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Lee Bee Wah grateful for teacher who persuaded parents to let her continue education in P5

Mothership logo Mothership 14/1/2022 Karen Lui
© Provided by Mothership

Unlike previous "Hear U Out" guests, Lee Bee Wah is neither a Mediacorp artiste nor a social media influencer.

However, the former Member of Parliament (MP) of Nee Soon GRC has amassed her own set of ardent fans during her political career.

In the latest episode with host Quan Yi Fong, the 61-year-old gave viewers a glimpse of her early life in Malaysia.

Screen shot via meWATCH. © Provided by Mothership Screen shot via meWATCH.

Lunch was not always available

Born to two rubber tappers, Lee grew up in a village in Melaka as the eldest of eight children.

As her parents were very busy, she was entrusted with the responsibility of disciplining her siblings, with the youngest being 18 years apart.

In addition, she had to also wake up at 4am or 5am to go rubber tapping before making her way to school.

Rubber tapping involves slicing a groove into the bark of the tree with a hooked knife to facilitate latex collection from a rubber tree.

Upon returning home from school, she'd look for porridge in the kitchen.

If porridge was available, she'd eat it with light or dark soy sauce, or chilli, explaining that this is why she has to eat everything with chilli up till today.

Caption translates as "Skip a meal." Screen shot via meWATCH. © Provided by Mothership Caption translates as "Skip a meal." Screen shot via meWATCH.

"If there were no porridge, I'd have to wait until dinnertime," she said, which meant that she would starve in the afternoon.

She explained that if there were enough rice, her mother would prepare it for their lunch.

If not, there'll only be one meal that day, which is dinner.

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Lee Bee Wah (@leebeewah_huajie)

Lee also revealed that regardless of food availability, the family had to collect the latex from the cups in the rubber plantation in the afternoon to speed up the rubber tapping process the next day.

According to Lee, the rubber plantation was around 12 acres (around 6.5 football fields) in size, and they'd clear six acres each day.

Lee holding a rubber seed. Photo via Lee Bee Wah's Instagram page. © Provided by Mothership Lee holding a rubber seed. Photo via Lee Bee Wah's Instagram page.

Almost forced to quit school

Lee disclosed that her fourth brother was born when she was in Primary 5.

Her parents had asked her to drop out of school in order to babysit her newborn baby brother, so she stopped attending classes for several days.

However, she could not take it and eventually ran back to school and cried to her English language teacher, Ng, about her predicament.

Ng and her husband then drove down to the rubber plantation to persuade Lee's parents to let her return to school, promising that they'll help her apply for a bursary.

"I must thank Mr and Mrs Ng because they managed to persuade my parents. Otherwise, I wouldn't be where I am today."

Caption translates as 'Thanking former teacher, allowing her to resume her studies". Screen shot via meWATCH. © Provided by Mothership Caption translates as 'Thanking former teacher, allowing her to resume her studies". Screen shot via meWATCH.

Lee added that her parents' main concern with letting her continue schooling was financial constraints.

Hence, she told them she would work part-time while she continued studying, and thus became a tuition teacher while she was still in primary school.

However, tutoring the children in her village did not command very high fees, so Lee had to juggle additional jobs for more money.

These jobs were clearing out the weeds from the rubber plantations (and "sub-contracting" some of it to her younger siblings), as well as preparing goreng pisang (fried banana), goreng keledek (fried sweet potato), and ice batu (popsicles) and selling them at a nearby factory.

Teacher saves the day again

In secondary school, Lee had to take a national examination, the Lower Certificate of Education (LCE), at the end of Form 3.

She knew that the examination was important, but living in a house with many siblings and parents who would occasionally squabble over financial matters could potentially hinder her revision.

Hence, she informed her parents that she'd like to move out of the house, to which her mother strongly objected.

Lee's mother was concerned that if Lee was gone, there would be no one to look after the younger children.

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Lee Bee Wah (@leebeewah_huajie)

Determined to achieve good grades for her examination, Lee approached Ng again and rented a room from her, as the latter lived near her secondary school in the Melaka city area.

In order to pay for the rent and utilities, Lee continued working as a tuition teacher.

Lee lived as Ng's tenant until Form 5, which was when her classmate's mother invited Lee to stay with her daughter and help her with her studies in exchange for free boarding and food.

Despite the difficulties she faced back then, Lee insisted she was very happy as she encountered many benefactors, made a lot of friends, and was not worried over her limited finances.

"I believed that as long as I was willing to work hard and not give up, I'd be able to give my family a better life one day," she said.

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Lee Bee Wah (@leebeewah_huajie)


Younger brother asked her to build better toilets

Lee shared an anecdote about how her family and living environment contributed to her decision to major in civil engineering.

Her choice of major was mostly inspired by her pre-university Mathematics teacher, Siak.

In addition, her experience of growing up in a village with latrines located outside the houses also pushed her to study engineering.

According to Lee, the latrines consisted of pits and moveable cubicles, which were smelly and not very hygienic.

In times of heavy downpour, water would get accumulated in the latrines.

Lee describing how smelly the latrines were. Screen shot via meWATCH. © Provided by Mothership Lee describing how smelly the latrines were. Screen shot via meWATCH.

Lee recalled her younger brother asking her if she could build better toilets since she was studying engineering.

"I said, 'Of course, not just toilets, better houses and roads can also be constructed."

You can check out more of Lee's memorable moments from her parliament days here:


Top images via meWATCH.

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