Photo: Lee Kuan Yew at the opening ceremony of PCF [email protected] on 15 August 2010

Since the news of Lee Kuan Yew’s critical health condition came out, there has been much comment and discussion on his person and legacy with new articles and commentaries coming out by the hour. Some espouse gratitude and reminiscence and others claim he was over-hyped and criticize his character and legacy. As everybody is entitled to his or her own opinions, frankly I have not much to say about the views that criticize his character and beliefs. I do have serious issues with the ones that downplay or challenge the legacy that he has left for Singapore.

The most common argument that I have heard is that LKY does not deserve all these glorification as Singapore’s success was not just all due to him. He had strong and capable people like Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Sen under him that did “most” of the work and he simply took all the credit.

This argument to me is flawed as LKY had simply followed what ALL other dynamic leaders in history had done; they gathered talented people with the right skills to form a team to tackle the challenges before them. Here are 5 national and business leaders considered “Great” (by majority historical chroniclers) and the top subordinates that they depended on:

– Liu Bang (Han Dynasty, China) with Han Xin and Zhang Liang
– Genghis Khan (Mongol Empire) with Subotai and Yelu Chucai
– Abraham Lincoln (Union – USA) with Ulysses Grant and William Seward
– Ray Kroc (Mcdonalds) with Harry Sonneborn and June Martino
– Steve Jobs (Apple) with John Lasseter and Jonathan Ives

Good leaders always search for the most talented or skilled people to work with, do what it takes to get the best effort from them and ensure they are allocated the right tasks. These outstanding leaders also allow their talented team members to stand up to them and challenge their point of view. This is not a show of ignorance or weakness. On the contrary, these are attributes of wisdom and strength. Ironically, such practices and great leaders are sadly not the norm but is actually extremely rare throughout the ages. There are in fact many more “lesser” leaders who gathered sycophants and less capable people around them as they often are insecure and distrusted people smarter or more talented than them. It takes real confidence, charisma and courage to assemble a strong talented team and be their leader.

Did LKY take all the credit and downplay the work of those under him? Other leaders might have downplayed the accomplishments of their subordinates. But for LKY,there are ample records and speeches showing he was generous in according credit where credit is due to his top lieutenants, praising their work and their independence of thought. Some have twisted this to say that since he acknowledged his subordinates’ skills and independence, this showed that he didn’t enact many of the policies that transformed Singapore to what it is today. Once again, it shows their ignorance of what great leadership is about. The truly extraordinary leaders do not micro-manage their top lieutenants but often give them independence to excel and innovate. Great leaders through their coaching and charisma help their team members perform at their best.

I believe history (save for some naysayers) will choose to give LKY the lion share of the credit of transforming Singapore from 3rd World to 1st World country and rightfully so. Simply put, by being the leader of the group, nation or army, you have to bear the full accountability for the results regardless of your best intentions or efforts. Success and failure is on you and you alone will be judged by the results. You can have the purest heart, set the best strategy and execute the best tactics but if you still lose the battle or war, you are just another loser in history. It is hard, it is brutal. So, if LKY had faltered and Singapore ended up being a failed state, he would be the first to be blamed because he was the leader.

The fact of the matter is, in the last 50 years, Singapore has undisputedly transformed into an economical miracle and one of the richest countries in the world. This is not a myth but reality. Just like how LKY had to shoulder most if not all the blame had Singapore failed, he deservingly gets most of the credit when Singapore succeeded because as the leader he is the one accountable for the ultimate results. Such is the high price or reward for leadership.

Dislike his opinions, criticize his views or hate his idiosyncrasies as you may, but please do give credit when credit is due. Lee Kuan Yew is considered an accomplished leader on all counts by historical comparison and what he achieved was rare even in the history books. He gathered a top-notch team from a small talent pool and took charge of a poor, tiny island nation that had no natural resources, constrained by a small internal market while being surrounded by unsympathetic neighbors. This A-team used never tested before development ideas and succeeded against all odds to transform Singapore into the economic powerhouse it is today with First World living standards in just a few decades.

We should be happy and thankful for the fluke chance that somehow, we had the good fortune to have the right leader at the right time and his name is Lee Kuan Yew.

Jamie Lee

* Jamie Lee is the co-founder of Lunch Actually

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