The Singapore we know and love today owes much to the efforts of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew. May he rest in peace. #ThankYouLKY
Singapore’s founding father has gone gently into the good night.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who had been battling pneumonia in hospital for the past few weeks, passed away peacefully this morning at 3.18am. He was aged 91.
Condolence messages and tributes from foreign leaders around the world have started pouring in, all hailing the late Mr Lee as a visionary leader who transformed Singapore from a small colonial entrepot into “one of the great success stories of our modern world”.
As we mourn Mr Lee’s passing, let us honour his spirit with these seven lessons gleaned from his achievements and legacy.
1. Do not fear the unknown
Born in 1923 when Singapore was a British colony, Mr Lee saw the humiliation of the colonial power during World War II and lived through the tough years of Japanese occupation.
Influenced by what he saw during those years, he went on to read law at the University of Cambridge and graduated brilliantly with a Double Starred (Double First Class Honours) before coming back to become a lawyer and, eventually, enter politics. His dream was to make Singapore independent from British colonial rule and reunite it with the Malayan states.
To this end, he assumed a leading role in the anti-colonial struggle, co-founded the People’s Action Party, and was Singapore’s Prime Minister when it won self-government in 1959. He was also responsible for leading Singapore into merger with Malaysia in 1963.
Unfortunately, we all know what came after that: Singapore was unceremoniously booted out barely two years later.
Despite his personal anguish over the shattering of his dream – he famously cried on national TV – Mr Lee immediately set about tackling Singapore’s pressing problems: ridding the country of communists and racial riots, and finding a way to ensure its long-term survival.
An independent city-state may not have been in his plans, but he didn’t hesitate in facing down the unknown and blazing a new trail.
Notable quote: “I am not here to play somebody else’s game. I have a few million lives to account for. Singapore will survive!”
2. Find your Unique Selling Point
After the split from Malaysia, Mr Lee knew it was imperative for our vulnerable fledging nation to come up with a new economic model – and fast.
In a 2007 interview with the New York Times, he alluded to Singapore’s lack of natural resources and opined, “We had to produce something which is different and better than what [our neighbours] have.”
He decided to focus on the one resource Singapore did have: its people.
Today, our country’s prosperity can be largely attributed to our meritocratic system, which drives people to work harder and achieve more, and our proven track record as an international business hub that attracts foreign investments.
We are the third best in the world for our education system, and our country’s GDP is worth 0.48% of the world’s economy, an amount much higher than other countries in Asia.
Notable quote: “We knew that if we were just like our neighbours, we would die. We had to produce something which is different and better than what they have.”
3. Be a doer, not a talker
Many of the older generation in Singapore will no doubt remember Mr Lee’s charismatic presence and the powerful speeches he gave. However, the forward-looking statesman preferred to let his actions speak for themselves.
For example, he demonstrated his commitment to putting Singapore on the world map by making the difficult decision in the 1970s to move our international airport from Paya Lebar to Changi, despite recommendations of foreign experts to expand the former.
It was a bold move that meant writing off some S$800 million that had already been invested in Paya Lebar and a commitment of S$1.5 billion to develop the new airport. But years later, it proved to be a bold move that paid off handsomely for Singapore’s aviation industry.
A well-known realist, Mr Lee also openly derided superstitions as “utter rubbish” and fashion as “irrelevant”.
His practical ways even extended to his exercise habits: he gave up playing golf because he found it “a slothful game” that took up too much of his time without giving him the same “cost benefit” as running for 20 minutes.
Notable quote: “Life is not just eating, drinking, television and cinema…The human mind must be creative, must be self-generating; it cannot depend on just gadgets to amuse itself.”
4. Stand up for what you believe in, even if it’s unpopular
While respected and revered for his success as the architect of modern Singapore, Mr Lee was equally feared for ruling with an iron fist, insisting that strict limits on the media and freedom of speech were necessary in order to maintain Singapore’s social stability.
Throughout his decades-long stint in power, he was quick to use the draconian Internal Security Act to stamp out anything that smacked of subversion, and libel suits to tame the press and, on occasion, bankrupt his critics.
These controversial tactics have repeatedly drawn criticism from political commentators and international groups such as Reporters Without Borders, but Mr Lee remained famously unapologetic to the end of his days, saying, “I stand by my record. I did some sharp things to get things right – too harsh – but a lot was at stake. But at the end of the day, what have I got? Just a successful Singapore.”
Notable quote: “I have never been overconcerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader. If you are concerned with whether your rating will go up or down, then you are not a leader. You are just watching the wind…you will go where the wind is blowing. And that’s not what I am in this for.”
[Photo Credit: Singapore Democratic Party]
5. Mistakes are inevitable
Forward-looking as he was, Mr Lee was not completely infallible. There were a couple of notable occasions when his lack of tact sparked off widespread public outcry, such as when he advocated the concept of eugenics and hereditary intelligence (otherwise known as “assortative mating”).
During a 1983 National Day Rally, he urged Singaporeans to include more women graduates in the breeding pool, otherwise “[we] would end up a more stupid society…there [would] be less bright people to support dumb people in the next generation”.
He was to repeat the same contentious concept years later, saying, “You marry a non-graduate, you’re going to have problems, some children bright, some not bright. You’ll be tearing your hair out.”
Definitely not a comment you’d expect from a country’s leader, but hey, mistakes are part of the learning curve. To be fair, he admitted retrospectively that some of his political actions may have been “too harsh” and that he “always tried to be correct, not politically correct”.
Notable quote: “I have been accused of many things in my life, but not even my worst enemy has ever accused me of being afraid to speak my mind.”
6. Teamwork is vital
As strong and opinionated a leader as he was, Mr Lee made it a point to surround himself with people who were equally driven to see Singapore succeed. He and his Old Guard colleagues played pivotal roles in shaping the civil service and guiding Singapore through its troubled beginnings.
For instance, he cited an anecdote of how he helped smooth the path for his successor ESM Goh Chok Tong by convincing some of the ministers unhappy with the new governance style to stay on. ESM Goh, Mr Lee was proud to note, went on to serve Singapore for the next 14 years.
Today, his legacy lives on in what has been dubbed an “A team” of diligent and pragmatic ministers, led by his son and current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Notable quote: “You must have convictions [to be a politician]. What counts? First, integrity. Second, commitment. Third, ability. And forth, most importantly, a capacity to expound and carry people with you.”
7. Success requires dedication and determination
As Singapore’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Mr Lee’s political career spanned an astonishing five decades – the first three as Prime Minister and the subsequent two as the advisory Minister Mentor.
In fact, he recounted in his memoirs of how he had had to sing four national anthems in his lifetime: God Save The King when Singapore was a British colony; Kimigayo, the Japanese national anthem during the Japanese occupation; Negaraku, when Singapore was part of Malaysia for two years; and Majulah Singapura, the current national anthem of Singapore.
However you may feel about his career, though, there is no denying that the visionary Mr Lee had dedicated his heart and soul into building Singapore – and the results are gratifying.
In the words of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, “Today we mourn the passing of a giant in our region. Fifty years ago, Mr Lee Kuan Yew led a vulnerable fledgling nation to independence. Today, thanks to his vision and determination, Singapore is one of the world’s most successful countries.”
Notable quote: “I have no regrets. I have spent my life, so much of it, building up this country. There’s nothing more that I need to do.”