we commiserated over the woes of being a woman in Singapore.
Still, I was patently cognizant of other societies where women may not enjoy the freedoms we take for granted here. And I felt a keen sense of gratitude to the unsung hero who fought for us to be able to pursue our own paths, unencumbered by the fetters that previously imprisoned women in narrowly defined roles.
I’d like to raise a toast to the woman who helped expand what it means to be a Singaporean woman; to the woman who innovatively and rebelliously strived to pave her own way and in doing so, gave us the opportunity to do the same; to the pioneer, Mdm Kwa Geok Choo.
Catch Kwa Geok Choo at Victoria Theater
8 – 31 July 2022
Tue – Thu: 8pm
Fri & Sat: 3pm & 8pm
S$98, S$78, S$58
Cover collage by Sherryl Cheong