A Giant Among Men – Key Traits of an Exceptional Societal Leader

Text by Dr Lim Lai Cheng

“You will always be a giant among men.” This was what I wrote on the condolence book laid out at one of the community centres for the public to express their thoughts and sentiments on the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew – thinker, leader and pioneer of modern Singapore. In the week that saw an outpouring of grief and genuine gratitude towards the premier crusader of the nation state of Singapore, I contemplated Singapore’s social architect like I’ve never done before.

I found myself voraciously pouring over many of the eulogies and articles written on and for him. I watched past documentaries that encapsulated the evolution of Lee Kuan Yew, from a young, fiery politician who promulgated the concept of multiracialism in a federation that believed in Malay supremacy to a global statesman who was relentless in expressing his views on how the balance of powers among the big players should be maintained so that the rest of the world, and small states in particular, can continue to progress on an even keel.

I have had the privilege of three close encounters with Mr Lee Kuan Yew when he was Minister Mentor. The first was at a round table discussion with key officials at the Ministry of Education on language policies. My colleagues and I who were in charge of the mother tongue and English language syllabuses were present. He wanted to know what we were doing to raise the language proficiency of Singaporeans. Mr Lee’s concern with Singaporeans’ connectivity to the world through the mastery of English as well as our cultural anchoring through the mother tongue had been a lifelong preoccupation. He kept the Ministry of Education on its toes and consistently articulated strong views on the need for Singaporeans to speak standard English and never Singlish in schools and public communication.

In 2011, Mr Lee had graciously accepted a request by his alma mater, Raffles Institution (RI), to be the guest of honour at a fund-raising dinner. Visibly frail, Mr Lee spoke of the one thing that he had learnt, as a student in RI, which he later applied in his political life, and that was the principle of meritocracy which he wholeheartedly believed in and embraced. Mr Lee visited the school a few months later to personally apprise himself of how the institution had evolved. As principal of RI, I accompanied him as he visited classes, engaged with staff and quizzed students on their family background, their parents’ educational level and their aspirations. He wrote after the visit that even though the school was vastly different from the one he studied in, one thing remained important for it to thrive – and that is bright students, strong teachers and dedicated principals. He also commented that he was glad to see that the plants in the compound have been well looked after.

My encounter with Mr Lee made me marvel at the wide span of ideas, passions and concerns that one man could concurrently hold in his head. Here was a man who had his pulse always on the global forces at play and yet, was equally meticulous with domestic details. Well exposed to seasoned politicians and thought leaders across the world, he singularly cared to hear the thoughts and aspirations of young Singaporeans and was concerned about social mobility and the stratification in a maturing Singapore.

There have been countless declarations by individuals of what they admired in the founding Prime Minister of Singapore. I would like to aggregate these, and highlight the three most prominent traits that have surfaced.

The first is his strategic foresight and vision for Singapore. To quote Joseph Liow, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute:

When Singapore was booted out of the Federation of Malaysia on Aug 9, 1965, and left to fend for itself, what it needed was not a hardnosed pragmatist, but an idealist with a vision of an independent Singapore that would stand out from its neighbours, all bogged down in the dire conditions that defined Cold War South-east Asia.

Journalist Sudar Varaketh, in describing Lee Kuan Yew’s main contributions to Singapore, listed national security as key:

After independence in 1965, Singapore’s sovereignty was not assured. Konfrontasi with Indonesia and the messy separation from Malaysia had scarred Lee. Meanwhile a Communist wave threatened to sweep across South-east Asia. Without the departing British forces, who completed their withdrawal by 1971, Singapore was left with a skeleton military presence. Through a combination of grit, experimentation and his renowned geopolitical acumen, forging an alliance with the Israelis, he built an army from scratch. With the country secure, its economy could flourish.

In a 1994 interview with Fareed Zakaria for Foreign Affairs, Mr Lee showed his deep understanding of the social-cultural context that underscored Singaporean society and his ability to harness the strengths of communitarian values:

We have focused on basics in Singapore. We used the family to push economic growth, factoring the ambitions of a person and his family into our planning. We have tried to improve the lot of children through education. The government can create a setting in which people can live happily and succeed and express themselves, but finally it is what people do with their lives that determines economic success or failure. We were fortunate we had this cultural backdrop, the belief in thrift, hard work, filial piety and loyalty in the extended family, and, most of all, the respect for scholarship and learning.

