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Rickshaw puller helps LKY escape execution during the Japanese Occupation

The Independent logo The Independent 25/3/2019 Hana Otsuka
Lee Kuan Yew looking at the camera © Provided by Apple Seed Pte Ltd

Singapore – In light of the fourth death anniversary of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, Honour Singapore released a video tribute on Mar 23 (Sat) on “The Man who saved LKY.”

The caption reads: “If not for him, the history of Singapore would have turned out quite different. He was a rickshaw puller.”

The video starts with a description of what happened to Singapore when it fell to the Japanese on February 15, 1942, and how LKY avoided being executed because of his rickshaw puller Koh Teong Koo.

“About ten days after the Fall (of Singapore), we were told to collect ourselves in certain collection centres,” said LKY in an interview.

Dr. Lee Suan Yew, LKY’s youngest brother, shared how it was demanded of all the young Chinese males to gather and register at gantry points manned by the Japanese, adding that “Some of them will be sent by lorries to be executed in the Sook Ching.”

The Sook Ching massacre took the lives of 50,000 Chinese in Singapore.

When told to go to the designated location, LKY followed his gut feeling about not joining the others at the gantry point and replied with, “I have left my clothes behind.” He further evaded the Japanese by staying in Koh’s dormitory and lying low for a few days.

In an Oral History Interview in 1981, Koh recalled: “We were staying on the upper floor of my friend’s house. We were supposed to be there for mass screening by the Japanese.”

LKY remembers:“Second time I went out, they had changed people, and they let me through. Well I was lucky. Those who went on that lorry, were taken to the beach and shot. Would have been me.”

Dr. Lee emphasised how the history of Singapore would have been different if Koh didn’t help hide LKY during the Sook Ching massacres. He shared how his eldest brother had once had a good laugh at his mention of such a possibility.

The rickshaw puller

Koh Teong Koo came to Singapore from the Fujian Province in China in 1934.

He was hired by Madam Chua Jim Neo (also known as Mrs. Lee Chin Koon), LKY’s mother, to be their regular rickshaw puller to transport them to and fro school.

“He was able to use his rickshaw and actually run. It was amazing. Such as strong man,” shares Dr. Lee in awe.

Both brothers recall that when Koh knew the children were hungry, the kind man of humble means would — in an act that  “came from the heart” — give them a quarter-cent each to buy cut fruits.

Koh had told interviewers why: “For Lee Kuan Yew’s brothers and sister, I feel that I should reciprocate his mother’s kindness towards me.”

He recalled how Chua would give him bread and coffee for breakfast every day and rice, beef and potatoes for dinner. He believed in repaying kindness with kindness.

Koh asked for financial help from the family, took a loan and opened a provision shop. Unfortunately, he had to close shop because of the war. Koh took his share of the shop and gave it all back to the family.

Chua told Koh not to worry about the loss or repaying the loan for “Kindness will always beget kindness.”

There was a time when Koh fell sick, and Madam Chua took care of his hospital bills.

“If not for her help, I would have died during the Occupation and would not be here today,” shared Koh.

Dr Lee was the designated delivery boy and brought Madam Chua’s home cooked food to Koh in KK Hospital. It was then he discovered his life’s calling in becoming a doctor.

Later on, Koh would even visit Dr Lee at his medical practice to say hello. His staff knew that Koh was a special man in Dr Lee’s life.

“He has a special place somehow in our family,” says Dr Lee.

The rickshaw puller even helped the family rear chickens and ducks during the war. He also taught Dr Lee how to grow tapioca and sweet potatoes.

“He was so skillful. It’s amazing,” recalled LKY’s youngest brother.

Koh passed away in China in 1998, having lived a fulfilled life.

Dr Lee shared how Koh “really appreciated how we treated him, how my parents cared for him.”

“And we appreciated what he did for us, especially during the war years. If somebody does something good to you, you must honour that person,” said Dr Lee.

Watch the full tribute below:

How he won a bet with friends

After LKY had risen to become Singapore’s founding prime minister and Koh had gone on to becoming a trishaw rider, there had been an instance where Koh’s coffee shop buddy Ding Chin Hock had found it hard to fathom how Koh was close to the Lee family. So, Koh bet with his friends that he could enter No. 38 Oxley Road, which was LKY’s home.

With his friends following close by in a car, Koh routinely pedaled his trishaw down Oxley Road. When he stopped in front of No. 38, his friends thought the Gurkha guards at the gate would shoo him away.

With none of Koh’s pals having believed that Koh was a frequent visitor to the home of Singapore’s most powerful man, imagine their surprise when the gates opened and Koh continued pedaling as if it was just another day!

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