Monday, March 30, 2015

The Prince

Singapore’s Founding Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew was laid to rest on Sunday, 29 March 2015. The ceremony marked the end of an incredible week for Singapore. Nobody, including the government lead by the late Mr. Lee’s son expected the sudden outpouring of grief from the public. The government, which had a worldwide reputation for efficiency, found itself challenged managing the logistics of dealing with the crowds of people who gave up their working day to pay respects to the man.

Suddenly, everybody remembered the great things that Mr. Lee had done. He had, as many people said, brought us up from the swamp of third world poverty to a thriving metropolis. There were of course, one or two voices that talked about his darker side; the people he locked up without trial or had been sued into bankruptcy but other than the odd voices, Singaporeans were content to deify Mr. Lee.

When I read through the online comments from friends, the news reports and clips of his old rallies, I’m inclined to ask myself, who was the real Mr. Lee. Was he the saint who devoted his life to the betterment of the people, or was he a power hungry maniac who kept the people under his thumb? I believe the truth lies somewhere in between.

Let’s start with the obvious – Mr. Lee was a natural politician who recognized power and relished it. For the man, power was not about enriching himself or his family – it was there to be used by him to the fullest extent. Mr. Lee had a genius for moving the masses, either through himself or his deputies and he had an equal if not greater genius for playing the great powers. At times, it seemed that he understood the ground in big Western democracies better than the leaders of the said democracies. Mr. Lee could afford to have an American teenager canned for vandalism despite protest from the US President – the reason was simple, Mr. Lee ensured that the average citizen in the USA agreed with him. Likewise, the same was true when an Australian citizen was hanged for drug trafficking despite protest from the Australian government.

While Mr. Lee claimed that his favourite sage was Confucius, the truth was that he was, by his own admission, a student of Niccolo Machiavelli, who argued that it was better for a leader to be feared than loved. You could say that Mr. Lee was the “Prince” that Machiavelli wrote about (The comparison is apt, Singapore is by geographical size is similar to the Italian City States in Machiavelli’s day.) The “Good Life” that Singaporeans enjoy comes from the fact that Mr. Lee understood power.

The fact that Mr. Lee loved power is obvious. His early political career was spent maneuvering between Communist (mainly from Singapore’s majority Chinese population) and ultra-nationalist in Malaysia. The Colonial power of the region, the British had no interest and money to maintain the protection he needed and the new power, the USA had other priorities. Mr. Lee had to find a way of taking on and winning against ruthless opponents who had more resources.

However, when he had defeated his early enemies, it seemed that he missed the “fight to the death” challenges of his early career. Opposition politicians were ruthlessly crushed for the mere crime of being politicians who disagreed with him. Nobody ever thought that JB Jeyeratnam was a threat in the same way that the Communist were but Mr. Lee made it a point to use every trick in the book and the vastly increased resources of the state to ensure that Mr. Jeyeratnam would die a poor and broken old man.

Mr. Lee justified his ruthlessness in the name of National Security. It was better to crush Marxist and Islamist than to risk the nation being destroyed and dragged into conflicts. However, one has to ask if it was really necessary to hound even old allies like Devan Nair for the crime of having a disagreement?

Mr. Lee’s love for power and political fights and maneuvering was however, matched by wisdom and the understanding that it was better to have people working with you rather than against you. Being ruthless was necessary to get power and to maintain it. However, Mr. Lee understood that being ruthless was only one aspect of power.

For one, he understood that he needed the people on his side. He had the strength of character to allow competent deputies like Goh Keng Swee and S. Rajaratnam to do the work unhindered by political considerations and money worries. They worried about implementing ground policies and he worried about the politics. It was a combination that worked.

It worked for the simple reason, the lives of the people improved and the majority of his government’s policies proved to be correct. Singapore’s GDP per capita figures have become a religious mantra for the government and Singapore’s prosperity is not just in its statistics. Singapore remains a beacon of what a country should be to many in the region.

Mr. Lee’s success for Singapore turned out to be a model for the rest of the world. In the end, he was not only mourned in Singapore but in India and New Zealand, which both flew their flags at half mast.

In the end, Mr. Lee was a force of good for Singapore. He was by no means a Saint and you could say he did a few things that you could call diabolical. But in the end, Singaporeans have benefited from his leadership and for that we should be thankful. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Harry’s Unexpected Lessons.

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore first Prime Minister died peacefully in the early hours of the 23rd of March 2015. The tributes have been coming in and Singapore’s cyberspace has been ablaze with comments about Mr. Lee’s leadership and how he brought Singapore from third world to first.

Now that Mr. Lee has gone, it seems like a good time to ask ourselves what were the things that made Mr. Lee the leader that he was. Many have talked about his brilliance and his passion for Singapore. There are comments about how he led us into independence and how we thrived despite all the odds against a small nation surviving. There are of course certain less charitable comments that pointed out to Mr. Lee’s ruthlessness and the way he obliterated people into bankruptcy and ruin. There were also comments about how he claimed the credit for work that was done by others, namely his deputy Goh Keng Swee.

