Yusof Ishak & Puan Noor Aishah’s 21-Year Love Story
In his public life, Yusof Bin Ishak was many things — Singapore’s first president, an intrepid journalist, and the founder of a Malay-language newspaper, Utusan Melayu.
Behind closed doors, however, he was a husband to Puan Noor Aishah and a father of three.
The two married soon after Encik Yusof became smitten with a picture of her.
When then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew called upon him to take up the presidential post, the latter agreed and moved his whole family to Singapore.
They left behind the quaint life they had built in Malaysia for a new one in the public eye.
Yusof Ishak, the 20th-century eligible bachelor
Before becoming president, Encik Yusof was involved in community work since he was young.
His father was a civil servant and a member of the Singapore Malay Union, where Encik Yusof eventually served as a youth leader.
As a schoolboy, he excelled in both his studies and sports at Victoria Bridge School (now Victoria School) and Raffles Institution.
Encik Yusof was in his late 20s when he participated in the formation of the Malay language paper Utusan Melayu in 1938.
He then worked tirelessly as its Managing Director — unfortunately, putting his romantic and personal life on hold until he was nearly 40.
The fated meeting in Penang
Puan Noor Aishah was the fresh-faced beauty who pried Encik Yusof away from his work.
All it took was for a family friend, HM Shah, to show him a photograph of her, and promptly after, a meeting was arranged.
At the time, 39-year-old Encik Yusof was busy running the Utusan in Singapore while Puan Noor Aishah was living in Penang.
Regardless, the former dropped his work and made the trip to his bride-to-be’s hometown, just to see her in the flesh at a public park.
Though they didn’t speak, nor did they exchange glances, Encik Yusof confirmed his feelings.
This was the girl that he wanted to marry.
The two wedded on 20 Nov 1949 and eventually had three children.
When Encik Yusof resigned from the Utusan, the family moved to Gombak, Malaysia, where they lived a quiet life as a family of five.
There, the former careerman then turned to growing orchids for a living.
The married couple moved to Singapore in 1959
The first of 10 years of relative privacy in their family life came to an end in December 1959.
That year, Encik Yusof pledged himself as Singapore’s Yang di-Pertuan Negara or Head of State.
He then became the first president of Singapore when the nation gained independence on 9 Aug 1965.
When then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew appointed Encik Yusof to take up the position, his family followed him to Singapore.
They uprooted their quiet life in Malaysia and moved into Sri Melati — a cottage on the Istana grounds.
There, Puan Noor Aishah asked the chefs to cook Asian dishes in place of the English menu. As such, they served rendang and epok-epok.
Described as a domestic goddess, she was reportedly the standard when it came to matters in the kitchen.
Wife remained a widow since Yusof Ishak’s death in 1980
Where her husband went, Puan Noor Aishah followed. They were always together at official events until the former’s health started to fail.
In 1968, Encik Yusof suffered a heart attack, rendering him less capable of carrying out his mountain of responsibilities.
His devoted wife then stepped up to take up some of these tasks — such as presenting the National Day Awards.
When Yusof Ishak passed away in 1970, Parliament honoured Puan Noor Aishah’s contributions by voting to pay her a pension for life.
Singapore’s first First Lady & her life with Yusof Ishak
Singapore’s first president is still survived by his wife, who is now 90 years old in 2023, and his three children.
Puan Noor Aishah was the main subject of a book published in 2017 titled Puan Noor Aishah: Singapore’s First Lady.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke highly of her character at the book launch.
Despite having been the first lady at only 26 years old, she handled the position with grace and poise.
Hopefully, her contributions, alongside her husband’s, will continue to live on in the years to come.
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Featured image adapted from World Scientific Singapore on Facebook.
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