Key Leadership Lessons from the Late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew

Posted in | by Jiehui Kwa on 8 June 2015

Last updated on 4 October 2018

Here was a man of greatness, who had led Singapore through its somewhat miraculous transgression from a third-world fishing island into the first-world mega-metropolis it is today. Singapore mourns the passing of its founding father Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, but in such a time of national despair, it is poignant to recall the late Mr. Lee in his former glory. What would come to mind first are undoubtedly the essential leadership qualities he had displayed as a man of profound vision that had enabled his astounding accomplishments in the wise governance of our city-state in its most vulnerable early years. Let us learn a thing or two from Mr. Lee’s genius together. As a leader, one should:


Put the people’s interests above one’s own

Make no mistakes – being a politician comes with many sacrifices. To many regimes, this could be made up with rampant corruption and members of parliament living more lavish lives than the richest bourgeoisie elites of their country. To Mr. Lee, he knew that as a politician, his primary role was to sacrifice his own freedoms to attain the betterment and subsequent freedoms of his people. And with such a self-sacrificial mindset, he set about making rights to a broken Singapore at her infancy.


“I have no regrets. I have spent my life, so much of it, building up this country. There’s nothing more that I need to do. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life.”


And rights he had made indeed. 


Come back down to reality: pursue pragmatism over idealism, especially when a whole country of people are at stake

Lee was known as a hardliner to many, having made some controversial political moves that have raised the ire of liberals and proponents of absolute democracy in its pure, idealistic form. But he stood fast to his belief that pragmatism, and not idealism, is the surest way towards development and the betterment of living standards of his people. It is this realism that has led to the results as shown in Singapore’s success.


“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.”


While his iron-fisted, results-oriented ruling method has drawn extensive criticism from the Western world, it has brought significant improvements to the lives of the vast majority of Singaporeans. It’s difficult to say if his choice to follow through with such a political stance was right, but it had reaped the results necessary for Singapore to become one of the richest and safest countries in the world. Is that not what has been important all along?


It is perhaps wise for a young country to reign in on pursuing an idealistic democracy, and instead focus its political energy on, you know, getting food on everyone’s tables and roofs over their heads. Mr. Lee had been in possession of this gifted foresight.


Be completely honest and straighforward

Singaporeans would probably be familiar with just how curt Lee’s words can be. He didn’t seem to care to be politically correct, however involved he is in politics. Instead, he strived only to speak what he truly meant and felt, and in this way upheld a streak of somewhat brutal honesty that is very uncharacteristic for people in his line of work. In a sense, he had a say-no-bullshit policy that often led him to, perhaps ironically, make certain offensive or insensitive remarks. Nevertheless, his honesty permeated not only through his words, but his actions. We have seen that what Lee has said he shall set out to do, he will in fact do. This is in contrast to many an empty promise given out by most politicians, and it’s something we could all learn from. In being honest, he has secured himself as a figure to be respected, as a person to be trusted amongst the people, insodoing garnering more support from his peoples.


“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.”


Clearly, he does so with no regrets. 


Love thy spouse

Mr. Lee’s love story with his wife, the late Mdm. Kwa Geok Choo, was as riveting as any romance novel. It was perhaps through their relationship that we have been able to witness the true humanity within Lee, what with his political image being an iron-fisted hardliner who showed little mercy. Mr. Lee is not only remembered as a leading politician with great wisdom and capability, he is now also known for being a very loving husband. A conversation that occurred between them, right after Mdm. Kwa’s second stroke, went like this:


Lee: ‘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.’

Kwa: ‘That is a big promise.’

Lee: ‘Have I ever let you down?’


It’s hard not to be moved by such an exchange. I’m sure his love story will continue to inspire

Possess an unparalleled vision for the best outcome, and a courage to pursue it

Singaporeans would all know the story. How Mr. Lee had shed some iconic tears upon Singapore’s separation with Malaysia, and how difficult it had been for Mr. Lee and his party to carry on governing a country that has neither natural nor man-made resources at the time. But none of such hardships had affected his unwavering spirit in wanting to better the lives of all Singaporeans. This is owing to the sheer magnitude of his vision for a successful Singapore, and the achievement of this success is only possible because he also had enough courage to overcome all the odds he had faced as a leader.


“Even from my sick bed, if you are going to lower in my grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up.”


On this note, we hope that Mr. Lee rests in peace. That would depend on, of course, if nothing does indeed go wrong. Thank you Mr. Lee.


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