Kwa Geok Choo, a pillar of his life for 62 years, passed away last Saturday at age 89 after being bedridden and unable to speak or move for two years.
Three days before her demise, Lee himself was admitted to hospital for a chest infection after a fall while on a visit to Moscow.
His words “without her I would be a different man” evidently referred to the past, but under the circumstances, they may well be applied to the present.
In fact, last week’s events could signal the end of the Lee Kuan Yew era now in its 50th year, if he decides to call it a day.
As the will-he or won’t-he question raged, thousands of Singaporeans filed to pay their last respects to his late wife, an obviously popular lady.
People were closely watching the ageing leader’s appearance for an indication of things to come. What they saw was not too reassuring.
Probably still under the effect of antibiotics to treat his chest infection, Lee appeared visibly weak. Two bodyguards were closely behind him, ready to help him if needed.
His words emerged slowly from lips that barely moved as he evidently struggled to contain his emotions. They brought tears to some people in the audience.
Lee sounded like a totally different man from the tough-talking, fearsome politician who led Singapore with an authoritarian rule that nevertheless made it one of the world’s richest cities.
The government and his doctors have not given any progress report on his health.
Many Singaporeans, especially those of his generation, felt sorry to see him in his frail, grieving state.
It evoked numerous appeals, including those from well-meaning admirers, for him to retire and take a well earned rest.
“Please Mr Lee, no more overseas trips,” a sympathiser pleaded. “You have done enough for the nation, time to take a rest.”
Some older citizens, who still have an unshakeable faith in Lee, are concerned that his exit could result in a political division within the ruling People’s Action Party and the country at large.
Whatever concerns people felt about a post-Lee Singapore were not reflected in the stock market, which appears to have accepted the inevitable.
The index continued to climb by nearly 100 points in the few days after news of his hospitalisation and his wife’s death.
Many young people and professionals, however, see things differently. They welcome it as a positive development.
A critical website reported that of the hundreds of messages received, more than 60% considered it a good thing if Lee were to leave. Some berated him in venomous tones.
The general feeling is that under the current circumstances, it will be unlikely for him to undergo the rigours of another election campaign.
“It’s inconceivable that without his wife by his side, Lee will have the fire in the belly to carry on as Minister Mentor,” said a varsity professor, who declined to be named.
And, he added, even if he really forced himself to go on, Lee would likely be a very different person. “A boat without a sail”, as a commentator described it.
Lately, he appeared to be more aware of his own ageing, and was contemplating more and more about issues of life, health and his love for his wife.
In a dialogue session with Moscow students recently, the octogenarian Lee said: “I am not in charge any more. My contribution now is like an over-the-horizon radar – (telling them) there is opportunity there or there is trouble there…”
When asked last month by an American journalist – “When is the last leaf falling?” – Lee, who seems no longer in charge of the day-to-day government, answered:
“I can feel the gradual decline of energy and vitality. And I mean generally ... every year ... when you know you are not on the same level as last year. But that’s life.”
On what would come next, Lee replied: “I do not know. Nobody has ever come back.”
He had also repeatedly said that he would not completely retire, and advised Singaporeans to carry on working as long as health permitted.
“I know if I rest, I’ll slide downhill fast,” he told the New York Times.
One concerned Singaporean sent an email to MM Lee and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, urging Lee to step down:
“I hope you (Lee) are magnanimous enough to face the reality (and not in denial) that you no longer are the man you were, and step down gracefully. You need not be an MP or be in the Cabinet to be able to contribute.”
A portion of Internet activists favours exerting greater pressure to persuade Lee to leave politics to the young.
“Old politicians will never give up power unless compelled by law or they die ... or are thrown out by bloody intervention,” said SgObserver.
Others disagreed. One surfer said the passing of Lee may not be a blessing for Singapore.
For one thing, he wrote, “the PAP may implode and result in an internal power struggle”.
“Secondly,” he added, “without doubt Lee is a very experienced politician, shrewd, cunning and resourceful, (qualities) required to survive in politics.
“How many existing members of Parliament in Singapore can claim to be able to come near him?”