Since Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, every media outlet in the free and not-so-free world has chronicled his accomplishments.
If you haven’t spent time in Southeast Asia, it’s hard to appreciate the “miracle” of transforming this speck of geography into a world-class economy. It’s not quite Moses parting the Red Sea, but it’s close.
I made my first trip to Singapore in 1994, four years after Mr. Lee had stepped down as prime minister. Still very much a public figure, I saw how his approach to communications deviated from the status quo. In a region where statesmen strive for vanilla, Mr. Lee achieved chartreuse … in a neon state.
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, 모단돌이 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 over the past week or so, what emerges is a master storyteller. 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.
With this in mind, 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.
In closing, I asked three of our senior leaders in our Singapore office to share their thoughts on Mr. Lee:
“Mr. Lee was a clear-eyed, blunt-speaking economic strategist and an astute observer. He kept the government nimble and small, the economy transparent and effective, and regulation simple, which is why Singapore is the success that it is today. He was also a firm believer in meritocracy. But I will always recall his firm, no-holds-barred authoritarian communication style to the electorate as typified by this quote from 1987 to The Straits Times: “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.”
– Shawn Balakrishnan, General Manager
“Lee Kwan Yew’s style of communication reflects the kind of leader he is. He tells you straight what you need to do in order to lead a better life. It’s paternalistic and direct. Here’s a video of LKY telling a female PhD student to get married before her child bearing years are over. This clip summarises the kind of person he is and how he shoots from the hip.”
– Idran Junadi, Account Director
“I grew up watching Lee Kuan Yew on TV and at political rallies, and to this day, I have not seen another local politician with the same fire and force of conviction that LKY displayed in the earlier years. Few orators can command the audiences the way he could. He was singularly eloquent, fiercely intelligent and equally comfortable using analogies that ranged from Ozymandias to the brawling pit. He pulled no punches. He was always brutally honest and often controversial. If you were the opposition and facing him at a political debate, God help you. Many local correspondents have shared that no global statesmen terrified them more than our very own Lee Kuan Yew.”
– Maureen Tseng, Director of Client Services
It’s true that Mr. Lee was a polarizing figure.
But I think one thing everyone can agree on is that Mr. Lee showed the power of language in leadership.