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Tan Swie Hian’s impressions of political giant Mr Lee Kuan Yew

Why the celebrated artist so admires the late Mr & Mrs Lee.

When the editor of local Chinese newspaper Shin Min Daily News called Tan on 19 March to write an elegiac couplet, Tan spent days and nights refining it, finally sending the copy on the evening of the 22nd. The next morning, news of Lee Kuan Yew’s passing broke.

The couplet was, however, not Tan’s first tribute to Lee. “Based on a black-and-white photograph of Lee Kuan Yew and Kwa Geok Choo taken circa 1946 within the campus of Cambridge University, I started working on a portrait of the lovers, A Couple, on Valentine’s Day in 2009.” The oil, acrylic and ink piece took five years to do – but was almost destroyed in the fire of 2013, which broke out in a unit a door away from Tan’s at the Telok Kurau Studios.
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“A Couple was among the paintings I salvaged from the fire but it was quiet badly damaged by the water from the firefighters. I continued to toil over the piece that had gone through the baptism of water and fire. I inscribed on the painting a poem I wrote in Chinese and English when Mrs Lee passed away in October 2010 in her memory. And I added two Vanda Miss Joaquim Orchids with a twinned stem by her side and some lightly red-tinted shapes around the three sides of the work to reminisce about the collectors’ seals from different generations used to be imprinted on a long-standing work showing endorsement, appreciation and love.”

“They are the couple I admire most in Singapore. He is a great man and she a great lady. Once she said ‘I am a traditional wife who is one step behind my husband.’ The social custom she follows is a thing of beauty. Mrs Lee was a woman of great intelligence – LKY said himself: it was she who told him to make his speeches easy to understand, free of political parlance that is long and difficult to comprehend – and she chose to walk behind him simply because he is her husband. In life some times you have to make a certain gesture to complete the image – and she understood that.”

During his days at the French Embassy, Tan also had fleeting encounters with Lee: “Once I took a photographer for (French national daily) Le Figaro to his office, and he asked how long the session would take and was told an estimation of 15 minutes. He said: ‘You came all the way here, take your time!’ The photographer later told me that of the many heads of state he has shot, there was none like him.”

Lee left an impression in other ways: when his 2001 monograph sponsored by National Arts Council was published, Tan sent a copy each to prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, then senior minister Lee Kuan Yew and then president S.R. Nathan. “Lee was the first to send back a note of thanks (picture below), in just a week’s time,” he recalls, showing us a framed note. “I donate all my belongings to the state, all except for this.”

Lee Kuan Yew's note to Tan Siew Hian