Let’s face it, Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) is not perfect. And Margaret Thatcher was wrong to say that “he was never wrong.” He was in fact an unreasonable man because he once told those he led this: “Reasonable men adapt; unreasonable men change the world.” The impression he left then was that he was going to change the world and 50 years later, he had indeed changed it. His unreasonableness bore much fruits.
LKY’s world started with a little red dot and it was once condemned as an improbable nation. Now it is bursting at the technocratic seam with endless possibilities (and challenges too). No longer just a little red dot, it shines brightly throughout the globe. I guess when it comes to governing a troubled, resource-scarce nation, Singapore under LKY comes closest to being a shining city on the hill. And if Deng Xiaoping was to be believed that China under Mao had 70% of it correct, then in my view, LKY had more than 90% of it correct. You can go to the bank with that. And it is in line with what LKY once told an American magazine, “I am not interested in being politically correct. I’m interested in being correct.” Now that’s hands-down pragmatism with an attitude.
As far as the eyes can see when perched on the Singapore flyer, our little island state has braved through all the odds to become a first World economy with strong fundamentals, an efficient civil service, and an above-board government. Of course, if we want to see the glass half-filled, we can start casting stones with issues like the ISA and the defamation laws in Singapore. We even have our very own political detainee who had served in detention longer in toto than the longsuffering Nelson Mandela (refer to this post: Singapore rebels).
I suspect the fault-finding sleuth would not stop there. There is also the government controlled media, the dominant one-party rule, the narrowly-focused meritocracy breeding entitlement and elitism, the one-track academic system, and the high costs of living. Just to name a few. But let’s turn our focus on how far we have come as a nation-state under his leadership. In other words, let’s look at our achievement in the last 50 years. Let’s separate the man and his methods and the “improbable nation” that he and his team had led over the years.
Now, the caveat is that no man is perfect. This is a fact, an established one. If you want to live an unblemished life, then find a hermitage in the middle of nowhere, away from people and their annoying habits, and live out the rest of your days as a monk. And if hell is other people, so said Sartre, then dealing with a nation of them is going to be a journey into the heart of perdition. LKY knew intimately that running a country is not like competing in a Miss Congeniality contest and he once said, “You must have convictions. If you don’t have convictions, you are going in for personal glory or honour or publicity or popularity, forget it.”
After all is said and done, underscore “done”, LKY was right when he said that history will judge him. And when asked how he would like history to judge him, LKY said, “I’m dead by then. There’ll be different voices, different standpoints but I stand by my record. I did some sharp and hard things to get things right. Maybe some people disapproved of it. Too harsh, but a lot was at stake and I wanted the place to succeed, that’s all. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.”
I guess that most of his vision for Singapore was realized. She has made it. And she has made us proud. This is one man who had given his life for a cause and he was uncompromising about it. He once told a public official who had failed him these words, “I don’t accept excuses; I only recognize failures.” On another occasion, his reply to a written note in answering a query he made was this, “I only need a one-sentence answer, why did you give me three paragraphs?” Surely, he doesn’t sugar-coat his words. He will defend his position tooth and nail. In an interview on the foreign press, he threw the gauntlet down by saying, “So when I say I’m going to fix that guy, he will be fixed. Let’s make no bones about it. I carry my own hatchet. If you take liberties with me, I’ll deal with you.” And his idea of regional diplomacy when push comes to shove was an ultimatum-like statement describing Singapore as a “poisonous shrimp” liable to kill its swallower.
So, if Apple had Steve Jobs, then I guess Singapore had her LKY. One is a corporate visionary; the other is an determined nation builder – a tireless innovator of institutional governance to be exact. His characteristic intransigence may be seen by many as unreasonable but he persisted nevertheless and we are now enjoying the fruits of his tough sacrifices.
There is actually many things that you can say about LKY. But one thing stands out most strikingly is that he was never one who coveted after popularity. He was more of a get-things-done kind of person. One civil servant who worked under him commented, “He seemed to us like a force of nature. He was the leader of the pack, the alpha male…hard headed and hard nosed.”
His toughness can be seen in the way he dealt with foreign governments. When Bill Clinton intervened in the Michael Fay’s affair, LKY did not back down. He stood by his principles (only reducing the canning by two strokes from six to four) and later won the respect of the former American President with these words, “Why have I not met this man before?” If you expect him to curry favor with international leaders, then the only curry that is stewing in his pot is to do what is right and not what is popular. In 1968, he “turned down a direct appeal by then President Suharto to pardon two Indonesian marines who had been sentenced to death for planting a bomb during Konfrontasi that killed several Singaporeans.”
