Lee Kuan Yew
Lee Kuan Yew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I first posted this in LinkedIn, but I feel that it is appropriate to have it in my blog. Read on...

March 29, 2015

I am penning this down, to pay my respect for Singapore’s founding father – in a few more years, half of my life would have been lived in the country he has built. I will pay my respect by being a good (foreign) worker, and if I ever become one, a good citizen.

My family and I watched Mediacorp’s airing of Lee Kuan Yew’s achievements and Singapore’s history, up to the coverage of his funeral and the service held at UCC. Here are some pointers that I picked up, and may we all learn from it:

Keep up with the times. When he gave a speech at the US Congress, he was recognized, not simply because he knew how to talk, but because he knew his country, and he knew other countries. He discussed the current issues of unemployment in the US, and so, he earned the recognition of being a leader who knows, not only one who can talk. As many Singaporeans who grew up with him attest, "he (LKY) never gave empty promises. He delivered.

Build for the future, not just today. LKY looked at Singapore, and as he went around to build bilateral relationships and to attract investors, he realized that to be viable, Singapore has to take up English as the primary language. English became the primary language in trades and in government offices. Even then, for Singapore not to lose its racial culture and tradition, mother was made a requirement in schools. As he put it, he himself rediscovered the treasure of the Chinese language and culture when he learned Hokkien and Mandarin. He only didn’t see today, but he saw 10-, 20-, 30-years into the future.

> I love this one. Being in the software development business, I would often tell myself, and some colleagues, to build for the future, not just today. I practiced the habit of designing and developing applications that can and will stand the test of time.
Choose to be unpopular. Doing what is right will make you an easy target for critics, especially if the change you are making is going to impact so many. And doing what is right means becoming tough and firm, and this could be easily construed as being rigid and uncompassionate. But doing what the people wants, or what your supporters suggest, of what the masses mandate, isn’t always the best way to ‘please’ the people. As it was stated by the speaker, “If you want to be popular, you will misgovern.”

Know what you are dealing with. Perhaps the most significant of the traits of the system that Singapore has is because it ‘borrows’ from the world’s best-in-class practices. As I’ve often heard from fellow management leaders, what LKY did was to study the different system of the world’s governments, and to pick on what is the best practice, and what can be applied to Singapore, and that he did.

Be pragmatic. Even then, when he knew what he was doing, he didn’t immediately executed plans and actions. He had his fellow leaders to consult with, and they slowly built and planned, and planned and built. They had all the data to support their plans, and yet, they moved slowly – but surely.

Be firm. When a plan is put into action, and there are hiccups along the way, or some things don’t work out as planned, be firm. Even when things go along the way they were expected or planned to be, there will always be unsatisfied observers and detractors. If you easily cave in to the pressure, you lose.

Be clean and honest. When you go up the ladder of leadership, and many doors open up to you, don’t be tempted to gorge on your ‘rights and privileges’. Always remember that when you have served your term, or when you have lived your life, the history you leave behind will not only be in your name, but in your family’s, and in your nation’s.

Practice integrity. It was very commendable how he practiced integrity, and fought against corruption. And having lived a life of integrity, it wasn’t difficult for him to tell others of the same high mandate for a leader. If not, detractors will easily find a spot and make it their point of argument against you.

Be tough. Having made integrity his own personal mandate, LKY required it of his nation. He set up CPIB, and anybody who is found to be corrupt, or doing something illegal and is caught and makes a bribe, will have a heavier and harsher punishment.

Surround yourself with equally honest leaders. He didn’t look at the skin color, or the spoken language, but he offered the same chance of becoming a leader to serve the people to potential citizens, who perhaps showed the same qualities as he possessed. I didn’t hear or read of a cabinet member or an MP who was found to be corrupt or debased. A stark contradiction of many leaders past and present.

Include opposition. It was very revealing that while many accused LKY of being close-minded who didn’t entertain others’ views, one fellow leader said that he wouldn’t like you and wouldn’t listen to you anymore if you agreed to everything he said. He wanted somebody who will oppose him and give the other side of the story, and to reason out with you, present the idea and provide the basis for doing so. Indeed, what better way to see the same scenario from somebody else’s eyes! A devil's advocate, anyone?

Listen to others. No matter how smart you are, you will not always see the whole picture on your own. And when you close your ears to others, and gets puffed up in your own proud heart, your downfall is imminent. Be humble, remain humble and always look back from whence you came.

Delegation. Don’t be power hungry. Don’t think you will live forever, and that even all your life, you will stay in power. Train new leaders, and learn to let go. Prepare for your own future by preparing new leaders, and therefore, ensure the continuity of what you have started. That he did, and saw to it that everything is in place, even long before he passed away.

Frugality. It is quite contrary to know that LKY lived his life in frugality, especially that the wealth of Singapore is open to him. He also didn’t abuse his power and privilege. Actually he didn’t need to spend a single dime, only to speak up and request for a new set of clothes, a new set of furniture, the latest TV or computer set, and stores would be on their toes to give him what he asks for – free of charge. Yet he did not. A 60-year old sofa set. A vacuum-tube monitor and an outdated PC. A very simple 2-storey house. And for his contemporaries, borrowed pair of shoes, borrowed coat. Are we missing something here?

Practicality. A chair is a chair, and if it serves its purpose, why seek an elaborate one. And if it still serves its purpose, why replace it and throw it away?

Focus at the task in hand. He always made it a point to be never lingering around issues, but always focused at the task in hand. No wasted time, no wasted opportunity.

Career and family are both equally important. It was with amusement that I watched the open forum where LKY was conversing with a lady, aged 27, who is currently taking up PhD D. She is not married, and she doesn’t have a boyfriend. She would be around 29 by the time she finishes her PhD D, and if she does enter into a relationship after a few more years, and gets married, she’d be around 35 by the time she gets pregnant. LKY stressed that at that age, the dangers of pregnancy, especially for the baby, is increasing. And yet, he didn’t tell her not to pursue the PhD D. He did remark that having a family is more satisfying than a PhD D, but in the end, he jokingly told her, “I hope you catch your PhD D and your boyfriend.”

Keep up with your family. Even when his tasks as a leader was so exacting, he made it a point to have a time together with his family – regularly. Needless to say, he was successful, not only as a leader, but also as a father and as a grandfather.

Fidelity. He married the woman he loves, and he loved the woman he married. No return, no exchange. His wife became the strong support who goes with him anywhere he goes. As it was told, where he is seen, there she was. Yet at the start, they were competitors, she scoring higher than him. But along the way, they became friends, then a couple. Together, they forged the Singapore we all know today is.

Have nothing else to prove. He didn’t show off his status with new gadgets. He didn’t brag about his status with shining cars. He didn’t declare his wealth with huge mansions. He didn’t attend sessions wearing designer clothes. In fact, he had to mend the tear on the jacket that he wore for years and years. Why? Because he had nothing else to prove. Having done what he should, and with an overwhelming mark of excellence, he didn’t need anything else to add on. His work is proven, and he didn’t need to speak about it.

He has passed away, and he is gone. We will miss him. As said in an artist’s epitaph, the same can be said about Lee Kuan Yew:

If you are looking for his work, look around Singapore.


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