Sunday 13 March 2016

The enduring ideas of Lee Kuan Yew

Integrity, institutions and independence - these are three ideas the writer hopes will endure for Singapore.
By Kishore Mahbubani, Published The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2016

March 23 will mark the first anniversary of the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. On that day, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy will be organising a forum, The Enduring Ideas of Lee Kuan Yew.

The provost of NUS, Professor Tan Eng Chye, will open the forum.

The four distinguished panellists will be Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee, Foreign Secretary of India S. Jaishankar, Dr Shashi Jayakumar and Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed.

This forum will undoubtedly produce a long list of enduring ideas, although only time will tell which ideas will really endure.

History is unpredictable. It does not move in a straight line.

Towards the end of their terms, leaders such as Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, Mr Ronald Reagan and Mrs Margaret Thatcher were heavily criticised. Yet, all three are acknowledged today to be among the great leaders of the 20th century.

It is always difficult to anticipate the judgment of history.

If I were to hazard a guess, I would suggest that three big ideas of Mr Lee that will stand the test of time are integrity, institutions and the independence of Singapore.

I believe that these three ideas have been hardwired into the Singapore body politic and will last.


The culture of honesty and integrity that Mr Lee and his fellow founding fathers created is truly a major gift to Singapore.

Mr Lee constantly warned of the dangers of corruption.

Speaking at the World Ethics and Integrity Forum 2005 in Kuala Lumpur on April 28, 2005, he said: "When the present Singapore Government took office in 1959, it had a deep sense of mission to establish a clean and ethical government. We made ethical and incorruptible leadership a core issue in our election campaign.

"It was our counter to the smears of pro-communist Barisan Sosialis and their unions."

Mr Lee had also said earlier, when he was addressing Parliament on the issue of the suicide of Minister for National Development Teh Cheang Wan in 1987: "The strongest deterrent is in a public opinion which censures and condemns corrupt persons, in other words, in attitudes which make corruption so unacceptable that the stigma of corruption cannot be washed away by serving a prison sentence."

Singapore is clearly one of the few corruption-free countries in the world. Yes, there have been a few recent high-profile cases of corruption. And our ranking in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index has slipped from No. 5 in 2013 to No. 8 last year. We should not, therefore, be complacent.

Many Singaporeans take this culture of honesty for granted, just as they take the clean air of Singapore for granted, until the haze comes along.

Just as we should proactively think of ways and means to prevent a recurrence of haze, we should proactively think of ways and means of strengthening the culture of honesty. We can learn lessons from other countries.

One of Singapore's biggest strengths is that we have one of the largest foreign reserves in the world. This is our ultimate insurance policy.

If things go badly, as we have no natural resources to fall back on, we will depend on our resources.

Even though most of us do not know the exact amount of all our reserves, we go to bed peacefully every night not worrying about what is going to happen to them.

We know that many honest hands are protecting them. This is an enduring legacy of Mr Lee.

By contrast, many oil-producing countries have frittered away their wealth. It would appear smug for Singaporeans to cite negative examples. Hence, I will refrain from the game of "name and shame".

Instead, I will cite an example of an oil-producing country we can learn lessons from: Norway.

It has done a spectacular job of protecting its savings. Its method of protecting these savings is to make them highly transparent.

If you go to the website, you can see what is coming in and going out of Norway's sovereign wealth fund, the Government Pension Fund of Norway. The website lists all the investments of the fund, including details about equity management and investment strategy.

Quite remarkably, Jakarta intends to be more transparent than Singapore in sharing information about its Budget procedures.

Last December, Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama said: "We will also upload the detailed Budget to our website, so residents can immediately monitor our spending."

I led a group of our LKY School students to call on him on Feb 24 this year. He said that all expenditures, including those of his office, would be on the website.

Clearly, we live in a different world when Jakarta becomes more transparent than Singapore about its revenue and expenditures.


