The Man Behind Our Merdeka

Growing up, I would tune into the National Day Parade on Channel 5 every year. Intently, I would observe the proceedings. The parade, the fanfare, the fireworks, that was what captivated me in my childhood. Every year, without fail, there would be a close up of Mr. Lee. He was seen to be smiling, soaking in the atmosphere of this celebration of our nation. I could see the Singaporeans at the parade erupt into cheers for this man, we call our founding father. Yet, to me, there was a general disconnect. Yes, I knew he was one of the pioneers that founded Singapore and engineered our success as a nation, moving from the 3rd world to 1st. (I paid attention in class, duh!) However, I wanted to dig deeper, to understand from a 3rd generation Singaporean perspective who Mr. Lee really was. Maybe, it was a generational gap or the fact that I have become a victim of our own economic miracle, that living a large part of my life in relative comfort, I have failed to empathise with the struggles of our nation in its infancy. Regardless, I was determined to at least understand who LKY was and what he meant to Singapore.

In this post, I will aim to write about some of the key takeaways I had after reading “Blazing the Freedom Trail” by Anthony Oei. (P.S:  Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, One Man’s View of the World and The Big Ideas of Lee Kuan Yew are definitely must reads if you wish to blow your mind!)

 

Initial Thoughts 

When I take a look at Mr. Lee, I instantly realised how much of a genius he was. He was educated in Raffles Institution where he excelled, this could be easily evidenced by the fact that in 1939, he topped not only his class but also all the students in Singapore and Malaya during his Cambridge Senior exams. He also made it into Cambridge, where he got a place at FitzWilliam College. He started his term in January 1947 and despite missing a term, doing eight instead of nine terms, he still got a double first in law and a star for distinction. His wife, Kwa Geok Choo was insanely smart as well. She was his academic rival, topping Lee in several terms exams which he thought he had a monopoly on. She attained the Queens Scholarship and got a first in law while studying in Cambridge. She was the first woman from Singapore and Malaya to achieve this scholastic feat while only completing six terms instead of nine.

The question I had (in my typical Singaporean head)was that Mr. Lee and his wife, given their intellect and credentials could easily find a well-paying job that could sustain them. They could definitely live in a life of comfort and material wealth. They could stand to gain, should Singapore remain a colony. But why risk it and fight for independence when you had more to lose in independence?

The People’s Champ

They would never know what they did to a whole generation like me. But they made me determined to fight for freedom-freedom from servitude and foreign domination. I did not enter politics. They brought politics upon me”

The truth is  at heart, he was the People’s Champ. Living in colonial times, where he saw his people being treated as second-class citizens. They were racially discriminated and were seen to be less than their British counterparts. But the true awakening was in World War 2, where Singapore witnessed for itself how it was left for the Japanese to take apart when they were promised that Singapore would be “defended to the very last man”. The memories of the British abandoning Singapore to focus on its own defence coupled with the harsh treatment of the Japanese to the locals awakened him to see that it was up to Singaporeans to determine their own fate. It was the traumatic experience of the Japanese Occupation that gave birth to the nationalistic Lee Kuan Yew. 

He was a genuine leader who championed the cause of the people. This was consistent throughout his entire political career. He was a titan with an iron will, he knew the importance of his job and he ensured his job was done well. He knew what would work out for Singapore’s best interest and defended it fearlessly, no matter the cost. 

This could be clearly exemplified by his unwavering stance throughout the merger of Singapore and Malaya. In 1963, he pointed out that the Budget would only serve to increase the income inequality of the rich and the poor. Then again in 1964, where he chose to open up PAP branches in the 11 constituencies it had contested. He reiterated that he was for a Malaysian Malaysia that people would be served regardless of race, language and religion. This was directly at odds with the communal UMNO, who wanted a complete implementation of the Bumiputra policy, where the needs of the Malay community was seen to be as a priority. Despite being labelled as anti-Muslim and anti-religion, coupled with racial riots instigated by UMNO extremists, Mr. Lee refused to denounce his belief in a democratic society where all are equal. Instead, he pursued this idea fervently which eventually led to the expulsion of Singapore from the federation of Malaysia and brought Singapore its independence.  

Being the leader of Singapore, he knew that only in a democratic society where regardless of race, language and religion, people were to be treated equally and fairly, could the society thrive. He championed the cause of multiculturalism because it was in the nation’s best interest that no one should be discriminated for what they represent. Even when there were threats to imprison him and remove him from power, he remained undeterred. Post-independence, his first message was that he would continue his efforts to engineer Singapore to be a multicultural and multiracial society. It was his fearlessness and iron-will to implement what suited the country’s interest and not his own that made him such a great leader (The People’s Champ)  

Cerebral Commander

If you deprive yourself of outsourcing and your competitors do not, you’re putting yourself out of business.

Secondly, he had the foresight and acumen that was second to none. He was a discerning political leader that did not allow ideology to blind him. Instead, he adopted a very pragmatic attitude with regards to governing Singapore. He was not only pragmatic but he was a leader that placed emphasis on long-term planning, to think ahead systematically and plan strategically, to adapt as situations arise. 

This was clearly evidenced in the well-calibrated and tailor made policies the government rolled out post-independence. Being acutely aware of its vulnerability in a neighbourhood of hostile nations and stranded in a sea of choppy politics, the National Service Amendment Bill was implemented in 1967 (the beginning of our NS!). Mr. Lee knew that we could not own what we could not defend and saw the need to build a credible and superior military to defend our national interests. This was all the more important, considering the uncertain and hostile political climate of South-east Asia. . 

