Photograph taken by Larry Burrows (1926 – 1971), a photojournalist from Life Magazine
This week must be one of the saddest for Singapore. Our first and longest serving former Prime Minister – Mr Lee Kuan Yew – passed away on 23 March 2015 at 3.18 am. He was 91 years of age.
Better known by his initials LKY or Minister Mentor (MM) Lee, Mr Lee’s political and public legacy was legendary. Considered by many to be Singapore’s founding father, his imprint is seen in virtually every square foot of our tiny island nation – from HDB flats, schools, hospitals, roads, air and sea ports, to parks and other public infrastructure.
As I join my fellow Singaporeans in grieving for our loss, I couldn’t help reflecting on Mr Lee’s contribution to Singapore as an inspired and transformative leader. Together with his team of Cabinet Ministers and public officers, he led Singapore from being a sleepy seaport to what it is today.
What lessons can we draw from the life of Lee Kuan Yew? What insights can we glean from his leadership style?
If anybody had the heart of a lion, it would be Mr Lee.
Bold and audacious, he led Singapore through a period of political turmoil and instability during the 1950s and 1960s. Rising from the ashes of Post World War II Singapore, he placed big bets in Singapore’s future by suggesting a merger with the Malaysia.
When that deal fell through, Mr Lee did not waste much time moaning its demise (perhaps beyond that fateful scene captured for immortality on film). He took it upon himself and his lieutenants to rebuild Singapore. His team of Cabinet Ministers and public officers pioneered unprecedented policies in building our economy, shaping our public housing, and binding our community. Many of these were unheard of then in both the developed and developing world.
Working hand in hand with courage, confidence is the next ace in Mr Lee’s deck. With much aplomb, he ventured from task to task with unblinking confidence, even when the way ahead appeared mired in uncertainty.
Back when Singapore was still a 3rd world country, Mr Lee and his colleagues like the late Mr Hon Sui Sen went to the US and other developed countries to court Western MNCs to invest in Singapore. With confidence and much gumption, he persuaded these political and corporate leaders to put their money into a tiny tropical island with no natural resources.
Mr Lee’s faith in Singapore and his own team’s abilities was a key reason leading to our eventual success. Without that firm and unwavering conviction, he would have backed down when faced with obstacles or opposition.
Mr Lee was also known for pushing unpopular policy decisions that may ruffle feathers, but lead to a better outcome for the nation. These policies cover various areas like public housing racial quotas, population control, vehicular control, and so on.
Some would say that Mr Lee was a hard man. Indeed, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly and was well known for using “knuckle dusters” on his political opponents. However, it was his very same steely conviction which led to painful but necessary measures to be taken for Singapore.
With his eye fixed on the future, Mr Lee’s foresight was legendary. His long-term goal setting and planning helped Singapore to achieve many accolades.
The best example of Mr Lee’s long-term view is seen in our urban planning and greening policies. Thanks to his far sightedness, we are living in a “city in a garden” and are able to enjoy beautiful greenery just a few steps away from our door steps. Comparatively speaking, the quality of life in Singapore in terms of air quality, urban environment and road traffic is far superior to that of many other Asian cities.
Mr Lee also realised early on that Singapore cannot survive on its own. This led him to go on a global crusade for our “Little Red Dot” decades ago, helping us to expand our influence not just in South East Asia but Asia and the world.
A prolific writer and speaker throughout his long career, Mr Lee was a storyteller par none. Articulate and convincing, he concocted the right blend of words, phrases and sentences to achieve maximum impact.
The greatest example of how Mr Lee wielded the power of words probably occurred when he gave a series of radio broadcasts as part of the Battle for Merger. Through a series of 12 radio talks, scripted and spoken personally by Mr Lee himself, he was able to convince Singaporeans to abet his cause.
Many would know that Mr Lee depended on his wife Mdm Kwa Geok Choo to assist in vetting his speeches. A master of the English language herself, Mrs Lee worked in tandem with Mr Lee to produce stirring speeches that were not only simple to understand but memorable and impactful.
Precise and unambiguous, Mr Lee’s approach to work and life is a study in exacting diligence. His clarity of vision, mission and life purpose was unparalleled.
With great focus on what he wants (and do not want), Mr Lee pushed forward policies that had clear objectives. While not all of them were popular, with a few needing to be dropped or modified along the way, their end goals were crystal clear.
Beyond public policies, Mr Lee was also renowned for his clarity in thinking. Even at a ripe old age, his formidable mind was razor sharp and he never backed down from a challenge by a worthy adversary – be it an opposition political member, a journalist with a different worldview, or even his own Cabinet Ministers or senior civil servants.
A brilliant and eloquent lawyer schooled in Cambridge, Mr Lee’s charisma allowed him to negotiate and cajole with his international counterparts for a better deal for Singapore. His ability to inspire and motivate others were well known throughout public sector circles.
From the man-in-the-street to corporate leaders and academics, Mr Lee’s charisma allowed him to reach across a wide spectrum of society. Taxi drivers, hawkers, teachers, drivers, office workers, financiers, government leaders, CEOs – folks from all walks of life are captivated when he speaks.
Beyond the podium, one could also see evidence of Mr Lee’s charisma in the way he personally reached out to ordinary Singaporeans during walkabouts. He displayed a unique form of “tough love” which somehow resonated with the average Singaporean.
Tenacity and grit are qualities most commonly associated with Mr Lee. The man doesn’t throw in the towel easily, and remained relentless even when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Mr Lee has shared several times in his speeches that Singapore is his life. The man has poured our his heart and soul to our nation, spending uncountable hours thinking and implementing policies and decisions that would improve our lot. When he is latched onto a particular mission, he just doesn’t give up. He was also extremely disciplined, favouring a spartan lifestyle over the trappings of luxury.
Perhaps the best example of Mr Lee’s fierce loyalty and commitment is seen in his lifelong love affair with his wife. His dedication to her – and hers to him – were the stuff of fairy tales. Indeed, many consider Singapore to be a fairytale of sorts – a success story of a nation which started out with no natural resources, a little red dot that somehow rose to prominence against the odds.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew was probably the only person of his kind. I don’t think it is plausible for us to emulate all his qualities or to be a leader just like him.
As we remember his legacy, however, I believe that it is valuable for us to learn how he lived his life and led Singapore. What I’ve covered above probably just scratched the surface of Mr Lee’s leadership and management style. However, I hope that it has given us some food for thought, even as we prepare to get on with the rest of our lives and to honour Lee’s memory by working hard and being the best that we can be in whatever we do.