My editors had a simple task for me. I was asked, as one of our Singaporean writers, to pen an op-ed on what the recent death of our nation’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew meant to me
A few days later and I had no idea what to write. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I had nothing to say. It was more like, what could I say?
Here was a giant of a human being, a man whose name and philosophies will be studied by our descendants for generations to come. A man who defined a generation and whose death at the age of 91 signaled the passing of the last great statesman of the 20th century.
Who was I to say anything about Lee Kuan Yew?
Especially since in the hours following his passing, people far wiser and more learned than I had eloquently written down the thoughts and feelings of an entire nation in blog posts, the printed media and even on social media.
It came to a point where my Facebook feed was full of nothing but articles on Lee Kuan Yew…and I read every one of them.
Here was a man, who through sheer force of will, steely resolve, and visionary foresight had brought Singapore from it’s third world state to the it’s current position as the region’s most powerful economy.
The articles kept coming though, some extolling his virtues, others trying to chronicle his life and his times while a vocal minority wrote about him as a dictator, as a tyrant that ruled Singapore with an iron fist and got wealthy off the hard work of it’s industrious citizens.
Each article I read used quotes from some of Lee Kuan Yew’s thousands of speeches to make whatever point the authors wanted. After reading a metric tonne of his quotes in a metric tonne of articles, something clicked.
Lee Kuan Yew was an entrepreneur, in the purest form.
In his speeches and in his interviews with the media, many of the things Lee Kuan Yew said were in the same vein as some of the greatest entrepreneurial minds in history; people like Rockefeller, Edison, Jobs and those illustrious ilk.
Lee Kuan Yew was an entrepreneur before the word even meant anything to the world at large and his business was Singapore Inc, a 5.5 million person-strong confederation of hearts and minds with an industrious spirit and strong values that is now universally respected as one of the 20th century’s greatest success stories.
Dear reader: I still do not think I have the right to pen an article about the life and times of Lee Kuan Yew for the simple reason that anything I write will seem inconsequential in the face of his gargantuan life.
I also do not believe I have the right to judge him. That unsavory business can be dealt with by scholars who, in the countless generations to come, will be able to see the ramifications of the processes that Mr Lee began.
What I would like to share are some of the things he said over the years that I believe entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs alike can learn from the man. Words, that even when stripped of their Singaporean context are every bit as pathos filled, every bit as meaningful and every bit as insightful.
These are the words, ten quotes to be exact, of a man who has lived and breathed the essence of the entrepreneurial spirit every day of his life. A man who, for 31 years as Singapore’s prime minister, dealt with an uncertain future and still soldiered on, earning the man and his accomplishments worldwide renown and respect.
These ten quotes are just the ones that I feel left the deepest impression on me and it is these ten quotes I will hold most dear to my heart as I walk forward into an uncertain future and an uncertain world. I am certain that as I grow older and hopefully wiser, the true depth of their meaning will become apparent.
1. Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless. (The Singapore story: memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew)
2. My definition of an educated man is a man who never stops learning and wants to learn. I am not interested in whether a man has a Ph.D or not, or an M.A. for that matter, or a diploma. Mao never had one, neither had Khrushchev, nor Stalin. (1977 Speech in Parliament)
3. I have never been over concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader. (The Singapore story: memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew)
4. What I fear is complacency. When things always become better, people tend to want more for less work. (Lee Kuan Yew in his own words, 1959-1970)
5. You lose nothing by being polite. The answer is ‘No’, but please say it politely and give the reasons… Explain to me why ‘No’. Don’t change ‘No’ to ‘Yes’. Don’t be a fool. If there was a good reason why it is ‘No’, it must remain ‘No’, but the man must be told politely. (Lee Kuan Yew in his own words, 1959-1970)
6. I started off believing all men were equal. I now know that’s the most unlikely thing ever to have been, because millions of years have passed over evolution, people have scattered across the face of this earth, been isolated from each other, developed independently, had different intermixtures between races, peoples, climates, soils… I didn’t start off with that knowledge. But by observation, reading, watching, arguing, asking, that is the conclusion I’ve come to. (Lee Kuan Yew, The Man & His Ideas, 1997)
7. Life is not just eating, drinking, television and cinema…The human mind must be creative, must be self-generating; it cannot depend on just gadgets to amuse it’self. (Lee Kuan Yew in his own words, 1959-1970)
8. You know the Singaporean. He is a hard-working, industrious, rugged individual. Or we would not have made the grade. But let us also recognise that he is a champion grumbler. (The Wit & Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew)
9. I do not yet know of a man who became a leader as a result of having undergone a leadership course. (The Wit & Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew)
10. Rest on laurels? I wish I could do that. No, you rest when you’re dead. (The Wit & Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew)
I am a Singaporean, born and bred. I am the product of a system put in place by Lee Kuan Yew, a true entrepreneur. From now until my dying day, Lee Kuan Yew will have played a part in my life and in the lives of the nearly six million souls that call themselves a Singaporean.
I met the man just once, when I was very young.
Too young to understand who my parents were asking me to wave at. However, if I knew then what I know now, I would have fought my way to the front of the queue to shake the hand of the man that for better or worst, had a fairly large part to play in turning me into the man I am today.
So, dear readers, if anyone tells you that an entrepreneur has very little lasting impact on the world, get out a map and point to the little red dot called Singapore and show them that here, on this tiny island, a true entrepreneur took the reigns and transformed a small trading town into one of the most successful countries on the blue marble we call planet Earth.
If you’d like to submit your favourite Lee Kuan Yew quote, write to us at [email protected]