Furthermore, the government under Mr. Lee took swift remedial actions in response to the sudden early withdrawal of the British military in 1971. To recoup the expected 15 percent loss in GDP, former British naval bases were converted into commercial establishments to service passings ships from East to West. This showed the flexibility of Lee’s leadership to change their plans and adapt to the sails of the times. He was able to turn the problem into a solution. 

He also implemented economic policies to upgrade the economy, to move beyond being a mere entrepot economy but to evolve into a skill-intensive economy that could produce value-added products and services. He placed a huge emphasis on retraining and restructuring the economy. He also began to rebuild Singapore as a tourist attraction for foreigners to visit and enjoy. Indeed, tourism did become a driving force for the nation’s economic progress. This was a far-sighted move, as Mr. Lee was already capitalizing on the trends of globalization (in its infancy) and began plugging itself into the global market (a luxury the tiny red dot did not have). Compared to our neighbours, who were still looking to recoup the losses they made in World War 2 by seeking to restore their former way of life by going back to a primary economy that was driven mainly by agricultural activities. Singapore was progressing much faster, thanks to the cerebral leader, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. 

Hence, it can be clearly observed that it was the uncanny foresight and wisdom of Mr. Lee, Singapore was able to pick itself up from the shackles of separation and propel itself into years of double-digit growth rates. 

Tag-Team

I shall now play goalkeeper. But the goalkeeper should not wait till the ball gets into the penalty area. That’s dangerous. Keep it outside the penalty area. 

People often had the misconception that Mr. Lee was a dictator who wanted to keep himself in power as long as possible. There were portrayals by the Western media of him as a tyrant, who ruled with an iron fist that emasculated the Cabinet and saw himself as a ruler that was above the government. However, that could not be further more from the truth. 

He was more than willing to hand his appointment over and played a very active role in grooming and teaching the next generation of leaders. He saw himself as a goalkeeper that would train the Mr. Goh Chok Tong, the striker of the next generation so that he would have had good training when he assumed his appointment. The fact that Mr. Goh was not his first choice as his successor but the collective decision of the cabinet, he still agreed to facilitate the political succession. Even after stepping down, Mr. Lee continued to participate actively in Cabinet as the Minister Mentor where he would contribute his perspective and guide the Cabinet with his experience. He did not insist his way with them, instead, he encouraged robust discussions and a thoroughness in thought ensuring that the decisions they made as a government was in line with the national interests of Singapore. 

Also, it was clear that he did not establish himself as a cult of personality like other leaders did in the world. He saw himself as a leader of the Old Guard but recognised that their contributions were as vital as his. He never sought to rob the spotlight and make it his own. Instead, he recognised that Singapore’s success story was a result of the collective efforts of the Old Guards. Mr. Lee highlighted that besides their dauntless leadership, they were men of financial and political integrity. They were men that upheld the standards of an incorruptible government. Collectively, as a party, they refused to accept donations from businesses or trade unions  

Mr. Lee highlighted that besides their dauntless leadership, they were men of financial and political integrity. They were men that upheld the standards of an incorruptible government. Collectively, as a party, they refused to accept donations from businesses or trade unions ( which was a norm in countries like Japan and Britain) because they did not want to be held hostage by fortune. They established a clean and open electoral system where strong financial capital was not needed to win an election. Parties did not need big money to participate in an election (an anomaly in the world, because in most countries a politician needs big money to run a campaign to enter elections). The leaders led their lives modestly where they had no special cars, no flags or special number plates. 

It was clear that Mr. Lee recognised that it was not just him that could uphold the incorruptible image of the government. It was a collective effort of him and his team, to take a stance in unison to stand as untainted politicians that served only to represent the rights and interests of its people. In essence, he recognised it was not his solo effort that shaped the clean and effective government we have today but it was the combined efforts of him and his team. 

Thus, it can be concluded that more than a strong-willed leader, Mr. Lee was a co-operative team player that put the interests of his nation above his own. He was the supportive tag-team partner the government needed, offering his guidance and counsel but never overstepping them. 

Reflections

This post cannot discuss the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew (Come on, there are books written by him and there are books written about him. PLUS, it is the job of historians to discuss his legacy.)

But what this post does is allow me to glean valuable lessons of leadership from a man the world considers as a “remarkable and unique leader”.  These are my reflections: 

  1. Know the interest of the men following you, and champion their cause fearlessly. They will only care about how much you know when they know how much you care. Do not be daunted by the challenges ahead but embrace it as a platform for success.
  2. Always think ahead. Do not be a reactive leader, where you fumble to react to situations and curveballs thrown at you. Instead, strive to be a pro-active leader, foresee potential pitfalls and opportunities and adjust your gameplan accordingly.
  3. Leadership is never ever about you. It is about bringing your team to mission success, whilst utilising them to the best of their potential. The moment you make leadership about you, your leaderSHIP has failed. The ship will definitely start to sink because the captain is more interested in how he looks than the direction in which the ship is sailing.  

Hopefully, now I know a little more about the Man behind our Merdeka.

One thought on “The Man Behind Our Merdeka

  1. The knowledge chest 0f the very “chesty” Keith is a really interesting read HAHA. Kudos for the wonderful first article and I definitely would like to see what else you have kept in that leather notebook of yours 🙂

    Cheers,
    Daniel

    Like

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