Mr Lee was equally committed to building strong institutions in Singapore. This meant that the prediction of famous Harvard University political scientist Samuel Huntington would never come true. Professor Huntington had famously said in 1995 that "the honesty and efficiency that Senior Minister Lee has brought to Singapore are likely to follow him to his grave".

Mr Lee has been gone for a year. Yet, it is almost certain that many of the institutions he built will stand the test of time.

These include - in alphabetical order and not in order of merit - the civil service, the education system, the foreign service, the intelligence services, the judiciary and the military, to name just a few of the key institutions.

The strength of these institutions is reflected in the fact that most Singaporeans wake up in the morning expecting clean and safe streets, a reliable supply of electricity and water, regular garbage clearance, good schools and universities, a strong and predictable rule of law, and no fear of a foreign military invasion. Each of these attributes is a major gift. Yet, we take them all for granted.

Still, many of our institutions can be improved. Regular readers of my columns will already be aware of my concern over the risk-averse culture that is developing in our civil service.

Our founding fathers - including ministers and permanent secretaries like Mr Howe Yoon Chong, Mr J. Y. Pillay, Mr Sim Kee Boon, Mr Ngiam Tong Dow and Mr Philip Yeo - were prepared to take big risks and stick their necks out with bold proposals. It is hard to find similar examples today.

At the same time, we are acutely aware that the formulae that delivered 50 years of exceptional economic growth to us may not work in the next 50 years.

We have to be exceptionally bold and try some out-of-the-box options. But a risk-averse civil service is clearly not designed to do this. How do we change this culture? It will not be easy.

History teaches us that risk-averse companies and organisations do not succeed over time. Have we therefore planted seeds that will eventually drag us down? To quote Mr S. Rajaratnam, we must "think the unthinkable".


Another thing we take for granted when we wake up in the morning each day is our "independence".

This confidence in our "independence" is quite remarkable. Mr Lee used to constantly warn us of the inherent fragility and vulnerability of Singapore. Yet, paradoxically, his strong personality and huge global standing significantly expanded the geopolitical space of Singapore and made Singapore look very strong and stable.

Before he passed away, I had believed that with his departure, the geopolitical space of Singapore would naturally shrink because it is unnatural for a small state of 719 sq km - one of the smallest states in the world - to enjoy as much geopolitical space as we do in the international order.

It speaks well of our leaders and institutions that there has been no shrinking of our geopolitical space since Mr Lee's departure.

He and his fellow founding fathers had generated a high degree of political confidence in Singapore's independence among our citizens. We have shown our independent streak in the way we handled former Indonesian president B. J. Habibie's dismissal of Singapore as "a little red dot".

We now wear it as a badge of pride and stick our chests out and say this little red dot will endure.

This high degree of confidence in the durability of this little red dot is inspiring. But it is also worrying.

Small states should never be too confident about their future. Instead, they should always be paranoid. This, therefore, will remain one of the eternal existential dilemmas for Singapore: We have to be both paranoid and confident at the same time.

In short, to survive, we have to be able to sustain a strange neurotic condition. If we can do this for the next hundred years, we would have demonstrated that the legacy of Mr Lee has stood the test of time.

The writer is dean of the LKY School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and the author of Can Singapore Survive?

* Can idealism co-exist with call to 'always be paranoid'?

I do not disagree with the premises of Professor Kishore Mahbubani's article last Saturday ("The enduring ideas of Lee Kuan Yew"), but I wish to comment on the conclusion to which he leads us.

Prior to this article, Prof Mahbubani had written of seeing a lack of idealism in young Singaporeans, relative to those in other countries ("In search of Singaporean idealism"; Feb 20).

He gave some possible reasons for this, such as parental pressure to take the "practical" path in life, or our "culture of pragmatism".

Consider an animal that lives in the wild.

It is not a very large animal and so needs to constantly be on the lookout for predators. It survives by hunting smaller prey. The world in which it lives is therefore a hostile one - a dog-eat-dog world.

