Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore who governed for more than three decades from 1959 to 1990, passed away last month. Lee left a legacy that proved that you can change a culture, you can pull a country out of poverty and you can create a first-world county that’s ranked 7th in least amount of corruption, highest in pro-business, provides economic freedom, ease of doing business, social cohesion, employment, education and the 3rd highest per-capita GDP in the world.

My first visit to that country was in 1992 with my sister Patty, her husband Mahmood, and my then 18-month-old daughter strapped in a backpack as we wandered the streets. 

Lee had stepped down as prime minister a few years before my visit, but Mahmood explained that Lee still ran the country. “Don’t spit, flush the toilet, don’t stare at women and always use the crosswalks,” Mahmood commanded as we got out of his car after crossing the Straits of Johor Causeway. “You will be caned and thrown in jail for chewing gum here. Lee has taken a bunch of poor, uneducated backward Chinese and Malays and given them a good life.” I think Mahmood admired Lee for his firm hand that wiped away corruption, instituted the rule of law, and brought economic prosperity and jobs to Singapore. I inferred from my chats with Mahmood that the corrupt (unsavory) lot left Singapore when they realized Lee was serious. Lee realized intuitively or consciously that while culture is important for long-term success, you still need short-term goals, strategy and focus.

FIM Group was an early investor in Singapore, based on the belief that Lee Kuan Yew was “real” and would succeed to the benefit of Singapore’s people and economy. This, in fact, has been true for my entire career, as Singapore investments have consistently been one of our best performers. Companies like Haw Par (Tiger Balm brand) and Eu Yan Sang (healthy living Chinese medicines and vitamins products) have been big winners for our clients, and we still own their shares. Everything is cyclical, so we have sold our shares of Singapore companies when the prices got too high and bought them back when the prices were more reasonable. I have met the chairmen of both of those family-owned companies and have had some lively and extensive chats about Lee, politics and prosperity in Singapore.

What follows are a few of my favorite quotes from Lee Kuan Yew. They should give readers an idea of why he was so successful.

“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”
“I ignore polling as a method of government. I think that shows a certain weakness of mind – an inability to chart a course whichever way the wind blows, whichever way the media encourages the people to go, you follow. If you can’t force or are unwilling to force your people to follow you, with or without threats, you are not a leader.”
“To straddle the middle ground and win elections, we have to be in charge of the political agenda. This can only be done by not being beaten in the argument with our critics. They complain that I come down too hard on their arguments. But wrong ideas have to be challenged before they influence public opinion and make for problems. Those who try to be clever at the expense of the government should not complain if my replies are as sharp as their criticisms.”

– Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000
“You know, the cure for all this talk is really a good dose of incompetent government. You get that alternative and you’ll never put Singapore together again: Humpty Dumpty cannot be put together again ... my asset values will disappear, my apartments will be worth a fraction of what they were, my ministers’ jobs will be in peril, their security will be at risk and their women will become maids in other people’s countries, foreign workers. I cannot have that!”
– Justifying million-dollar pay hike for Singapore ministers
“The task of the leaders must be to provide or create for them a strong framework within which they can learn, work hard, be productive and be rewarded accordingly. And this is not easy to achieve.”
– The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew 
"I was also troubled by the apparent overconfidence of a generation that has only known stability, growth and prosperity. I thought our people should understand how vulnerable Singapore was and is, the dangers that beset us, and how we nearly did not make it. Most of all, I hope that they will know that honest and effective government, public order and personal security, economic and social progress did not come about as the natural course of events."
– The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew, the “Father of Singapore,” is dead. There are a few people that I had wanted to meet in my lifetime, and he was one of them. I am sad he is gone, but I am most sad for the people of Singapore who lost a man who gave his life, risked public scorn and world ridicule to do what he felt needed to be done. He made hard decisions, and Singapore and the world are safer, more prosperous and lucky because of this wise man.