"Mr Lee Kuan Yew not just a man of ideas but of action": Heng

"Mr Lee Kuan Yew not just a man of ideas but of action": Heng

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was once Mr Lee Kuan Yew's principal private secretary, was among several top leaders who gave speeches at the LKY School of Public Policy  conference on Monday, the occasion of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's 90th birthday. This is the full speech.

The first time I met Mr Lee Kuan Yew in person was in March 1997 when he interviewed me for the job of Principal Private Secretary or PPS. His questions were fast and sharp. Every reply drew even more probing questions. At the end of it, he said: "Brush up your Mandarin and report in 3 months. We have an important project with China." I realised later that, among others, it was perhaps when I replied, "I don't know" to one or two questions that I made an impression. With Mr Lee, it is all right if you do not know something. But you do not pretend and lie if you do not know. Integrity is everything. I had the privilege of working as Mr Lee's PPS from mid 1997 to early 2000. This was the period of the Asian Financial Crisis, and Mr Lee was writing his memoirs. I benefited much, interacting with him and attending his meetings with many prominent leaders. I learned much about his worldview, about how he translates ideas into results, and what he is like as a person.

Mr Lee's worldviews are comprehensive and consistent. Three stand out for me. The first is about Singapore's place in the world. He has experienced wars and foreign domination, has sung 4 different national anthems in his lifetime and has fought for Singapore's independence. Naturally, Mr Lee's lifelong preoccupation is how Singapore, a resource-poor city state, can survive in a world where powers big and small compete for supremacy.

His view is that a small city state can best survive in a benign world environment, where there is a balance of powers, where no single state dominates, and where the rule of law prevails in international affairs. A small city-state has to stay open and connect with all nations and economic powerhouses. To prosper, Singapore has to be relevant to the world. We must be exceptional.

Second, his views about human nature, culture and society. Some societies are more successful than others because of the way they are organised, and the values and cultures that underpin them. Human beings have two sides to our nature - one that is selfish, that seeks to compete and to maximise benefits for ourselves, our families, our clans; the other that is altruistic, that seeks to cooperate, to help others, and to contribute to the common good. A society loses its vigour if it eschews excellence and competition; equally, a society loses its cohesion if it fails to take care of those who are left behind or disadvantaged. Mr Lee believes that this tension between competition and cooperation, between yin and yang, is one that has to be constantly recalibrated. Within a society, those who are successful must contribute back to society and help others find success. We must share the fruits of our collective efforts.

Third, his views about governance and leadership. Societies are subject to complex forces, and do not become successful automatically. As a lawyer, Mr Lee believes deeply in the rule of law and the importance of institutions in creating a good society. But institutions are only as good as the people who run them. Good governance needs leaders with the right values, sense of service and abilities. It is important to have leaders who can forge with the people the vision for the future and to forge the way forward. Above all, leaders are stewards. They should develop future leaders and when their time comes, they should relinquish their positions, so that the next generation of leaders can take us to greater heights.

While Mr Lee's worldviews are wide-ranging and widely sought, when I worked with him, I had the privilege of learning how his views are so coherent, rigorous and fresh, and how he put his agile mind in the service of the Singapore cause. Allow me to share a few incidents.

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