Thus, the instinct of such an animal is, first and foremost, to protect its own. Its psyche has been conditioned to prioritise its survival, and its every move will be in service of this cause.

This scenario is a good analogy for what Prof Mahbubani observes.

When a national psyche is built on the narrative of survival and nurtured by constant reminders throughout a country's formative years, this psyche is passed down and ingrained into each succeeding generation.

In other words, parental pressure or a culture of pragmatism are, themselves, a consequence of this national psyche, of this narrative of survival.

Prof Mahbubani indirectly touches on this when he writes in last Saturday's article that small countries "should always be paranoid" in order to survive.

So, on the one hand, we have this need for more idealism in our young people, the kind which the professor observes in young Dutchman Boyan Slat.

However, on the other hand, we have this proposition that in order to survive, we must continue to be paranoid, continuing to propagate this national psyche.

Some might argue that this idealism and psyche can co-exist in the same space, but it is difficult to see how.

The idealism embodied by Mr Slat is a transcendent sort of mentality.

The very nature of this mentality relies on one being able to consider ideas greater than oneself - to care about the cleanliness of an ocean halfway around the world rather than finding stable career prospects to survive.

My question to Prof Mahbubani is, thus: How would he propose to reconcile the apparent contradiction between what he writes in his two articles?

Ajinkya Chougule
ST Forum, 17 Mar 2016


There is no contradiction between idealism and paranoia.

Idealism infuses the goals. Paranoia is part of the method of achieving these goals.

Our founding fathers, especially Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S. Rajaratnam, were idealistic in their desire to put food on our plates, a roof over our heads, and a school for our children.

However, they were paranoid and shrewd in looking for the best ways and means to achieve these idealistic goals.

My key advice to young people who want to be idealistic is that they have to be idealistic and shrewd.

I support idealistic goals like ending sharks' fin soup, reducing deforestation, or ending overfishing.

However, to achieve these goals, we have to be shrewd, calculating and even cunning.

History teaches us that some of the most successful idealistic leaders, like Mahatma Gandhi, were remarkably shrewd.

Can Singapore develop idealistic leaders who are equally shrewd?

Lee's legacy: Fostering harmony, going green, leadership renewal

Four speakers at a discussion on Mr Lee Kuan Yew's legacy highlighted what each saw as his most enduring idea. The event at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy was attended by 600 students, academics and diplomats. Charissa Yong reports
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 24 Mar 2016


Former senior minister of state Zainul Abidin Rasheed recounted how he was nearly killed during the 1964 racial riots on the way home from school.

"I saw with my own eyes people being maimed," said Mr Zainul, who escaped a group of Chinese attackers in Lavender Street, only to witness Malays attacking Chinese in Geylang Serai a few hours later.

The experience made him deeply appreciate Mr Lee's determination that Singapore would be a multiracial state. Mr Lee set up institutions to ensure minorities would always be protected and have a place here. These included the introduction of GRCs in 1988 and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act in 1990.

Multiracialism is a work in progress, but it remains the cornerstone of Singapore's existence and of its future, Mr Zainul added.


The drive from Changi Airport to town along tree-lined highways is a visible legacy of Mr Lee.

His drive to make Singapore a clean and green city made Singapore stand out from other less- developed countries, said Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee, chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities.

"Was Mr Lee a natural gardener? Did he have time to smell the flowers? He certainly did, and he made time to look at so many details," she said, citing the species of creepers on overhead bridges as an example.

Mr Lee also wanted to ensure that all Singaporeans had access to green parks, not just the rich. "For Mr Lee, the greening was a matter of social equity," she said.


When Mr Lee died last March, several world leaders came to pay their last respects.

This reflected their personal respect for him and his impact on the world, said India's top diplomat Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

He recounted how India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi had told him that Mr Lee was unique because he brought rapid changes to Singapore in just 20 years.

