Almost all leaders take office with an ambitious vision for their country or their organization, but only a few ever succeed in transforming that vision into reality. Lee Kuan Yew (1923–2015,) the architect of modern Singapore, was one of them.
Lee was one of the most competent leaders the world has ever seen. An incorruptible Cambridge-educated lawyer, he was an autocratic pragmatist—a strong-willed, visionary leader who “got it done.” Under his leadership, Singapore metamorphosed itself from a tropical backwater with few natural resources to a first-world metropolis in just one generation. Today, Singapore’s per-capita GDP in terms of Purchasing Power Parity is the third highest in the world.
There is also a darker side to the Singapore story, however. The island-nation’s prosperity came at the cost of a rather authoritarian style of government that sometimes infringed on civil liberties. In a 1986 National Day Rally, Lee defended,
I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters—who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.
Singapore is not quite a dictatorship, but neither is it a full democracy. Its political system is skewed to let Lee’s party dominate the country’s polity. In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Lee asserted, “It is not the business of the government to enable the opposition party to overturn us.”
A vast majority of Singaporeans today will overlook these civil-liberty concerns in the context of the country’s socio-political stability, public security, world-leading and affordable healthcare, free education, good housing for all, and high employment.
Singapore’s spectacular success is accepted as evidence, sometimes lamentably as justification, as with Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, that a vibrant economy and sustained prosperity could blossom only under a totalitarian government. Singapore’s achievement is not likely replicable in its entirety elsewhere.
Over the last several months, I’ve read a few biographies and evaluations of Lee and his political leadership, including the memoirs The Singapore Story: From Third World to First (1998) and One Man’s View of the World (2013.) Here are a few key leadership lessons that Lee had to teach.
Vision, structure, and determination are paramount to efficacious leadership. Lee was a brilliant, clear-eyed, far-sighted statesman. Singapore’s political stability, rapid economic growth, and its raising affluence between 1959 and 1990 were not accidental, but the result of his dynamic leadership and disciplined social engineering. In The Singapore Story (1998,) he writes, “The task of the leaders must be to provide or create for them a strong framework within which they can learn, work hard, be productive and be rewarded accordingly. And this is not easy to achieve.”
Leadership entails tough, unpopular decisions. Lee was not afraid of being out of favor. “I have never been overconcerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader. If you are concerned with whether your rating will go up or down, then you are not a leader. You are just catching the wind … you will go where the wind is blowing. And that’s not what I am in this for.” He famously forbade the sale of chewing gum to keep Singapore’s streets clean. He maintained capital punishment and caning. Singapore’s vandalism rules drew worldwide attention in 1994 when American teenager Michael Fay was caned for damaging cars and public property, in spite of appeals for clemency from the US media and government, including then-President Bill Clinton.
The litmus test of great leadership is results that matter. Many take issue with Lee’s methods, but few dispute the results he achieved. He was a pragmatist with devotion to no particular ideology. He once contemplated, “I was never a prisoner of any [socio-political] theory. What guided me were reason and reality. The acid test I applied to every theory or scheme was: Would it work?” and “The acid test is in performance, not promises.”
Nurture a meritocracy. Lee’s commitment to meritocracy is a hallmark of Singapore’s national identity—social mobility is rooted in hard work and contribution regardless of ethnic differences. He devoted resources to cultivate an excellent education and health system, and developed a high-quality teacher workforce—all to maximize people’s potential. According to Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas (1998,) he wrote, “It is possible to create a society in which everybody is given not equal rewards, but equal opportunities, and where rewards vary not in accordance with the ownership of property, but with the worth of a person’s contribution to that society. In other words, society should make it worth people’s while to give their best to the country. This is the way to progress.” In recent years, though, the debate over rising social inequality has led to some reproach of Singapore’s meritocracy.
Attract and retain superior talent; pay them well. A key contributor to the wealth, stability, efficiency, and cleanliness of Singapore is its civil service—it’s one of the most proficient and least corrupt bureaucracies in the world. The government’s transparent policies have been a powerful enticement for people, businesses, and investments. Singapore has some of the highest paid civil servants in the world. The country is not content to let its top graduates all go straight to the private sector, so it pays what it takes to get them. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, Lee’s immediate successor, told Singapore’s parliament on 3-Dec-1993, “If we do not pay ministers adequately, we will get inadequate ministers. If you pay peanuts, you will get monkeys for your ministers. The people will suffer, not the monkeys.”
One’s accomplishments become one’s legacy. Having a broad picture of the effect you want to have on the world will help you pinpoint the actions necessary to achieve it. Explaining his legacy, Lee wrote in Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going (2011,) “I have spent my life, so much of it, building up this country. There’s nothing more that I need to do. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.”
To judge leaders by their methods alone is to underrate their successes. While considering Lee’s legacy, one needs to acknowledge his achievements while refusing to close one’s eyes to certain lapses. Lee’s many critics considered him authoritarian—he imposed media restrictions and used detention without trial and defamation suits to quash critics of his government. Discussing a political opponent in Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas (1998,) Lee justified, “If you are a troublemaker, it’s our job to politically destroy you. … Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac. That’s the way I had to survive in the past.” Lee was unapologetic about his heavy-handed style of governing, seeing it as necessitous to get Singapore to where it got.