Thursday, 2 April 2015

Lee Kuan Yew’s death should not cause Singapore to lose confidence

By Devadas Krishnadas, Published TODAY, 1 Apr 2015

Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, is so closely identified with the city-state and its success that his passing begs the question in the minds of many citizens and foreign observers: What now for Singapore? The assumption is that without him, in some way, the X-factor in Singapore’s success formula has been lost and we are now diminished as a country and a people.

Mr Lee should be remembered not only for his own achievements and contributions, but as a standout representative of a generation of political and civic leaders who laid the foundation for Singapore’s success. Thus, other august Singaporean leaders — Dr Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam, Lim Kim San and Hon Sui Sen, to name only a few — have passed before him without us losing our way.

As long as we retain the leadership principles of these leaders, we need not lose our self-confidence just because we have now lost the foremost leader among them.


The most important of these principles is to have a sense of reality. We tend to think of these leaders as visionaries who conceived of a greater future than the circumstances of their time seemed to allow. But we should also remember that they were primarily realists who avoided wishful thinking in favour of taking tough decisions and staying their course in the face of mounting adversity.

They did not delude themselves of the severity of the challenges nor counted on the goodwill of either their domestic political opponents or leaders of other countries. They formed strategies, committed themselves and dealt with what was before them with a resolution. Civil peace, social harmony, sovereign security and economic prosperity were their first and foremost priorities, trumping idealistic clamouring for absolute freedoms or longing for a slower pace or less competitive climate.

We must accept that it is the world to which we must make ourselves relevant and not the other way around.

The visions and aspirations came afterwards. These are the second of the leadership principles we should retain: To think big and bold. They were not timid on any front, political, social or economic. In each dimension, Mr Lee had his point man and he let them get on with it while he focused on the total picture.

Today, with our affluence and status as a global city, we should not become timorous or xenophobic. We need to accept that success has trade-offs and that each generation must strive not only to retain what has been achieved, but to advance upon it. We cannot afford to become nostalgic or complacent. We must remain a nation of “strivers”.

Constant striving is the third leadership principle of our pioneer leaders. At no time did Mr Lee or any of his team set a fixed goal which, after achieving, they would declare victory and we could collectively retire to sit on our laurels.

They viscerally understood the limits of being a small country without resources and the challenges that came with being secular, multi-ethnic, incorrupt and meritocratic in a region where every other country is larger and where such values are often more talked about than practised. Singapore will always remain a work in progress. We have no settled state or resting point.

The older generation who witnessed Mr Lee in action first-hand in his speeches and rallies have the benefit of experiencing his charisma. But even the younger generation, who look at recordings of his political performances as Prime Minister, will notice one obvious quality: Plain speaking. Mr Lee did not mince his words or disguise his thoughts. He gave clear direction and clear reasons for his decisions.

In the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity, he was decisive. Today, when we reflect from our perch as a First World country, there are some who may consider his behaviour autocratic or disagree with his decisions. He was a man of his time and it is important to put into context his choices and convictions.

But even where he stands to be corrected, the leadership quality of possessing the moral courage to speak your mind is still a paramount principle. In our society, not every square can be circled. We need leaders who are prepared to speak plainly about social or political truths of the day and who have gained the moral authority to be persuasive.

This imperative, the need for political leaders to gain moral authority, represents the greatest test for present-day political aspirants.

In Mr Lee’s day, the fights were existential and clear. The struggles were visceral. He and his team were powered not only by conviction, but by the political adrenaline that comes from knowing that losing the vote may also mean losing your head.


After those early struggles, Mr Lee put in place a scholarship system to develop a leadership class by design. He believed Singapore could select, groom and position leaders without the need for the messy and organic process of political combat.

For two generations, this view prevailed, but in recent years, this system of leadership by pre-selection has come under question from some quarters.

This is not to say that we should engineer social collapse or civil splits just to create conditions where political contests of ideas become once again the testing ground for leadership. We should have the maturity to understand that, in post-modern Singapore, there is more sharing than division in the space of political thinking.

No one would argue against the importance of racial harmony, civic peace, social stability or the need for economic progress. The political questions today are of a tertiary nature, more aspirational and nebulous — what do we do with our wealth, how do we make society more equal and existential choices about what our striving ultimately serves.

Recently, politics has tilted left and the present leaders reacting to political pressure have committed to larger social investments, more diverse education pathways and more help for the needy.

We are in danger of shifting Mr Lee’s focus on equalising opportunities to also expecting the State to provide more equal outcomes. The next political fault line is where and whether to draw the line in this shift before we make the mistakes of the West and forget that to be able to spend, we must first earn; and to earn is a personal as much as a national value-driven proposition.

Our policies reflect and shape social values. These choices have a permanency that is hard to reverse. Present and future leaders should bring their ideas to the forefront and not only react to political pressure.

Mr Lee may not be with us physically, but if we recall and retain these leadership principles, we can ensure that he is in our political DNA. That is the very best testimony to offer the man who made modern Singapore.

There is an additional character trait that Mr Lee possessed that is often overlooked, but is a crucial quality both Singaporeans and their future leaders require. He was prepared to adapt to circumstances. As much as he was constant in his core principles, he was willing to shift tactically to position Singapore to the best advantage at any time.

Geopolitically, in 1978, he made early concord with Deng Xiaoping’s Communist China despite having battled intensely with the Mao-backed Malayan Communist Party in the 1950s and 60s.

Economically, he made Singapore transition from a low-wage competitor to a high value-add player. In later years, he accepted the prospect of casinos even though he had suppressed organised gambling in his early decades as a leader. Politically, he accepted that younger Singaporeans will have to pick and choose their own battles and not rely only on drawing lessons from a time past.

But his ultimate adaptability, and a phenomenon rare in the post-colonial era, is that he stepped down of his own volition in 1990 and oversaw an orderly transition of leadership. While he remained in the frame as an elder statesman, he progressively allowed himself to fade away from the forecourt of the political arena, turning to writing books and memoirs to capture his ideas and experiences for posterity.

Singapore must remain adaptable. Our future is not fixed, nor are our political choices.

We must be prepared to renegotiate both our economic and political contract with the global economy and geopolitics, and our domestic social contract between State and citizen. And if we move in directions Mr Lee would not have agreed with, he would have understood and applauded that, in doing so, we have reached the highest goal of making our own choices for our fate.

We should not expect anything less of ourselves in dealing with the consequences of our choices as a nation united.

Devadas Krishnadas is chief executive of Future-Moves Group, an international strategic consultancy and executive education provider based in Singapore.

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