Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singapore (1959-90), was the most conspicuous leader of the post- World War-ii period. Unlike the firebrand nationalists of the newly-liberated British colonies else-where, LKY eschewed popular politics in favor of long-term social and economic planning. Within a short span of three decades, he transformed a hopelessly backward island into a thriving country with a high-income economy, an accomplished bureaucracy and a tremendously effective anti-corruption system. Gradually, the sway of his statesmanship crossed the boundaries of Singapore and turned him into a mythical figure around the globe. According to Graham T. Allison, Robert D. Black- will and Ali Wynn, LKY’s authorized biographers: as a political veteran he ‘served as a mentor to every Chinese leader from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, and as counselor to every U.S. president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama’. s
Lee Kuan Yew’s real greatness lies in the successful effort which he made to make Singapore, an enviable economic model, for the lagging-behind world. The difference brought by him can be gauged by the fact that when he took the charge in 1959, the per capita income was approximately $400 and now it exceeds $50, 000. In the present day world, Singapore is termed as ‘Economic Power House’, ‘Global Financial House ‘, ‘Asian Financial Hub’ etc due to its mercantile and monetary significance. At the outset, the problem of unemployment haunted and the only way of overcoming it was to industrialize it. He hired Albert Winsemius, a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) official, who generated the basic frame-work for industrial and commercial progress. Due to dearth of resources a number of quarters like the World Bank, the UK and US governments offered aid but LKY did not want to develop an ‘aid-dependent mentality’ in his people, therefore he turned-down all such-like proposals. He believed that ‘if we had to succeed, we had to depend on ourselves’. LKY established ‘Economic Development Board’ (EDB) and appointed Keng Swee, ‘a quit, outstanding administrator with an amazing ability to get the best out of those who worked for him’ as its first Chairman. The EDB set-up a ‘one-stop agency’ to sort-out all the possible issues likely to be confronted by an investor i.e. land, electricity, water, environment and work safety. Instead of working haphazardly, the EDB decided to focus precisely on 04 industries most suitable for Singapore: ship-breaking and repair, metal engineering, chemicals, and electrical equipment and appliances. The EDB people worked with ‘inexhaustible’ energy because they sensed that the survival of their country depended upon them. Due to their enthusiasm and hard work, the EDB managers were able to attract numerous investors during a period when the CEOs of various MNCs even did not know that where Singapore was. In a short span of time, LKY’s team was able to turn ‘Singapore Airlines’ the most profitable air passenger carrier in the world and the ‘Development Bank Of Singapore’ into a world-wide acknowledged financial institution. LKY started by promoting tourism and formed ‘Tourism Development Board’ and believing in the principal of ‘right man for the right job’ appointed a film and entertainment industry expert namely Runme Shaw its chairman. The man latter justified his selection through his wonderful performance.
Lee Kuan Yew was an innovator who never hesitated to experiment ——he established ‘Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) which had all the powers of a Central Bank except the jurisdiction to issue currency notes. LKY feared that in case Singapore issued its own currency, it will lose its value against the stronger legal tenders of the developed world. Consequently, the country continued issuing Singapore dollars only when backed by its equivalent value in foreign exchange. The authority also developed ‘Asian Dollar Market’ which proved to be a great success and by 1997 it exceeded the volume of US$ 500 billion. The MAS never compromised on its principles and standards: it pointblank refused ‘Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI)’ and ‘National Bank of Brunei (NBB)’ to operate in Singapore due to their questionable practices. Needless to say that both the banks ended-up ignominiously and Singapore escaped unscathed. LKY established ‘Stock Exchange of Singapore’ (SES) and ‘Singapore International Monetary Exchange’ (SIMEX) as well and latter these two institutions made their reputation globally. He also created the famous ‘Big Four’ banks by merging numerous smaller entities which were afterwards ranked by Moody’s as ‘the strongest and the best capitalized in the world’. He attracted the international companies by abolishing withholding tax on interest income earned by non-resident depositors and by exempting them from statutory liquidity and reserve requirements. In the words of LKY the foundations for Singapore’s financial status were ‘the rule of law, an independent judiciary; and a stable, competent and honest government that pursued sound macro-economic policies, with budget surpluses almost every year’.
LKY’s courage to take bold decisions in the national interest was unmatched. Unlike the other post-liberation leaders of the third-world, he was not swayed by emotions and decided to adopt English, a colonial legacy, as the lingua-franca of Singapore. There were two reasons: it was the international language which facilitated interaction with the outer-world and was helpful in acquiring foreign education plus it served as a common bond in gelling together multifarious social and cultural communities living in Singapore. Time proved the efficacy of the judgment.
Being a statesman of very high order, LKY understood the gravity of void created by the British withdrawal. To fill the vacuum he organized a team of the most talented and suitable persons to take charge of different spheres. Through his ‘compact and energy-radiating’ personality, he instilled spirit in the down-hearted and crest-fallen population of Singapore. He used to say, ‘my duty was to give the people HOPE and not to demoralize them’. Realizing the sensitivity of the matter, he dealt the religious cum racial issues very cautiously and kept the state out and above these differences. He always emphasized upon the importance of training and updating of knowledge. After remaining in office for nine long years, in 1968, he took a short sabbatical at Harvard to ‘recharge his batteries’ and ‘get some fresh ideas and reflect on the future’. He imbibed in the state-functionaries ‘the values and attitudes of public service, a willingness to learn from others and a readiness to accept assistance from any quarters’.
Lee Kuan Yew had a philosophical mind and developed his individual notion on each subject. Regarding India’s potential to match China; his response was always ‘negative’ because he did not consider India a ‘real nation’ like China rather a conglomerate of 32 distinct nations cobbled together by the British to suit their colonial interests. He was critical of the west to abandon the ‘ethical foundation’ of their society, believing that all problems are solvable by a good government. LKY believed in the state-interference of the media and personal lives of citizens in the national benefit: despite criticism of the west. He was shrewd enough to grasp the importance of Singapore’s ‘strategic location’ and plan accordingly. Now, it is considered to be the prime factor in causing the ‘economic miracle’. LKY was aware of the fact that ‘his country was by far the smallest in Southeast Asia and was not gifted with many natural resources’. However, in the words of Dr: Henry Kissinger; ‘His vision was of a state that would not simply survive, but prevail by excelling. Superior intelligence, discipline, and ingenuity would substitute for resources’. Henry Kissinger terms his plan of action as the ‘strategy of excellence’ which worked wonders and proved Toynbee’s augury that Singapore had become ‘too small a unit’ to ‘last as a sovereign state’, grossly wrong. Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography ‘From Third World to First’ narrates the watersheds of his long journey to triumph. It is a must-read for all the Pakistanis connected with politics, economics or management in any capacity.
The last word: quality leadership is an essential pre-requisite for the stability and progress of a country ; and Pakistan can learn a lot from the success-story of Singapore.