Architect of the Singapore we know, Lee Kuan Yew.
Lee Kuan Yew, a man, an institution. Responsible for the upbringing of Singapore, a nation that suffered colonialism from under the Japanese and the British, in a period of thirty years, from the third world to the first died on the 21st March, 2015, aged 91. Surprisingly, that day was the first time I heard about him. I saw a Q&A where he was asked what he would do if reigns of India were given to him. The answer he gave impressed me enough to read more about him. Discovery Channel ran an hour long episode covering his personal as well as professional life and I was absolutely glued to the TV. His speeches at his rallies during his prime and how a Cambridge law graduate took his native country, literally, from rags to riches. His story was one to woo a millions.
For those who do not know about him, Lee Kuan Yew was the Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 all the way to 1990. He successfully led his party, People’s Action Party (PAP), to victory eight times. He is known as the Father of modern Singapore, solely responsible for developing a small island city state like Singapore to one of the most developed Asian countries in such a short span. Singapore is now one of the four Asian Tigers with the country having an average growth rate of 7% in its GDP for the past four decades.
I’m not an expert on Lee Kuan Yew, the man himself, or the country he led, but I did pick up a few things from the literature I read about him and the show I saw. I hope all Indians, politicians or not, get to learn a few things from him.
1) Humility. Let me share an incident. Lee Kuan Yew found it necessary that Singapore be merged with Malaysia due to the lack of abundance of natural resources. The Communist Party in Singapore severely opposed the merger and so Lee Kuan Yew called for a public ballot on the opinion, and won by successfully attracting 70% votes for his cause. Two years later in 1965, Singapore was ousted by the Malaysian Central Government citing differences between them and the State Government of Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew wept while announcing the separation for he knew he had broken his people’s trust- the same people who had rallied for him two years ago for the merger. And he knew, that at 42 years of age, he had the entire country on his shoulders. A country ridden with poverty, illiteracy and lack of natural resource. In my opinion it was humility with channelled anger that got Singapore to where it currently is. The Land of the Merlion boasts of one of the highest world ratings in education, health, and development and is also among the top nations with reference to per capita income. However, even after accomplishing so much in his life, he had but one regret: the ousting from Malaysia. I’m sure it was only his humility that made him weep over an incident four decades past.
2) Frugality. It was said that Lee Kuan Yew spent public money very frugally on himself. Be it his house, cars, or anything. He was known as the Prime Minister for not having his own charter plane but always flying via scheduled ones and booking single rooms during stays. However, his ministers were among the highest paid in the world. The reason behind this, he said, was that he wanted to attract the best people, even from the private sector to help him serve the nation better.
3) Meritocracy. Singapore follows a public housing system formed way back in the 1960’s. Lee Kuan Yew was ruling a country that had five different races, two being minorities. The policy that he rolled out was primarily to get people out of the slums and to give them a sense of ownership. Lee Kuan Yew did not give any special quotas to the minorities, but rather encouraged them to make a place for themselves in the social system and enabled them to do so.
4) Integrity. Lee Kuan Yew said, “If you want money, don’t be in politics because when you take a bribe, the entire fate of politics vanishes.” These are great words put as simply as they can be. Lee Kuan Yew and his Government had set the harshest of punishments for crimes like corruption, bribery and smuggling. Lee Kuan Yew also managed to remain scandal free throughout his tenure. Singapore rose as one of the least corrupt nations, mainly because Lee Kuan Yew was against it!
5) Education. Lee Kuan Yew knew very well that his country had only one natural resource abundantly: its population. He allotted 40% of the budget towards education. And today, the National University of Singapore is ranked first in Asia and 24th in the world by QS.
6) Modernism With Roots. Lee Kuan Yew was a fan of exercise and swimming. He said that people should eat less and exercise regularly and work well. This is the only secret to a long life. This is true as he himself went on to live for 91 years. However, he changed his thinking with the time when it came to the country. Singapore is terrifically urbanised and modern. The Marina Bay Sands, the world’s second most expensive building is a part of Singapore. But when it comes to tradition and culture and cleanliness and health, the country is rooted deeply to the teaching of its ancestors. Surprisingly, English is the country’s primary language giving the Singaporeans an edge.
Everything mentioned above is only complementary to his hard work, perseverance and commitment. A commitment f his entire life to serve his nation.
Lee Kuan Yew has left us, but his work, his ideology, and his contribution will forever be etched in our hearts and minds striving to enrich our nations and ourselves the way he did with his.