Singapore celebrated SG50, its 50th birthday, in 2015. It also mourned the loss of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, its founding father, who passed away the same year. While I am tempted to argue Singapore has achieved much only because of him, lets just look at a few key qualities he stood for. Countries, leaders & individuals have much to learn from him, more so Singapore as it looks towards SG100.
Mr. Lee was openly paranoid about Singapore’s future, even as he built the city from scratch with great confidence. He was a living example of the phrase ‘Only the Paranoid Survive’, many years before Andy Grove popularized the phrase through his book with the same title. Mr. Lee frequently spoke out about various threats (political, racial, economic, others) to Singapore, his fears and possible dystopian scenarios, in public. While some accused him of fear mongering, he wanted his people to understand the constant risks assailing the small country with no natural resources, surrounded by big & strong neighbors. This sense (or even culture) of paranoia is palpable even today, at least among its senior leaders, politicians & bureaucrats, which can be quite a motivator if harnessed well. Before his death, Mr. Lee’s often expressed fear about Singapore’s future was that today’s younger generation have taken things for granted & they are not paranoid enough.
The perils of being paranoid include being stranded like a deer caught in the headlights, even as a hundred ideas may buffet you. What’s the best course of action? Mr.Lee chose to be pragmatic. He embraced open market capitalism when it was untested & unpopular in large parts of Asia, because that was perhaps the best route to economic growth & prosperity for the poor tiny island which had nothing to offer other than being a trading post. Many of the ideas he championed including public housing, transportation, greening, tourism etc. smack of pragmatism. Meritocracy, rule of law, good governance & intolerance to corruption are all practical ideas which helped Singapore survive, differentiate & succeed.
Great ideas, lofty visions and catchy slogans are good to have, but execution is key. Mr. Lee’s execution skills made possible the transformation of Singapore from third world to first world in his own lifetime. He understood execution is a team play and went about recruiting the best talent wherever he found it, in Singapore or outside. He assembled, and later attracted, the best people in government, business & many other fields. Singapore’s ministers are the best paid in the world. Various bodies of government are known for their execution skills, their ability to deliver what they promise on time and budget.
All this required extraordinary boldness. Mr. Lee was both feared & respected. He didn’t mince words when taking on opponents. His approach was direct and combative – either you convince him or he convinced you. His outspoken nature, combined with a keen sense of geo-politics and a successful track record, had many world leaders seeking his take on worldly affairs. He was bold to promote policies & decisions which were unpopular when announced, but which turned out well over the years. On hindsight, some such decisions may have well hurt his political career. He was bold, and also fortunate.
The snowball set in motion by Mr. Lee may well carry Singapore to a glorious SG100. The above qualities still linger among the senior leadership. The challenge is to groom the next generation of leaders and citizens who are as paranoid, pragmatic, & bold as Mr. Lee would have liked it.