Politicians tend to be skilled communicators.
Lee Kuan Yew was gifted.
Today marks the five-year anniversary since his passing. Much has changed in Singapore on the communications front. Maureen Tseng who heads our Singapore office offers an on-the-ground snapshot.
Social media represents the biggest change over the past five years. Previously perceived as elitist and far removed from the populace, the government ministers today embrace social media to connect with the public and to provide a more human and “grassroots” vibe.
The current PM, Lee Hsien Loong, uses Facebook quite heavily, enjoying in excess of 1.3 million followers. He also takes his own Insta pics and is quite the photographer. His photos on Insta add a nice, personal touch.
He made a cameo on popular Facebook infographics vlogger, Nas Daily (Mothership: PM Lee makes cameo in 13th Nas Daily video about S’pore being an ‘almost perfect country’).
Tan Chuan Jin who has served in the Singapore Cabinet since 2014 is also becoming a mini social media celebrity.
However, there has also been a fair bit of back-peddling recently because of the latest fake news rulings. The Government introduced the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) after two years of deliberation. It came into effect on the second of October 2019, with a fair amount of discussion. The Government has also attempted to enforce the law outside Singapore’s border, ordering FB to publish a correction alongside a post by the Straits Times Review, a politicised site based in Australia.
How would Lee Kuan Lee handle social media and this tumultuous intersection of information and communications?
He would have figured it out. He enjoyed the spotlight and wasn’t one to back down from a challenge.
A Master of His Craft
I made my first trip to Singapore in 1994, four years after he had stepped down as prime minister. Still very much a public figure, he brought a bit a swagger to his communications.
Americans like bluster; Asians not so much. Years ago in a discussion with the general manager of our Korean office, she explained this Asian dynamic with the Korean phrase, 모난돌이 정맞는다. Loosely translated it means, “The nail that stands out gets hammered.”
Mr. Lee clearly understood that communications that stood out would be more persuasive in rallying a nation and gaining peer status with other countries. If this periodically made him a target for the hammer, so be it. He had a job to get done.
In my studying Mr. Lee’s communications, a master storyteller emerges. By storyteller, I don’t only mean the ability to tell a compelling story with a beginning, an end and twist in between, though he could do this. What’s more impressive was his natural instinct to apply storytelling techniques to how he communicated in general.
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, in His Own Words
I’ve categorized a cross-section of his quotes by storytelling technique:
“We knew that if we were just like our neighbours, we would die. Because we’ve got nothing to offer against what they have to offer. So we had to produce something which is different and better than what they have. It’s incorrupt. It’s efficient. It’s meritocratic. It works. We are pragmatists. Does it work? Let’s try it and if it does work, fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one. We are not enamoured with any ideology.”
– The New York Times, August 29, 2007
“The Americans are great missionaries. They have an irrepressible urge to convert others.”
– The book “Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew,” 1992
“The final verdict will not be in the obituaries. The final verdict will be when the PhD students dig out the archives, read my old papers, assess what my enemies have said, sift the evidence and seek the truth. I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honourable purpose.”
– The New York Times, September 10, 2010
“Let me be frank; if we did not have the good points of the West to guide us, we wouldn’t have got out of our backwardness. We would have been a backward economy with a backward society. But we do not want all of the West. Let me give you an example that encapsulates the whole difference between America and Singapore. America has a vicious drug problem. How does it solve it? It goes around the world helping other anti-narcotic agencies to try and stop the suppliers. Singapore does not have that option. What we can do is to pass a law which says that any customs officer or policeman who sees anybody in Singapore behaving suspiciously … can require that man to have his urine tested. If the sample is found to contain drugs, the man immediately goes for treatment. In America if you did that it, would be an invasion of the individual’s rights and you would be sued.”
– Foreign Policy, March/April 1994
“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.”
– at the Victoria Theatre, September 30 1965
Anecdote (on how Americans perceive Singapore)
“They don’t know where Singapore is, they are not interested. They think of only Michael Fay, then maybe caning, chewing gum … strange odd place this Singapore.”
– Book, Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew (March 13, 2013)
To see Mr. Lee in action, check out his interview on “Meet the Press” during the 1960s.
He starts off a tad nervous, but hits his stride around 7:41 with this response after getting peppered with questions on Vietnam:
“May I say what I mean in my own words. Americans have this friendly habit for helping a person think for himself, and I’d rather do my own composition if I may …”
If you don’t have time to watch the entire video, at least jump to 12:39 where after explaining to the clueless journalist the difference between being Singaporean and Chinese, he shares a prophetic narrative on China.
Needless to say, Lee Kuan Yew didn’t concern himself with staying on message.
Echoes from the Past
Nicolas Chan who leads digital for us in Asia and is Singaporean dusted off these passages from a Lee Kuan Yew speech on Changi Airport as a brand-building asset:
“Changi is a beautiful site at the easternmost corner of the island. The approach to the city from the east coast runs along a new 20 kilometre expressway built on land reclaimed from the sea, with no problems of congestion, beautiful glimpses of the sea on one side and vistas of HDB estates and private condominiums on the other. The airport and the pleasant 20-minute drive into the city made an excellent introduction to Singapore, the best $1.5 billion (spent on building Changi Airport) investment we ever made.
“Visiting CEOs used to call on me before making investment decisions. I thought the best way to convince them was to ensure that the roads from the airport to their hotel and to my office were neat and spruced, lined with shrubs and trees.
“Without a word being said, they would know that Singaporeans were competent, disciplined and reliable, a people who would learn the skills they required soon enough. American manufacturing investments soon overtook those of the British, Dutch and Japanese.”
I think that qualifies as “strategic communications.”
Of course, it helps when you can tap budgets beyond what’s allocated to communications.