1. It pays to be brilliant
Described by Time magazine as “a man of great intelligence, with no patience for mediocrity”, Mr Lee Kuan Yew is incredibly brilliant, and it shows in his words and actions. He did very well in school from a young age, studying at Raffles Institution, which at the time housed the top 150 students from Singapore. He was the top scorer for the School Certificate examinations in his year, and was awarded several scholarships — one of which was the John Anderson scholarship to attend Raffles College.
This degree in law eventually led to the start of his life in politics, where he represented trade unions as a legal assistant at a legal firm Laycock & Ong.
I was a young legal assistant at the firm of Laycock & Ong, and the postmen were about to go on strike. I was asked to look after them. They went on strike. For two weeks, the union ding-donged in the press against the Commissioner for Posts representing the Colonial government on the merits of their case. I drafted their statements. Public sentiments swung towards the unions, and the Colonial government had to give way: higher wages and better terms and conditions of service, removal of thick printed red stripes on their trousers making them look like circus attendants. Because the union won, I was next briefed by the clerical union of Post & Telegraphs for their demands, which went to arbitration. Again the union won. – NTUC’s 50th Anniversary Dinner, Friday, 13 May 2011
Without Lee Kuan Yew the lawyer, we wouldn’t have had Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore.
2. Sometimes you need to make unpopular decisions to reach your goal
Lee Kuan Yew has been known to take extreme measures to deal with Singapore’s future, but he’s done so only in order to bring Singapore from troubled times to the thriving metropolis it is today. And while some of his actions remain questionable to many, he stands by his actions, because they were what it took to build a nation.
“We would not have made the 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 where you spit.” (Source)
It’s tough to make the decisions Mr Lee has made for Singapore, given that they were often unorthodox or even unpopular. But in the end, only a man with a strong mantle and a tough exterior can do these things.
“I stand by my record. I did some sharp things to get things right – too harsh – but a lot was at stake. But at the end of the day, what have I got? Just a successful Singapore.” (Source)
3. Speak with power
If you’ve seen Lee Kuan Yew in action, or even watched any of his speeches from his prime, you would know that he exudes a presence that invokes respect. He is known for giving powerful, passionate speeches, and when he speaks, it’s difficult not to listen.
In 1965, an upcoming movie made in honour of SG50, Lim Kay Tong plays a younger Lee Kuan Yew, acting out his mannerisms and presence amazingly. Makes you wish you could have been there to see him in action.
4. Don’t give a crap what people think
While Lee Kuan Yew is a strong leader, he is not particularly careful with his choice of words. In fact, there have been many concerns over his lack of tact. As a politician, it might be ironic that he is often not politically correct, but it’s quite obvious that he doesn’t really care.
Is this a show of strength or a leader’s weakness? It’s tough to say. It’s especially apparent in this video, where you’ll find yourself cringing at his lack of tact about the role of women and children suffering from Down syndrome. Yet, the pragmatism behind his concerns about Singapore’s shrinking population is clear for all to see.
Being able to care less about what people think, and focus on getting your facts right is something many people can learn from. Though perhaps the lack of tact shouldn’t be learnt.
“I have been accused of many things in my life, but not even my worst enemy has ever accused me of being afraid to speak my mind.” (1955)
5. To be a respected leader, you have to be a feared one
Mr Lee has always been known as the leader with the “iron fist”. In fact, Mr Lee has openly agreed that he has “demolished opposition”.
“Why should we not demolish them before they get started? Once they get started, it’s more difficult to demolish them.”
Turns out Mr Lee takes after Machiavelli’s philosophy in The Prince — that a good leader is a feared one.
“I have never been over concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader. Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.”
— The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew
Even in his old age, he has been known to bring people down a peg when he deems it necessary. Only a feared and respected leader can verbally flip people off and get away with it.
6. First things first; be a realist
Lee Kuan Yew has always been a well-known realist. He has openly called Asian superstitions, horoscopes, and fengshui “utter rubbish”, said that love at first sight is a “grave mistake”, and is even a vocal advocate on the topic of hereditary intelligence.
“There are many sons of doctors who have married doctors. Those who married spouses who are not as bright are tearing their hair out because their children can’t make it. I have lived long enough to see all this play out.” – Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going
He has even told the Cabinet to demolish his home at Oxley Road.
“Because of my house, neighbouring houses cannot be built high. I said — demolish my house, change the planning rules, and the land value will go up. I don’t think my daughter or my wife or I, who lived in it, or my sons who grew up in it, will bemoan its loss.” – Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going
Sentimentality is all and good, but it takes a realistic point of view to solve real world problems.
7. How to be a loyal and devoted husband
The love story between Lee Kuan Yew and his late wife Kwa Geok Choo is a beautiful and touching one. Their marriage of 63 years was steadfast, and the late Ms Kwa’s sickness towards the end of her life brought out the softer side of Lee Kuan Yew that not many have seen before. He took personal care of her, was the only person Ms Kwa allowed to take her blood pressure daily, and even suffered abrasions on his face from falling asleep while reading to her at night.
After her second stroke, Mr Lee’s daughter, Lee Wei Ling, spoke about a conversation she had heard between her parents.
He (LKY) told her: ‘We have been together for most of our lives. You cannot leave me alone now. I will make your life worth living in spite of your physical handicap.’
She said: ‘That is a big promise.’
He replied: ‘Have I ever let you down?’
Women, this is the man you want your husbands to be like.
8. Never say die
We all know Lee Kuan Yew’s most famous quote:
“Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up.”
— From the 1988 National Day Rally
It is this never-say-die attitude that has made Mr. Lee’s actions and accomplishments through Singapore’s troubled beginnings memorable. Even from his sickbed, we still believe in his never-say-die attitude, and it is something to be learnt by many Singaporeans — to be resilient and face any troubles we may have ahead.
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