Business & Leadership

Learn from Lee Kuan Yew – A Thinker, a Fighter and a Believer

© Vernon Chan

"One of the asymmetries of history, is the lack of correspondence between the abilities of some leaders and the power of their countries."

– Henry Kissinger

Regarded as one of the most influential politicians in the world. A deeply influential English education gave him rational, precise thinking, his innovative spirit brought Singapore to the summit, his perseverance, integrity and his iron-fist attitude won him the highest respect. A man who never stopped trying, he is the founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew.


Although situated in a critical location in terms of geopolitics, Singapore faces various obstacles including its small size, lack of natural resources including freshwater, and its population which consist of polyglot immigrants who shared little in common. However, under Lee’s leadership, Singapore became Asia’s biggest financial center, the second busiest port in the world and over-performed in various global indexes. Its people enjoy high GDP (ranked 3rd in the world in 2015) and a stable living environment. Behind all these achievement, Lee’s endeavor played a great part, as Richard Nixon once speculated: “Had Lee lived in another time and another place, he might have attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli, or a Gladstone.”


Having graduated from Cambridge with a first class honors degree, Lee returned to Singapore to work as a lawyer and advisor to trade unions. His solid and academic career started to gain attention and support via the anti-colonial protest. He founded PAP (People’s Action Party) in 1959, and it didn’t take long for Lee to grasp this city-state’s subtle relationships with Malaysia, Britain and China externally, and the surging tensions among races internally. Lee decided to look at the big picture and maneuvered to achieve the peace in Johor strait. To achieve a balance of power between Malaysians and Singaporeans, he took the initiative and reach out to pro-Communists Chinese to secure vital backing from Chinese-speaking Singaporeans. With his efforts, Lee became the state’s first prime minister in the 1957 election that saw Singapore gain a measure of autonomy.


Yet the journey to success was bumpy: the priority for Lee was to compensate for Singapore’s vulnerability. He decided to call a referendum to end British colonial rule and merge Singapore in to the Federation of Malaysia, which was formed in 1963. However, Lee’s passion towards finding Singapore a suitable international position met a failure when the Malay-leading Federation of Malaysia expelled Singapore in 1965 due to disturbances between Chinese and Malays in Singapore, and the concern by Malaysia that a Chinese-lead Singapore and its political power might change the status-quo in Malaysia. Weeks after the separation, Singapore achieved its independence, putting it in an ever more isolated position.


Lee described this as a moment of anguish and shed tears during one speech, as he realized that instead of reaching for allies in nearby cultures, Singapore needed its own identity. Lee began a series of reforms: diplomatically, due to the threat from neighboring countries, Singapore joined international organizations such as UN and ASEAN to increase recognition for its independence. Domestically, Lee went through a period of trial and error before he figured out that the most efficient method of lowering unemployment was to encourage foreign investment, from global corporations and financial institutions by setting low rates of tax, having a stable currency, and investor-friendly regulations.


In order to close cultural and social gaps, Lee put great effort into improving the education and social welfare systems. In addition the Singaporean government used various ways to encourage saving, ensuring the same standards of living for the future generations. Lee also created a Singaporean culture under multiculturalism by eliminating racial institutions such as Chinese schools and other monoracial organizations. Remembering the lesson in the 1960s, Lee was keen to avoid racial riots.


To achieve all this, Lee experienced countless challenges from difficult political isolation to deficiency in organic growth, whilst never stopping to seek out opportunities. Understanding deep down that a small country such as Singapore could never make it without forming alliances, Lee used his extraordinary negotiating skills to save Singapore from isolation and directly pushed it to the developed state in less than five decades. An admirer of Machiavelli, he imposed harsh punishment on crimes and made Singapore a safe and peaceful society. He was famous for being a firm believer in the concept of meritocracy. He built up a meritocratic system designed to select and promote political leaders of superior ability and virtue. Accompanied by well-paid salaries, the system assured that the government would always be under the leadership of an elite team.


Lee led Singapore from being a nanny state to a diamond in Asia during his tenure. But he also traded the national economic growth for a certain degree of scarification: the strict regulation caused a toothless media, dissidents exiled themselves, and people enjoyed little freedom of speech. Some argued Lee was a dictator who dominated Singapore in his own fashion, others acknowledge him as the father of the nation. What’s undeniable is the unprecedented accomplishments he made, and his rigid, consistent dedication to his faith.



C. L.


Photo:  © Vernon Chan



This article is dedicated to our fortnightly newsletter “Leaders Wisdom Journal”. To Subscribe.


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