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Growing up in the Presidents' shadow

Their fathers and grandfathers are part of Singapore's history. While they are proud of their legacy, many prefer to be ordinary citizens. -myp
Reico Wong

Mon, Nov 21, 2011
my paper

IT CAN be hard to live with a famous name, as the relatives of Singapore's six former presidents would readily agree.

Many of them choose to keep a low profile or even go the extra mile to stay out of the public eye, even if it means leaving Singapore for good.

Small wonder, as many of them share experiences of being accused of leveraging on family connections, or even being exposed to security threats.

Growing up with an illustrious family legacy is no easy task, Ms Fatimah Imran Yusof Ishak, the eldest grandchild of Singapore's first president, told my paper in an exclusive interview.

"We were always expected to be better than the rest, be it in terms of academics or behaviour, and I think it was a bit unfair," said the 33-year-old. "It was often a struggle and I felt very restricted."

She continued to confront such challenges even after she started working.

Ms Fatimah, who has worked mainly in the public sector, said her colleagues would inevitably find out that she is related to the late president. And more often than not, they would label her a "white horse", that is, someone who enjoys privileges because of family connections.

Many also believed that she was stuck up, she said, adding that "I felt they were always waiting for me to make mistakes, and anything I did wrong would seem more glaring".

"It was very difficult to go anywhere in my career," she said. She added that her family members often felt that they were under constant scrutiny and many have chosen to move abroad.

Ms Fatimah herself will soon leave for the Netherlands with her 39-year-old Dutch husband. The couple tied the knot on Nov12.

Her main concern after she leaves is her 78-year-old grandmother, with whom she has a very close relationship.

"As a newlywed, I have a lot to learn from her. She exercised a lot of patience during her marriage to my grandfather," said Ms Fatimah.

Mrs Yusof Ishak wed her husband in an arranged marriage in 1949, when she was just 16 years old. He was 39, and an established journalist at the time.

Because of the large age gap and her lack of education, Mrs Yusof Ishak had to be level-headed and adapt to circumstances.

"My husband and I did not see each other until the wedding day," she said. "At the wedding, he told me, 'Don't be scared. I will look after you and our children'."

He was especially concerned about their children as he neared death, said Mrs Yusof Ishak, as he was worried that they would be neglected if she remarried.

"I said to him: 'Don't worry, our son Imran is already 20 years old. How can I get married again like this? People will see our son and they'd be scared to marry me'."

Mr Imran, who is Ms Fatimah's father, now works as a doctor in Brunei. His younger sister, Zuriana, also lives in Brunei, while his elder sister, Orkid, resides in Malaysia.

He fussed over our health 

Ms Maureen Wee Bee Neo, 63, the youngest of the late president Wee Kim Wee's seven children, said her family has settled comfortably in Melbourne.

The former market-research officer is married to an English banker. They have two children - Giles, 27, and Zoe, 25 - and they are not keen to work in Singapore.

"Whenever I joke with my daughter and tell her to go to Singapore and see if anyone can help her with a job, she immediately replies with a resolute 'no'," Ms Wee said with a laugh.

"My children are very proud of their grandfather, but they have their own strong principles."

Ms Wee would much prefer that people do not connect the dots between her and her father. But if they do, she would rather that they approach her directly with their speculations and not talk behind her back.

"I want people to take me for who I am, and not for who my father was. I'm my own person," she said. Her elder sister, Ms Wee Eng Hwa, 69, agreed. The civil lawyer said: "We don't flaunt our connections as Dad would have frowned upon that, but we're happy to acknowledge them if we're recognised."

She is proud to be introduced as the former president's daughter, especially if the other person has a nice encounter with her father to recount.

Though their father was exceptionally busy, he still fussed over their health, the Wee sisters recalled.

"Dad would buy us supplements, and even made us stand in line to feed us cod-liver oil and laxatives," said Ms Wee Eng Hwa. "The one good thing was that they were chocolate-flavoured!"

She added that their mother was very resourceful, taking care of everything from cooking to giving them their haircuts and tailoring their clothes.

Now 95 years old, Mrs Wee Kim Wee is enjoying her golden years in good health. She is well-known for her Peranakan cuisine, and though her daughters are all good cooks, they still turn to her for tips.

"Our parents were very natural and humble people, and they taught us to never let success go to our heads," she said. "We've passed down these values to the next generation."

An unusual dad 

At the memorial service for former president Devan Nair in 2006, his eldest son, Mr Janadas Devan, 56, said his father was an unusual person in many ways.

"He hardly ever corrected us firmly or harshly, except on questions of grammar," he said. "He spanked me only once, for being rude to a family maid, and then spent the rest of the day apologising to me."

Mr Janadas remembered the times when his father would read works of English literature to him and his siblings, and entertain them with a "near concert-quality" voice when singing classical Hindi and Bengali songs.

On one occasion, his father took them to watch a James Bond film. He thought it was a children's adventure story.

They were yanked out of the cinema about 10 minutes later when he realised his mistake. The family ended up watching The Sound Of Music instead.

"To this day, every time I hear Do, Re, Me, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do, I think of James Bond," said Mr Janadas.

