There are so many articles, eulogies, blog posts and even tweets about the passing of the great man, that I was almost turned off from writing anything, as it would have just been seen as another brick in the wall. But that would have been too factitious a reason to keep quiet, either. So, here are some learning points and thoughts which have crossed my mind over the past few days.
[Views expressed are entirely my own, as a private citizen]
You can’t please everyone, if you want to be effective
We have studied him in history books and heard the older generations talk about how he turned Singapore into a developed nation. Given such reverence, when I first saw the 500+ (now over 900) comments on The Guardian – which happens to be my favourite UK newspaper since I was a student there, nearly 20 years ago – it felt like there was a huge divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Singapore was referred to as a ‘police state’ and those who had left Singapore were unsurprisingly bitter in their comments about the man. (Of course, what else would I expect from reading a left-leaning Western newspaper? :))
But put them in his shoes and could they have done any better? It is always so easy to criticise, especially with hindsight, but how many would have persevered with the same challenges over so many decades and made as great an impact? And remember, whatever policy decision is made, there will always be tradeoffs. No system is perfect because humans run the systems and no humans are perfect. Not even democracy is perfect. (Looking at two very recent elections in more volatile parts of the world, I actually thought the respective electorates were making a big mistake by voting without a long-term view in mind and this will bring further misery and instability to their regions.)
As LKY’s health deteriorated over the past few days, and being a big fan of MBTI, I did a quick search and found a cheeky forum thread discussing what personality type LKY had. I agree with the view that he was probably an ENTJ (or at least, INTJ, though it would be more strenuous for the latter type to be involved in public-facing activities for long). He reached out to people in Singapore and the rest of the world, who became strategic allies. He advised statesmen from other countries and played a balancing act between big powers. He set high standards and tolerated no fools, and thus left behind a system that is known for its world-class efficiency. He wasn’t out to win a popularity contest – he just wanted to do his job well.
After all he’s achieved, what’s next for Singapore?
That’s the question everyone is asking. The biggest way we can thank him is not to rest on our laurels. There are complex challenges ahead for the government, with a more educated and demanding population that wants to be consulted more. Understandably, the younger generation has not experienced the dramatic improvement in living standards which LKY and his team brought to their parents and grandparents, and would feel more detached towards him. Can we produce a new generation of leaders who will also have the courage to step up to new challenges?
Stop limiting ourselves by putting ourselves in buckets
Some are now saying, “There will never be another LKY”. While such words sound very deferential and may be an appropriate way to express grief, I have asked myself, “Why not?” Why are we limiting ourselves, just like we used to tell some of our children that they were less smart than others?
In the tumultuous situation that Singapore was in, over 50 years ago, there were more opportunities – and correspondingly, risks – that brilliant people could seize to make great changes. Now, to rise to the top, one is expected to go through various systems (e.g. educational and political) and show consistent performance over the years. The tendency is thus to play it safe and not do anything too risky. Let us be careful that this does not perpetuate groupthink, even among the most brilliant of minds.
Don’t be afraid to overhaul systems that need to be fixed
Singapore has had to review its policies as the population’s needs change. For one, I agree with the recent shift in focus away from paper chases to lifelong learning. There may be other areas that need to be reviewed as well – let’s not have sacred cows. LKY himself was not afraid to make corrections – we’re now telling people to have more babies, and Formula One did make it to Singapore.
On a similar note, I was once told a story about the innovative company, 3M. At some stage in its growth, its founders decided to circulate their own CVs to their HR department as a test. Their CVs were not shortlisted. This showed that the company was straying from its original values, and it was time for an overhaul. Likewise, the day that we reject a LKY-type person because we don’t like how he speaks his mind – even if he makes good sense – because he causes offence to those in power, we are in trouble.
Dream the dream, and fight hard to live it
We stood up to neighbours who threatened us in the past – with separation, holding back resources like water, and even terrorism. They seemed to be more powerful but over the years we have proven we can stand on our own. It takes guts to do this, and LKY certainly had that. Let us continue to dream and constantly stretch ourselves to do better, and not be afraid to do things differently.