As we commemorate LKY 100, the centenary of Lee Kuan Yew’s birth, a reflective hush settles over Singapore. Our nation pauses to remember the man whose vision and leadership helped turn us from a “mudflat into a metropolis”.
Born on 16th September 1923, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, fondly known as LKY, was a beacon of resilience and innovation. His leadership style offers timeless lessons not only in leadership and governance, but in our own personal development.
LKY’s tenure as the first Prime Minister of Singapore is a masterclass in 5G leadership, embodying Guts, Gumption, Grit, Gravitas, and being Grounded. These qualities were not just the pillars of his leadership but the bedrock which modern Singapore was built upon.
Let us explore how these attributes were manifested in his life and leadership.
“You know, some people think: Oh well you know, we are a small place – they can put the screws on us. It is not so easy. We are a small place in size yes, geography. But in the quality of the men, the administration, the organisation, the mettle in a people, the fibre – don’t try. That is why we got booted out, you know.
If they could have just squeezed us like an orange and squeezed the juice out, I think the juice would have been squeezed out of us, and all the goodness would have been sucked away. But it was a bit harder, wasn’t it? It was more like the durian. You try and squeeze it, your hand gets hurt.”
Guts, often defined as courage and determination in the face of difficulties, was a hallmark of LKY’s leadership. He showcased his mettle through his audacious actions during Singapore’s formative years, standing firm against Malaysian, Indonesian and British demands even though we were a “little red dot”.
One notable instance of LKY’s guts came in how he handled the SIA pilots’ dispute in 1984. The pilots had gone on strike, demanding higher pay and better working conditions. LKY stood firm against the pilots’ demands, and eventually won the dispute. This showed that LKY was not afraid to take tough decisions, even when they were unpopular.
To embody more of this quality in our lives, we must be willing to take bold steps, even when faced with opposition. Let us draw inspiration from LKY’s fearless pursuit of what he believed was right for our nation.
“A society to be successful must maintain a balance between nurturing excellence and encouraging the average to improve.”
Gumption refers to resourcefulness and initiative, qualities that were vividly displayed in LKY’s efforts to grow Singapore’s economy. His ability to forge alliances with different countries and pivot strategies to meet evolving needs was nothing short of visionary.
LKY was always looking for new ways to improve Singapore and to make it more competitive. For example, when Singapore was first independent, it had very few natural resources. But LKY realized that Singapore could become a successful hub for trade and finance. He therefore invested heavily in education and infrastructure, and created a business-friendly environment. As a result, Singapore is now one of the most prosperous countries on a per capita basis in the world.
To cultivate gumption, we should strive to be proactive and resourceful, seeking innovative solutions and not shying away from making tough decisions when necessary.
“Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him, or give it up. This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine. I’ve spent a whole lifetime building this. And as long as I’m in charge, nobody’s going to knock it down.”
Grit, the perseverance and passion for long-term goals, was a hallmark of LKY’s leadership.
On the 18th of July in 1967, Britain announced the withdrawal of their troops from Singapore by the mid-1970s. Six months later, the deadline was brought forward to 1971, as Britain announced a total withdrawal. This was a major blow to Singapore’s defense, but LKY refused to give up. He quickly built up the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) into one of the most respected armed forces in Southeast Asia.
Another example of LKY’s grit is his handling of the 1973 oil crisis. The oil crisis caused a global recession, and Singapore’s economy was hit hard. But LKY refused to give up on Singapore. He implemented a series of policies to help the country weather the storm.
To foster grit in our lives, we must remain committed to our goals, demonstrating resilience and determination even in the face of adversity.
“I have never been over concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader. Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.”
Gravitas, a quality of dignity, seriousness, and depth of substance, was evident in LKY’s speeches, presence, and poise. His ability to command respect and convey profound insights was unparalleled.
LKY was a powerful orator. His speeches were well-reasoned and persuasive, and he was always able to capture the attention of his audience. For example, his speech at the United Nations in 1965 impressed the world with Singapore’s potential.
I recalled attending an event a long time ago when he was the Guest Of Honour (GOH). Even though he was already in his 80s and frail, you could pulpably sense his presence the moment he entered the room. It grew silent and everybody looked towards his direction, nodding to greet this giant of a man.
To develop gravitas, we should carry ourselves with grace and polish, speak with intent (without rushing), and maintain a dignified presence when dealing with others.
“We are pragmatists. We don’t stick to any ideology. Does it work? Let’s try it, and if it does work, fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one. We are not enamored with any ideology.”
Being grounded, characterized by a realistic and sensible approach, was a cornerstone of LKY’s leadership. His consistent engagement with the community, including dialogue sessions with university undergraduates, showcased his commitment to staying connected with the ground realities.
LKY would often go for walks in public housing estates to interact with residents and to learn about their problems. He also Lmet regularly with religious leaders to learn about their concerns and to build bridges between different religious communities.
He once remarked, “I always represent the views of the silent majority of the people.” This illustrates his dedication to representing the needs and aspirations of the common man.
To be more grounded, we should actively seek to understand and empathize with the experiences and perspectives of others, fostering a community that is rooted in reality and mutual respect.
Lee Kuan Yew was the ultimate 5G leader. He had guts, gumption, grit, gravitas, and groundedness. These qualities allowed him to lead Singapore to achieve remarkable success.
LKY’s legacy continues to inspire people around the world, and his leadership lessons are still relevant today.