There’s a certain amount of truth in all these comments and I believe that this enough reason to see how all his qualities made him the success that he was. Here are some of the key factors that I believe made him what he was:

Change the Dream!

Much is said about how Mr. Lee Kuan Yew led us to independence. However, the truth is rather different. Mr. Lee in his biography, “From Third World to First” states very clearly that independence was something that was “Thrust upon Singapore.” He even went as far as to describe the idea of an independent Singapore as a “ridiculous notion.”

The idea for Mr. Lee was simple, Singapore would be a thriving part of Malaysia. He saw Singapore as a city that would be the dynamo in a thriving country called Malaysia, filled with natural resources and space. You could say that Mr. Lee’s vision would be something like Dubai, a prosperous and thriving metropolis within the larger entity of the UAE.

However, this wasn’t to be. The Federal Powers in KL thought that Mr. Lee was too much of a trouble maker and kicked Singapore out of the Federation. Suddenly, Singapore was thrust out on its own and Mr. Lee and his team had to find a way of surviving. – The rest as they say is history.

Adapt yourself to the Market

It makes me laugh when Singaporeans make it a point not to speak Mandarin as a way of distinguishing themselves from PRC Chinese. Competence in English has served Singapore well but to ignore the world’s largest market in the world seems rather ridiculous.

Lee Kuan Yew didn’t believe in cutting of his nose to spite his face. If anything, .Mr. Lee proved to be exceedingly adaptable to market conditions, especially when you look at the way he returned back from England and found that his “own kind,” the English educated didn’t start revolutions or get involved in political activity, particularly against the colonial power that they had grown to identify with.

Mr. Lee had never spoken a word of Mandarin or any Chinese dialect prior to his return from studies in the UK. To him, it he wanted to speak “English like an Englishman.” Like the Peranakan (Straits Chinese), Mr. Lee’s language was English and Malay. To the Peranakan’s, the Chinese dialects and Mandarin were languages of the street not of the elite and therefore not something that was learnt.
However, Mr. Lee understood that if he wanted to get into power, he would have to reach the man in the street. To this end, Mr. Lee made it a point to teach himself Mandarin and Hokkien (Dialect of Fujian province, the province when most ethnic Singaporean Chinese come from) in the space of a few months. Not only did he learn to speak both languages, he found the ability to move crowds in languages that were not his own.

Mr. Lee knew what he wanted and he was willing to go beyond his comfort zone. He understood that the Chinese educated and Chinese speaking masses were the key to getting into power and so he did what he needed to do to reach them.

Give Brilliant People a Free Reign.

Much is now being said of how the real architect behind Singapore’s success was Dr. Goh Keng Swee. To an extent it was. Dr. Goh was the man who built up institutions like the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) and the Economic Development Board (EDB).
While there is no doubt that Dr. Goh did the work, we have to remember that government isn’t always about achieving the best outcomes but about achieving them despite the opposition to them. 
When business people talk about results they usually mean who makes the most money. When politicians talk about results, they usually talk about compromise.

In the case of Singapore, Dr. Goh managed to do what he did without compromising his plans. The reason for this was simple – he didn’t have to fight political battles. His boss did it for him.
Mr. Lee had the strength of character to surround himself with highly brilliant people. He had, by own admission, huge rows with his cabinet colleagues and somehow, when they could convince them of what they proposed, he would back them to the hilt. The Lee-Goh team was good for Singapore because their strengths complimented each other. Mr. Lee left the policy details to Dr. Goh, but Dr. Goh needed Mr. Lee to keep the politics of his back.

It did help that his cabinet colleagues knew who was boss. Dr. Goh was a powerful deputy Prime Minister because he didn’t have ambitions for his boss’s job. Mr. Lee didn’t have to look over his back for a deputy with eye on his job.

Having a good team is not enough. You have to be able to utilize their talents and in this respect, Mr. Lee was brilliant. He was willing to invite ideas from experts like Dr. Albert Winsemius and to let competent deputies like Dr. Goh to run with things. Mr. Lee’s genius was in utilizing other people’s brilliance for his own end.

Stabilise the Home.

One of the most overlooked aspects of Mr. Lee was the fact that he stabilized his home. Mr. Lee did his job free of worry about what was going on in his home.

Mrs. Lee, who was Mr. Lee’s intellectual equal and some say his superior, kept a low profile. He was always the star of the show. She ensured that the children were well brought up and domestic issues would never disturb the man from his job.

The Lee family has remained low profile despite the power awarded to them. Unlike the Suharto’s of Indonesia, the family never allowed itself to be associated with the less pleasant things of the power they’ve enjoyed.


Lee Kuan Yew died a respected part of the country he created. When you think of how his contemporaries like Marcos (exile) and Suharto (house arrest) died, that is an achievement. May Mr. Lee rest in peace.   

