The rickshaw puller who saved Lee Kuan Yew

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Mr Koh Teong Koo with his wife, Madam Sit Chu Song, photographed with their eldest son Ko Ming Chiu in a photo taken in the 1940s.

Trishaw rider Koh Teong Koo pedals steadily down Oxley Road, pulling up at No. 38, the home of Singapore’s prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

A group of his friends trail in a car from a safe distance, expecting him to be turned away by the Gurkha guards at the gate. None of them believes his story that he regularly visits the home of Singapore’s most powerful man.

Then, to everyone’s surprise, the gates are opened and Mr Koh cycles right in.

It turns out their coffee shop buddy is no ordinary trishaw rider, but the only one in 1970s Singapore with close ties to the Lee family.

It is a story the late Mr Koh’s surviving friends relate with relish. What his friends did not know either, was that the Lees always described Mr Koh as the man who saved Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s life during World War II.

His story began in 1934 when he arrived in Singapore from Fujian province in China at the age of 22. Like many of his kinsmen from the Hock Chia dialect group, he became a rickshaw puller.

In 1937, a Peranakan housewife, Madam Chua Jim Neo, got him to start taking her four sons and daughter to school by rickshaw. Mr Lee Kuan Yew was her eldest.

Said Mr Lee’s youngest brother, Dr Lee Suan Yew: “Imagine that, one man pulling at least four of us at one go. You have to be very strong to do that.”

Mr Koh also put his green thumb to work, growing sweet potatoes and cucumbers in the Lees’ backyard at Norfolk Road, in the Farrer Park area, where they lived until 1942. “Teong Koo also taught me how to rear chickens and ducks,” recalled Dr Lee.

But to the Lees, Mr Koh is best remembered for taking care of Mr Lee when it mattered the most – when the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942.

By then, the family had moved to their grandfather’s home in Telok Kurau, farther from the city, to avoid getting hit by bombs.

One day, Mr Lee, then 19, and Mr Koh were checking their food stocks at the Norfolk Road house when they were ordered by the Japanese to go to a registration centre at Jalan Besar stadium.

They were to be screened by Japanese soldiers, who would decide if they were “cleared” to return home, or if they should be rounded up and taken away. Those who refused to be screened would be punished by the Kempeitai, the Japanese military police.

It happened that Mr Koh’s coolie-keng – the dormitory for rickshaw pullers – fell within the registration centre’s perimeter which was enclosed by barbed wire.

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