In the now famous incident in 1976, he met the Chinese Premier, Hua Guofeng, and told the Premier how he felt when he was handed a book that shed favorable light on the Sino-Indian War of 1962. LKY said, “Mr Prime Minister, this is your version of the war. There is another version, the Indian version. And in any case I am from Southeast Asia – it’s nothing to do with us.” Of course, you can take it that this man was self-opinionated, or even socially aloof, but one thing you cannot say about him: gutless.
So, have no misconceptions about LKY, he was stern, disciplined and a no-nonsense leader. At the time when he took over the reins of government from colonial rule in 1963 and later from its breakaway from Malaysia in 1965, LKY didn’t have the luxury of choices. It is either Singapore has got a future or it has none. Desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. He therefore led Singapore with the force of a chastening storm. He once described himself as “very determined” and said, “If I decide that something is worth doing, then I’ll put my heart and soul to it. I’ll give everything I’ve got to make it succeed. So I would put my strength, determination and willingness to see my objective to its conclusion.”
To the best of his ability and insight, he had led by example. He tolerated no special treatment for any of his own staff. SIA was directed not to delay its flight schedule just because a minister was late. The latter would just have to take the next flight. SIA also does not give upgrades to civil servants. LKY left no stone unturned when it comes to a clean government. He knew his leadership and Singapore depended on it, and at the same time, could not afford to be seen otherwise. He once said, “The moment key leaders are less than incorruptible, less than stern in demanding high standards, from that moment the structure of administrative integrity will weaken, and eventually crumble. Singapore can survive only if ministers and senior officers are incorruptible and efficient.”
With competitive salaries, institutional vigilance and integrity, and unsurpassed discipline, his cabinet and government have kept their noses and pockets clean. In fact, the CIA once tried to pay off his party with $1 million dollars to cover up an incident but LKY was a steel rod in the cinder block about it. As far as records go, LKY wore his signature PAP all-white overall unblemished, stain-free. And he wore it proudly. This tribute by a career public servant says it all, “It is worth noting that there is a distinction between systemic corruption and ad hoc corruption by individuals. We do not have systemic corruption.”
Although LKY is not religious (he only considered himself a nominal Buddhist), he was in many ways a god-sent. I say this because history has shown us that where there is a will (power and opportunity), there is a way (to corruption). In fact, I dare say that it is our default position. Our nature is simply and irrevocably to self-preserve and self-profit. The leaders of the colonial past and our post-colonial present, especially in most of the African states, have time and time again proven this personal axiom unswervingly true. I dread to think of Singapore being led by the likes of Idi Amin, Gaddafi or even the king of Swaziland.
LKY had toed the line from the start and he had made it clear that you cross it at your own peril. He was no doubt harsh about it but he was no less revolutionary in upholding the integrity and honor of government. I guess he could not be seen to be any lesser when he was leading a fragile, vulnerable and almost hopeless country immediately after Independence. You can say that it comes with the territory. And it was upon this sure foundation that he painstakingly built a multiracial, multireligious and multicultural first world cosmopolitan city-state.
Charles de Gaulle once said, “Leaders of men are later remembered less for the usefulness of what they have achieved than for the sweep of their endeavor.” LKY had indeed left a deep impact in Singapore and his legacy will sweep through history with a very broad and enduring stroke. And one of the things he will be remembered for by those who had worked with him is his very intense and probing curtness at the end of a question, “So?” What he meant was this: “So, what does this mean for Singapore?” Everything he did was subordinated to the best interest of Singapore.
Now, coming back full circle, LKY was not perfect. But I have a feeling that he would rather be right than perfect. And some may even say that he was too tough a task-master and that he led with more hard power than soft. But whichever way you look at it, I think LKY was a product of his time. No man is an island unto himself. Our decisions and actions do not exist in an ideological vacuum. When caught in the eye of a storm, we all act in a way that will get us out of it. LKY was no exception. As such, there will inevitably be some misjudgments, missteps and miscalculations. That is what being a human is all about: what’s more a human leader of a once very troubled nation! But what redeems us at the end of the day is a spirit of never giving up and LKY epitomizes that spirit most valiantly.
He once said, “By nature, I’m not a person who’s tied to theories. Theories should evolve from practice.” The editors of the book, The Big Ideas of Lee Kuan Yew, expressed somewhat the same sentiments in their afterword: “Idealism is the stuff that youthful dreams are made of; experience is the most rigorous tutor of the art of the possible.” I guess if experience is a strict and tough teacher, then LKY was his most willing and promising student.
So, after all the polemic dust have settled, I guess the one thing LKY comes closest to perfection is his devotion to Singapore. His life stands as a testament to it. This is what he has to say in his own words, “Singapore is my concern till the end of my life.” And looking at Singapore now, that is, 50 years after Independence, it truly shows. Cheerz.
* All sources and quotes from the book, The Big Ideas of Lee Kuan Yew, and Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going. His admission of being a nominal Buddhist is from the book, One Man's View of the World (@ pg 302).