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Life after Harry

The Chinese Year of the Goat is starting on a rather auspicious note for Singapore. The Goat Year, which is supposed to be a fairly gentle year, started out with the news that Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew had been taken to hospital and is now on “life support.” While we should wish Mr. Lee a recovery, we are witnessing an end of an era. Mr. Lee has been visibly frail since the death of his wife in 2010 and at the age of 91, he’s lived beyond the two score and ten recommended by the Bible. His passing should be something that we expect.

While Mr. Lee has remained out of the public eye since he resigned from the Cabinet after the 2011 Election, he’s been the driving force of modern Singapore. I remember a prominent journalist describing as the “Era of Lee Kuan Yew,” and he went on stress that this was despite the fact that, “Lee Hsien Loong [Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s son] is now the Prime Minister and Goh Chok Tong was the Prime Minister for 14-years.”

Mr. Lee was our first Prime Minister. He and his initial governments played a role in creating the policies and institutions that have made Singapore what it is. Mr. Lee was a great visionary. He insisted on things like integrity in the public service and promotion by merit.

Not only was Mr. Lee a visionary, but he also had the rare gift of being a visionary with a pragmatic streak. He had the good sense to surround himself with competent deputies like Goh Keng Swee and Rajaratnam. Mr Lee fought the political battles and allowed his deputies (especially Dr. Goh) to get on with the work.

The results of his vision and pragmatism are visible. Singapore is now a thriving, prosperous, green and safe metropolis. Despite its limited geography, Singapore is held up as a model of what a city should be. The emerging Asian giants, China and India have sent government officials to Singapore to study how Mr. Lee did. India’s recently elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modhi is a fan of Mr. Lee.

While Mr. Lee did some nasty things like ruin his political opponents (there are political prisoners who have been incarcerated longer than either Nelson Mandela or Ang Sung Su Kyi), he has been on the whole a good force for Singapore. Let’s face it, Singapore measures up pretty well in just about everything and these days that comparison is not with third world backwaters like Angola but with the developed nations of the West like the USA and members of the European Union.

So, why aren’t Singaporeans, especially the younger generation showing much emotion over the possible demise of the man who was probably the root cause of the good life that they enjoy.
My personal feeling is that Mr. Lee forgot one of the most important lessons of business – never fall in love with your own business. The man who made “succession planning” and obsession couldn’t help but to create consultancy positions in the cabinet of his successors. He was Mr. Goh Chok Tong’s “Senior Minister,” and then, when his own son took over, he became the “Minister Mentor,” or the man they still needed around to “mentor” the people he chose to run the country.

While nobody can doubt Mr. Lee’s wisdom and the fact that he’s been right about so many of the crucial issues, there comes a point when one forgets that times change and the methods that worked yesterday may not work today. You could say that Mr. Lee was the father of the nation and he was the father that forgot that the children had grown up.

One of the most common failings was to stick onto the myth that he and his party created – they were the party that brought the nation from swamp to thriving metropolis in a generation.
While the PAP and Mr. Lee deserve credit for bringing Singapore up in the world, the message had become lost on a generation that never lived through things like the Japanese Occupation or the riots of the 60s. There’s no point telling a retrenched manager with a mortgage and family to feed that he has it easy when compared to the generation that survived the Japanese occupation. What he wants is to find a way of making a living so he can feed the family.

There were also times when the obsession with the past record was more than just out of touch – it was self-serving. One of the worst moments came when Mr. Lee proceeded to sold Singaporeans for being complacent about national security when there were calls for the Minister in charge of national security to resign after that Minister allowed a terrorist to waltz out of a secured facility. Mr. Lee was known for being ruthless with his own ministers in extracting the highest standards and competence and integrity. Suddenly he was proudly defending the incompetence of his son’s ministers. To a generation of Singaporeans who had grown up thinking of Mr. Lee as a great man who did things for the nation, this was a rude shock. Had he grown to love his power more than his people?

As a young Singaporean, I find Mr. Lee’s demise sad but hopeful. The man had faults and his frailties. These weaknesses have damaged certain aspects of Singapore. However, when you compare him to his contemporaries in Southeast Asia, he did place some safeguards against himself. Singapore’s elections are really run in a “free and fair manner” (the ballot is secret, even if the ruling party may like you to think otherwise.) Mr. Lee did step aside in 1991, unlike Suharto who had to be pushed and confined to house arrest or Marcos who had to flee the nation.

 If one looks at Mr. Lee’s family, you have to hand it to him for ensuring they stayed in line and played by the rules. Our current Prime Minister was required to take the same exams that everyone else took. As a reservist colonel pointed out, “Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Hsien Yang went to OCS (Officer Cadet School) and trained – they did not get 12-year deferments of National Service and then got posted to study soil.” The Elder Mr. Lee has kept certain things in line, which many of his contemporaries did not – one only has to go back to how the Suharto family seemed to own as well as run Indonesia.
You could say Mr. Lee’s problem was to set high standards for public officials and the angst that many Singaporeans feel towards the once almighty government is the fact that they feel its moved away from the standards that Mr. Lee set.

It would take courage to admit this but should any government recognize and act of these mistakes, they would have secured Mr. Lee’s decent legacy for the betterment of Singapore.