Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore first Prime Minister died peacefully in the early hours of the 23rd of March 2015. The tributes have been coming in and Singapore’s cyberspace has been ablaze with comments about Mr. Lee’s leadership and how he brought Singapore from third world to first.
Now that Mr. Lee has gone, it seems like a good time to ask ourselves what were the things that made Mr. Lee the leader that he was. Many have talked about his brilliance and his passion for Singapore. There are comments about how he led us into independence and how we thrived despite all the odds against a small nation surviving. There are of course certain less charitable comments that pointed out to Mr. Lee’s ruthlessness and the way he obliterated people into bankruptcy and ruin. There were also comments about how he claimed the credit for work that was done by others, namely his deputy Goh Keng Swee.
There’s a certain amount of truth in all these comments and I believe that this enough reason to see how all his qualities made him the success that he was. Here are some of the key factors that I believe made him what he was:
Change the Dream!
Much is said about how Mr. Lee Kuan Yew led us to independence. However, the truth is rather different. Mr. Lee in his biography, “From Third World to First” states very clearly that independence was something that was “Thrust upon Singapore.” He even went as far as to describe the idea of an independent Singapore as a “ridiculous notion.”
The idea for Mr. Lee was simple, Singapore would be a thriving part of Malaysia. He saw Singapore as a city that would be the dynamo in a thriving country called Malaysia, filled with natural resources and space. You could say that Mr. Lee’s vision would be something like Dubai, a prosperous and thriving metropolis within the larger entity of the UAE.
However, this wasn’t to be. The Federal Powers in KL thought that Mr. Lee was too much of a trouble maker and kicked Singapore out of the Federation. Suddenly, Singapore was thrust out on its own and Mr. Lee and his team had to find a way of surviving. – The rest as they say is history.
Adapt yourself to the Market
It makes me laugh when Singaporeans make it a point not to speak Mandarin as a way of distinguishing themselves from PRC Chinese. Competence in English has served Singapore well but to ignore the world’s largest market in the world seems rather ridiculous.
Lee Kuan Yew didn’t believe in cutting of his nose to spite his face. If anything, .Mr. Lee proved to be exceedingly adaptable to market conditions, especially when you look at the way he returned back from England and found that his “own kind,” the English educated didn’t start revolutions or get involved in political activity, particularly against the colonial power that they had grown to identify with.
Mr. Lee had never spoken a word of Mandarin or any Chinese dialect prior to his return from studies in the UK. To him, it he wanted to speak “English like an Englishman.” Like the Peranakan (Straits Chinese), Mr. Lee’s language was English and Malay. To the Peranakan’s, the Chinese dialects and Mandarin were languages of the street not of the elite and therefore not something that was learnt.
However, Mr. Lee understood that if he wanted to get into power, he would have to reach the man in the street. To this end, Mr. Lee made it a point to teach himself Mandarin and Hokkien (Dialect of Fujian province, the province when most ethnic Singaporean Chinese come from) in the space of a few months. Not only did he learn to speak both languages, he found the ability to move crowds in languages that were not his own.
Mr. Lee knew what he wanted and he was willing to go beyond his comfort zone. He understood that the Chinese educated and Chinese speaking masses were the key to getting into power and so he did what he needed to do to reach them.
Give Brilliant People a Free Reign.
Much is now being said of how the real architect behind Singapore’s success was Dr. Goh Keng Swee. To an extent it was. Dr. Goh was the man who built up institutions like the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) and the Economic Development Board (EDB).
While there is no doubt that Dr. Goh did the work, we have to remember that government isn’t always about achieving the best outcomes but about achieving them despite the opposition to them.
When business people talk about results they usually mean who makes the most money. When politicians talk about results, they usually talk about compromise.
In the case of Singapore, Dr. Goh managed to do what he did without compromising his plans. The reason for this was simple – he didn’t have to fight political battles. His boss did it for him.
Mr. Lee had the strength of character to surround himself with highly brilliant people. He had, by own admission, huge rows with his cabinet colleagues and somehow, when they could convince them of what they proposed, he would back them to the hilt. The Lee-Goh team was good for Singapore because their strengths complimented each other. Mr. Lee left the policy details to Dr. Goh, but Dr. Goh needed Mr. Lee to keep the politics of his back.
It did help that his cabinet colleagues knew who was boss. Dr. Goh was a powerful deputy Prime Minister because he didn’t have ambitions for his boss’s job. Mr. Lee didn’t have to look over his back for a deputy with eye on his job.
Having a good team is not enough. You have to be able to utilize their talents and in this respect, Mr. Lee was brilliant. He was willing to invite ideas from experts like Dr. Albert Winsemius and to let competent deputies like Dr. Goh to run with things. Mr. Lee’s genius was in utilizing other people’s brilliance for his own end.
Stabilise the Home.
One of the most overlooked aspects of Mr. Lee was the fact that he stabilized his home. Mr. Lee did his job free of worry about what was going on in his home.
Mrs. Lee, who was Mr. Lee’s intellectual equal and some say his superior, kept a low profile. He was always the star of the show. She ensured that the children were well brought up and domestic issues would never disturb the man from his job.
The Lee family has remained low profile despite the power awarded to them. Unlike the Suharto’s of Indonesia, the family never allowed itself to be associated with the less pleasant things of the power they’ve enjoyed.
Lee Kuan Yew died a respected part of the country he created. When you think of how his contemporaries like Marcos (exile) and Suharto (house arrest) died, that is an achievement. May Mr. Lee rest in peace.