Other world leaders saw Mr Lee as a visionary, whose advice on international politics was highly sought after, he added. Mr Lee was always thinking of the future and was uncompromising about trying to get there, he said.


The People's Action Party's constant drive for leadership renewal is inherited from Mr Lee. "For him, the sooner the process starts, the better," said the head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security Shashi Jayakumar.

Mr Lee, the PAP's co-founder, chose to field younger candidates in the general elections and by-elections of the 1960s and 1970s, to give them valuable political experience.

He also urged backbenchers to be constructive critics and debate policies rigorously in Parliament.

This political foresight and willingness to push the envelope has been passed down to his successors, said Dr Jayakumar.

Snapshots from last night's panel discussion on "The Enduring Ideas of Lee Kuan Yew", jointly organised by NUS and our Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.View the webcast,
Posted by National University of Singapore on Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Mr Lee Kuan Yew a ‘geopolitical guru’ who had the world listening: Indian diplomat
By Neo Chai Chin, TODAY, 24 Mar 2016

Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew not only built “Brand Singapore”, but was the brand-builder for Asia’s modern leadership in many ways, a senior Indian official said on Wednesday (March 23).

And after being “a driver of development” and serving as “an example for the continent”, he evolved in the eyes of the world to be “sort of a geopolitical guru”, guiding Asia and explaining the continent to the rest of the world, Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar added.

“It was no longer Asia that was listening to him, it was also Europe, the United States,” the official said, having previously interacted with Mr Lee during his time as India’s High Commissioner to Singapore from 2007 to 2009.

Dr Jaishankar was a speaker at a forum attended by about 600 participants made up of diplomats, academics and students, to discuss the late leader’s changes to policies and enduring ideas, organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and National University of Singapore.

For Asian leaders such as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Dr Jaishankar said, Mr Lee embodied change in a lifetime through “doable practical” steps. India is waging campaigns for a clean country, clean waterways and closing the gender gap, among other things, and Dr Jaishankar said he also saw signs of Singapore’s influence in China, where he was posted after Singapore.

“If (Mr Lee) could impact… 2.5 billion people, what more can I say,” he remarked.

Other speakers at the forum were Singapore’s former Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ Dr Shashi Jayakumar and Professor Chan Heng Chee, chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. They spoke about Mr Lee’s ideas on multi-racialism, political-party renewal and the greening of Singapore.

Asked how he thought Mr Lee would view proposed changes to the elected presidency to ensure minority races have a chance to get elected, Mr Zainul Abidin said there are many Malay-Muslims who do not want a “special door” to the elected presidency scheme, but added that Singapore cannot take multi-racialism for granted.

“Ideally we’d like to have a Malay or minority candidate who can stand up to scrutiny and be elected by all Singaporeans without having to make a special privilege.”

While he was reassured by young Singaporeans who said they were “colour-blind” and wanted to stop talking about race, Mr Zainul Abidin said he does have his concerns “down the road, the next 50 years”, because of problems in the Middle East, as well as economic uncertainties and their impact on minorities and how that would influence their mindset on multiculturalism, for example.

On how Mr Lee dealt with ideas that were initially inconsistent with his own, the panelists said he would engage in debates with fellow Cabinet Ministers such as Dr Goh Keng Swee, seek information and listen.

Mr Zainul Abidin said that during his days as a newspaper editor, the Government had initially decided to close down Nanyang University due to reasons such as its graduates finding themselves “second-class” to graduates from the University of Singapore. Mr Lee met with editors, who disagreed with the decision. To their “pleasant surprise” later, the Government changed its mind and converted Nanyang University to Nanyang Technological Institute and, eventually, to Nanyang Technological University.

“He didn’t care about being politically correct. He wanted only to be correct,” said Prof Chan, who is Chairman of the...
Posted by Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on Wednesday, March 30, 2016

No comments:

Post a Comment