How Lee Kuan Yew redefined leadership


What is leadership?

If you and I were to change our ways together, we could both get to a better place. However, if I were to change and you were not, I’d be much worse off. And because I can’t be sure that you will move, I won’t make the move either.

This is the classic “prisoners’ dilemma” where groups of people settle for a suboptimal outcome because they cannot ensure coordinated action that could take them all to a better outcome.

Great leadership in any context – especially in the context of national leadership – is about orchestrating coordinated movement away from the prisoners’ dilemma to a higher collective outcome.

The scorecard for great leadership

As I think about leaders, past and present, any contender for greatness needs to go through my test of three essential attributes. Take any leader in any setting and score them for each of these three attributes on a scale of one to ten:

  1. The first attribute is personal integrity, incorruptibility and sacrifice.
  2. The second is the ability to galvanize support through eloquence, story-telling and charisma.
  3. Third – and arguably the most important factor – is effectiveness or the delivery of results through the length of a marathon and beyond the sprint of revolutionary rhetoric.

History is littered with exceptional liberation heroes whose thunderous oratory failed to translate into effective governance. Many of them were men of impeccable personal integrity but lacking in administrative competence.

Grading individual leaders on this three dimensional scorecard is subjective. However, having given considerable thought to this over the past two weeks, I have no doubt that Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew ranks right at the top.

An aid-recipient from Australia and New Zealand less than fifty years ago, Singapore today earns twice as much in per capita income than these two countries – a point graciously noted in both their parliaments during their tributes to Lee Kuan Yew last month.

In my brief tribute on US television, I described Lee Kuan Yew as one of the world’s great conviction-leaders and the only one to have delivered such dramatic results in his lifetime.

Singapore is too small to offer lessons?

I have long been a proponent of the portability of Singapore’s mindset. Just over seven years ago, Kishore Mahbubani (Singapore’s former Ambassador to the UN, now Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy) and I hosted a workshop entitled “Developing a Development Mindset” with a view to exchange leadership experiences.

On the Singapore side, amongst others, we heard from Mr. Tan Gee Paw (master architect of Singapore’s water supply) and Mr. S Dhanabalan (member of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s cabinet for over a decade).

Unfortunately, many have dismissed the relevance and transferability of the Singapore experience with the off-hand remark that Singapore is too small to offer any lessons of value to larger countries.

Having just witnessed India declare a day of mourning at the passing of Lee Kuan Yew and reiteration of the fact that China emulated many of Singapore’s policies since Deng Xiaoping’s visit in November 1978, I have to smile to myself. Tell the world’s two most populous countries that Singapore doesn’t matter – that its mindset and psyche of governance is not scalable.

The Singapore Framework

Three aspects of Singapore’s leadership are worth highlighting:

  1. It was explicitly recognised that people follow leaders into the unknown only when there is a foundation of trust. And that trust is born out of personal incorruptibility and moral authority on the part of leaders.
  2. Pragmatism – a focus on whatever is most effective in getting to results – was valued higher than ideology.
  3. Thirdly, Singapore’s institutional arrangements, for example vis-à-vis trade unions, were designed for its own context instead of being imported as templates from abroad.

One of the best references for how Singapore went about executing on its management challenge is a book called “Dynamic Governance” by Boon Siong Neo and Geraldine Chen. They summarize Singapore’s journey in the simple framework of (a) think ahead, (b) think again and (c) think across.

Success or failure of any country can be measured in its ability to anticipate future trends and its role in the global value chain, its ability to revise or change course where required and its openness to learning from lessons learnt elsewhere.

Marketing and Delivering to the Brand Promise

Since its reluctant birth, Singapore’s existential challenge was to make itself attractive to international capital. Civil servants picked up the phone and made cold-calls to CEOs of multinationals, asking them to move their oil refining or ship repairing or electronics operation to Singapore.

The oil company Shell was one of the first to arrive. My father-in-law was a direct beneficiary – he got a scholarship from Shell followed by employment there as an engineer. Remarkably, the civil service adopted the same staff appraisal aystem that Shell used for its human resources management. After Shell came General Electric, followed by National Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, Hewlett Packard, FairChild – Singapore soon became an electronics cluster mainly due to positive word-of-mouth! Between 1972 and 1982, net investment surged nine times in Singapore.

Notice three things here:

  1. the complete abandonment of pride in the face of economic reality,
  2. a focus on getting things done (i.e substance over form) and
  3. the emphasis on building goodwill or image.

As we see in emerging markets worldwide, goodwill can be a “tipping point” – it can spread very quickly. Conversely, tiny things that are detrimental to national image can cause disproportionate harm.

Human Capital

Goodwill is built through consistency of actions and messages. Singapore’s objective of attracting foreign investment was in tune with its education policy and its manpower policy.

As outlined by Drs. Neo & Chen, in 1972, the Tata Training Centre was setup for precision engineering. The Philips Training Centre was setup in 1975. In 1982, the Japan-Singapore Institute of Software Technology was setup to respond to demand for software specialists. Glaxo invested $50 million to start a scholarship programme while Exxon-Mobil put in $20 million. More recently, sponsorship from the Monetary Authority of Singapore helped set up the Risk Management Institute at the National University of Singapore where I serve as Adjunct Professor.

Democracy & Freedom

Much has been written about Singapore’s brand of democracy and alleged limits on freedom. Two contributions to this debate struck me in recent weeks.

One is my friend Calvin Cheng writing in The Independent, UK: “Freedom is being able to walk on the streets unmolested in the wee hours of the morning, to be able to leave one’s door open and not fear that one would be burgled. Freedom is the woman who can ride buses and trains alone; freedom is not having to avoid certain subway stations after night fall. Freedom is knowing our children can go to school without fear of drugs, or being mowed down by some insane person with a gun. Freedom is knowing that we are not bound by our class, our race, our religion, and we can excel for the individuals that we are – the freedom to accomplish”.

The other is a blog where the author says, as the daughter of her father (who was detained under Singapore’s Internal Security Act), she hated Lee Kuan Yew. However, as a a daughter of the nation, she respects Lee Kuan Yew for turning this country into a safe haven for her and her family.

The Father of the Nation or one of them?

On the morning of 23rd March 2015, Singapore’s current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that “the first of our founding fathers is no more”. In other tributes over the week-long period of mourning, Lee Kuan Yew was described as “a founding father” and Singapore’s “founding prime minister”. For a man of such monumental achievements for his country, the tributes were short of hyperbole and long on personal, human stories.

With characteristic practicality, road closures around the state funeral were kept to a minimum and much of it brought back to normal almost immediately afterwards. Likewise, all of the community tribute centres were dismantled by the day after the funeral.

With my parents in town that week, my family and I went on a ride in the Singapore Flyer. My mother asked if there was a shrine or statue in memory of Lee Kuan Yew – before catching herself in mid-sentence: everything that we surveyed from the 500-foot ferris wheel is a monument to Lee Kuan Yew.



This article is published in collaboration with LinkedIn. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

Author: Lutfey Siddiqi is an Adjunct Professor at the Risk Management Institute, National University of Singapore and a Managing Director at UBS Investment bank.

Image: A man bows as he pays his respects to late former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew at Tanjong Pagar community club. REUTERS/Edgar Su.

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