Mr Lee, while extremely practical and grounded, was always far-sighted. These were what he further articulated in the interview:

We have been able to create economic growth because we facilitated certain changes while we moved from an agricultural society to an industrial society. We had the advantage of knowing what the end result should be by looking at the West and later Japan. We knew where we were, and we knew where we had to go. We said to ourselves, “Let’s hasten, let’s see if we can get there faster.” But soon we will face a different situation. In the near future, all of us will get to the stage of Japan. Where do we go next? How do we hasten getting there when we don’t know where we’re going? That will be a new situation.

The second most admired trait that defined Lee Kuan Yew is his singleminded focus and dogged determination to achieve what he set out to do:

British Prime Minister Tony Blair had this to say of Mr Lee:

He was probably the first leader in that later part of the 20th century to understand that governing was about efficacy rather than ideology, and that the most important thing in politics is to search for the right answer and then do it, rather than start from some ideological predisposition and then work out how you fit the facts around it. He was the person who, when he came to construct Singapore, said, right, what’s going to make this country great? And then he set out to do it.

Bilahari Kausikan, former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Singapore’s Representative to the United Nations was careful to highlight the fact that Mr Lee was “the great leader of a great team and of a great people” and that Mr Lee’s “sense of mission, his dedication to and passion for Singapore inspired an entire generation of Singaporeans from all walks of life to defy the odds and to serve some cause larger than themselves”.

Pioneer Cabinet Minister Ong Pang Boon, confirmed the former’s passion for Singapore:

He spent every moment thinking of how he could improve Singapore and Singaporeans’ lives. Once he decided that a certain policy was in the interest of his beloved Singapore, he would implement it, even if it meant making himself unpopular.

Finally, Mr Lee impressed all, admirers and detractors alike with his strong work ethic and constancy. Throughout his life and over sixty years as a politician, he maintained a modest lifestyle, kept himself busy and was relentless in his advocacy of integrity and strong governance. Mr Dhanabalan, former Cabinet Minister confirmed Mr Lee’s “absolute obsession to ensure an honest, corruption-free political process and public administration system”. As Prime Minister, Mr Lee “demanded and expected honesty and probity from political colleagues, from his equivalent of ‘Long March’ comrades, public servants and from all members of his family”.

Marcus Gee, Canadian journalist for The Globe, put it aptly when he posited that “without the check of opposition, the scrutiny of a free media and the threat of being tossed out by the voters, most leaders descend along the familiar path to corruption and brutality. That Mr. Lee did not was a function of his character”.

Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Defence extolled Mr Lee’s “great strength of character, determination and integrity”:

Even at the dawn of his political career, Mr Lee identified closely with the hopes and aspirations of common Singaporeans. In his first election in 1955, he told the voters of Tanjong Pagar, that out of 25 divisions, he wanted to represent ‘workers, wage earners and small traders, not wealthy merchants or landlords’. This was why he ‘chose Tanjong Pagar, not Tanglin’. The residents of Tanjong Pagar believed and trusted him and elected him by a handsome margin. Astonishingly, Mr Lee would be returned as their MP for 13 subsequent elections. He would serve as MP for Tanjong Pagar for 60 years – from 1955 to 2015 – and is the only MP that Tanjong Pagar has ever had. I doubt this record will ever be broken in our Parliamentary history.

He kept his promises. What he said he would do, he would and more – whether it was for individuals or an entire nation.’

Mr Lee’s legacy for Singapore is a value system that guided policy making. He upheld meritocracy and the principle of the best person for the job regardless of race, language, religion or personal background. He championed clean government, a radical idea in an era when corruption was accepted as an inevitable way of life. He advocated self-reliance, because a country that is unable to sustain itself will fail and disintegrate, and he promoted multi-racialism so that we will not fall prey to the politics organised along sectarian lines.

Mr Lee, the exemplary societal leader is gone but he has left Singaporeans and all who aspire towards societal leadership, a blueprint for economic prosperity and guiding principles to build a prosperous and multi-racial society.

About the author

Dr Lim Lai Cheng is Academic Director of the Institute for Societal Leadership and a Fellow of the School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University. She was an educator with the Ministry of Education from 1995 to 2013.

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