The leadership and economic legacy of Lee Kuan Yew


By Dinesh Weerakkody

In 2011, I listened To Lee Kuan Yew officially launch his book titled ‘Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going’ at the St Regis Singapore. He spoke passionately of the need to promote meritocracy.

Undoubtedly, his uncompromising stand over the years for meritocracy, efficiency and education during his tenure as Prime Minister transformed Singapore into one of the most prosperous nations in the world. He is unquestionably,  one of the outstanding world leaders of the last hundred years.

Few leaders have so far matched Lee’s achievement in propelling Singapore From Third World to First World. Moreover, he managed it against far worse odds: no space, no water, beyond a crowded little island; no natural resources; and, as an island of polyglot immigrants, not much shared history. Sometimes, people 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.

Tell that to the world’s two most populous countries that Singapore doesn’t matter – that its mindset and psyche of governance is not scalable. For example, India declared a day of mourning at the passing of Lee Kuan Yew and the reiteration by the Chinese leaders that China emulated many of Singapore’s policies since Deng Xiaoping’s visit in November 1978.

Unlike Lee’s friend Deng Xiaoping , Lee worked on a small canvas and demonstrated that an impoverished country can turn into a flourishing one with strong and engaged leadership. Singapore’s per capita income in 1959 was about $400, today it is in excess of $56,000 and has reserves of over $ 343 Billion. So what Lee achieved in tiny Singapore not only transformed the lives of his own people profoundly, but had an immense impact beyond Singapore in shaping the Asia of today.

The leader

Lee Kuwan, was perhaps the last of that generation of leaders who guided their countries through the challenges and turmoil of decolonization to independence.

It is hard now to recall how difficult and challenging those times were in Singapore. He brought Singapore into being a sovereign independent state against the background of the fight against communism in the Malayan Emergency, the contest with Sukarno’s Indonesia in Confrontation, the bitter split from the union with Malaysia, and Britain’s strategic withdrawal from Asia.

He found himself leading a country deeply divided on religious and ethnic lines, surrounded by powerful potential enemies, with a weak economy and no natural resources at all. Those who criticize the authoritarian style of government he developed to deal with all these issues need to consider the scale of the challenges Singapore faced. Lee’s PAP offered the people of Singapore an implicit deal: in return for accepting his system of politics, he offered them stability, security, clean government and prosperity. And he delivered on that deal beyond anyone’s wildest dreams — including perhaps his own.


Singapore today has the third highest per capita GDP of USD in the world, measured in PPP terms, behind only Qatar and Luxembourg. It is 40- 50 per cent higher than Switzerland’s, Canada’s and Australia’s. That is the scale of his achievement. There can be few examples in history of such an outstandingly successful nation created so completely by the vision, will and leadership of a single individual. Mr Lee was a firm believer in meritocracy.

He would often say,  "We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think," as he put it bluntly in 1987. His government’s ministers were the world’s best-paid, to attract talent from the private sector and curb corruption. Corruption did indeed become rare in Singapore. Like other crime, it was deterred in part by harsh punishments ranging from brutal caning for vandalism to hanging for murder or drug-smuggling. Singapore’s objective of attracting foreign investment was in tune with its education policy and its manpower policy.As Mr Lee also said: "Between being loved and feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless." Lee Kuan Yew, the man behind modern Singapore died at the age of 91, and while Singaporeans are still mourning the loss of a respected politician, many people all over the world continue to join them in recognizing a great leader and his impact on the political and economic sphere. He has left a legacy behind for many budding political leaders proving that great and engaged leadership can turn an impoverished country into an economic powerhouse.

(The writer is a thought leader.)

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