"What he had to give us was so immensely rich, we never minded in the least that he didn't resemble the fathers our friends had."

A dedicated man 

The Sheares family has always been tight-lipped about their personal lives, but daughter Constance once described her father in a Straits Times report as "dedicated" and "ambitious".

One childhood memory she has of her father - who was an obstetrician and gynaecologist before he assumed the presidency - was of her and her two brothers trying to rouse him from deep slumber on Sunday mornings to go to church.

"We'd shake him and go, 'Daddy, Daddy, wake up, it's time to go to church'," she said.

"And he would say: 'You go. You have to learn to be good. I don't need to go, I do good work every day.' And he would go back to sleep."

The six former presidents of Singapore

-Yusof Ishak (President from 1965-1970)

Wife: The former journalist wed Puan Noor Aishah, now 78, in an arranged marriage. They had been married for 21 years before his death.

Children: Three.

Eldest child, Ms Orkid Kamariah, 62, is a housewife who lives with her immigration-officer husband in Malaysia.

Younger brother, Dr Imran, 61, is married to Madam Zarinah Mohamad and works in Brunei. His younger sister, Madam Zuriana, 58, also lives in Brunei, with her diplomat-husband.

Grandchildren: 10.

Eldest grandchild, Ms Fatimah Imran Yusof Ishak, 33, married her Dutch fiance on Nov 12. She is set to relocate to the Netherlands soon.

-Ong Teng Cheong (President from 1993-1999)

Wife: The former architect reportedly won the heart of his wife, Madam Ling Siew May, with his piano-playing when she was just 15. They were married in 1963, and often recited Chinese poetry together, according to a 2006 Straits Times report.

Children: Two.

Both sons, Tze Guan and Tze Boon, are trained architects. Tze Guan, 45, is the vice-chairman of Glowtec Environmental Corporation, a waste-water treatment company, which he co-founded. Tze Boon, 42, is Chairman of Architecture at environmental design solutions firm Ong & Ong. It was established by his parents in 1972.

Grandchildren: At least two.

Among them are Tze Guan's son, Justin, 14, and Tze Boon's son, nine.

-S R Nathan (President from 1999-2011)

Wife: Mr Nathan married his childhood sweetheart after a 16-year courtship, said a 1999 report in The New Paper. Madam Urmila Umi Nandey, now 82, was a for- mer teacher. Her Bengali family initially objected to their relationship, but event- ually gave them their blessings. The couple have been married for about 53 years.

Children: Two.

Son Osith, 48, runs Ostara Capital, a private investment-management firm. The firm has its roots in Orissa Associates, a business and trade-advisory firm which he founded and served as its managing director until 2008. Sister Juthika, 52, is the chief executive of the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority. She is married to lawyer Cheong Gay Eng.

Grandchildren: Three.

Juthika has three children: Kiron, Monisha and Kheshin, aged from 14 to 22.

-Devan Nair (President from 1981-1985)

Wife: He died shortly after his wife, Madam Avadai Dhanam Lakshimi, died from pneumonia in April 2005. They had known each other for 75 years.

Children: Four.

The eldest child, Mr Janadas Devan, 56, is an associate editor with The Straits Times and the director of the Institute of Policy Studies at the National University of Singapore. Son Janamitra, 54, is a vice-president with the World Bank Group. Youngest son, Janaprakash, formerly a businessman, died two years ago; he would have been 50 this year. Their sister, Madam Vijaya Kumari, 45, resides in Ontario, Canada.

Grandchildren: Five.

All of Mr Nair's grandchildren are still pursuing their studies, except for the eldest, Gitanjali. The 28-year-old is a corporate communications manager at a foreign bank in Singapore.

-Benjamin Henry Sheares (President from 1971-1981)

Wife: An obstetrician and gynaecologist, Dr Sheares met his wife, Madam Yeo Seh Geok, a trained midwife, while working at the Kandang Kerbau Hospital.

Children: Three.

Daughter Constance, 70, was formerly a curator with the Singapore National Museum and is married to a lawyer. Son Joseph, 68, is a heart surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre. Younger son, Edwin, 62, is a businessman.

Grandchildren: Fewer than 10.

Among the late president's grandchildren is Ms Christine Kaelbel-Sheares, who is in her late 30s. She is the executive director of VIP F&B Operations at Marina Bay Sands, and is married to a Frenchman.

-Wee Kim Wee (President from 1985-1993)

Wife: Mr Wee had been married to Madam Koh Sok Hiong, the daughter of a successful businessman, for 69 years. He was proud of his wife's Peranakan cooking. The couple clasped hands as Mr Wee heaved his last breath after losing his battle with cancer, revealed granddaughter Lim Hui Min at his funeral.

Children: Seven.

Son Bill Wee Hock Kee, 75, runs his own archery business. Among his six sisters are civil lawyer Eng Hwa, 69, who has her own law firm, May Oh & Wee; and Dr Wee Hong Neo, 65, who runs her own medical practice, Wee Medical Clinic, in Clementi.

Grandchildren: 13.

Dr Wee's daughter, Hui Min, 39, is a legal officer at the Attorney-General's Chambers. She was a former district judge and is a published poet.

Growing up in the Presidents' shadow
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