Instances of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s strategic thinking


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It’s been one week. Many people have already written and spoken about Mr Lee, and I don’t think this article would contain new ideas. Yet, I would like to pay a small tribute to the strategic thinker that was Mr Lee, using his very own words…

On being intent focused

"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."

National Day Rally, 1986

"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."

Interview with the New York Times in 2010

On systems thinking

“Way back in 1965 we found ourselves suddenly independent. If you lose that Chinese education and you go completely English-educated, you will lose that drive, that self-confidence. That is what is wrong. The danger is, if you are Chinese-educated and only Chinese-educated, you are monolingual, then your source of literature will be communist. That is big trouble. But if you are bilingual, you have binocular vision, then you see the world in 3-D.”

Parliament speech, 1977

“You’re talking about Rwanda or Bangladesh, or Cambodia, or the Philippines. They’ve got democracy, according to Freedom House. But have you got a civilised life to lead? People want economic development first and foremost. The leaders may talk something else. You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, schools.”

From Lee Kuan Yew, The Man & His Ideas, 1997

On thinking in time

“My colleagues and I are of that generation of young men who went through the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation and emerged determined that no one–neither Japanese nor British–had the right to push and kick us around. We determined that we could govern ourselves and bring up our children in a country where we can be proud to be self-respecting people.”

From The Battle For Merger, 1961

“Every Singaporean who owns a flat can double his value in today’s terms within the next 15 to 20 years. In other words, in the next 20 years, we can make everybody worth twice as much, at least.”

National Day Rally, 1990

“I started off believing all men were equal. I now know that’s the most unlikely thing ever to have been, because millions of years have passed over evolution, people have scattered across the face of this earth, been isolated from each other, developed independently, had different intermixtures between races, peoples, climates, soils… I didn’t start off with that knowledge. But by observation, reading, watching, arguing, asking, that is the conclusion I’ve come to.”

From Lee Kuan Yew, The Man & His Ideas, 1997

On reframing (or intelligent opportunism)

“If you can’t think because you can’t chew, try a banana.

Interview with the BBC in 2000 on the chewing gum ban

“There are some flaws in the assumptions made for democracy. It is assumed that all men and women are equal or should be equal. Hence, one-man-one-vote. But is equality realistic? If it is not, to insist on equality must lead to regression.”

Create 21 Asahi Forum, Tokyo, 1992

On the hypothesis-driven process

"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."

New York Times Interview, 2007

There are many more quotations. It just goes to show how strategic Mr Lee was. You can be too.

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