Singapore

Puan Noor Aishah shares her unique story in a book

New biography of former president Yusof Ishak's wife launched

When Japanese troops invaded Penang in 1941, Puan Noor Aishah left primary school and learnt instead to cook and sew to supplement her family's income.

She peddled nasi lemak with her mother, took orders for embroidery and tried to pick up new skills, hungry to make up for the abrupt end to her formal education.

This eagerness to learn put her in good stead when her husband Yusof Ishak was made Yang di-Pertuan Negara in 1959.

She was just 26.

Her role as spouse of Singapore's head of state put her in completely uncharted waters, she recalls in a new 200-page biography published by Straits Times Press and launched at The Arts House by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

Written by legal scholar and historian Kevin Y. L. Tan, the book also contains photos of Puan Noor Aishah and her family, including those from her own private albums.

She said of her rapid adjustment: "I was not given any instructions or briefing at all; no guidelines... We had to learn and manage on our own."

She figured out the Istana's workings, and soon breathed new life into it by teaching its cooks - who were still preparing English classics like roast beef and pudding - her own recipes for local favourites like beef rendang.

She went for English lessons, organised events for dignitaries and became involved with voluntary organisations. And when her husband's health began to decline after a heart attack in 1968, she shouldered some of his social responsibilities.

PM Lee, who grew up playing with her three children, said of the book: "It will record for generations of Singaporeans her life story, the role she played and her contributions to our early nation-building days."

Since her husband died of heart failure in 1970, Puan Noor Aishah, now 84, has largely kept out of the limelight, and the book offers a precious glimpse into her eventful life.

She attended the launch with several family members, including daughter Zuriana and granddaughter Fatimah Imran, and told reporters she was grateful for the effort that went into the book.

Puan Noor Aishah: Singapore's First Lady costs $25 (before GST) at major bookstores.

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