Weaning S'pore off the Great Man leadership style

Weaning S'pore off the Great Man leadership style

SINGAPORE - Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew is a great leader.

Yet, after witnessing a week of salutary tributes on the occasion of his 90th birthday, I wonder if Singapore might have a Great Leader problem.

Not so much a dearth of them - although that is a future possibility that may have to be reckoned with one day.

But that Singaporean society has become so wedded to the idea and style of Great Man leadership that we do disservice to our past, and are ill-prepared for a complex and unpredictable future.

Perhaps this is because Mr Lee remained dominant for so many decades after his founding Cabinet - Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr S. Rajaratnam, Dr Toh Chin Chye, to name a few - retired from politics and faded from the public view.

Perhaps it is that our current set of politicians and wise men are of the dyed-in-the-wool, learning-at-the-knee generation of Lee disciples, profoundly and deeply influenced by the first PM's style and thinking.

Whatever the reason, the narrative of Singapore's development has now broadly been compressed into one of a Great Leader taking a country, with conviction and vision, from Third World to First.

This is unfortunate, because the reality is that Mr Lee had an astonishing team of men of exceptional calibre and integrity who yet - and this is crucial - did not covet the premiership for themselves.

It was Dr Goh who was the dispassionate pragmatist, who opened Singapore up to the world when the fashion was to turn inwards, and who built up the army and the national reserves.

It was Mr Rajaratnam who was a true believer and evangelist for an ideology of multiracialism that would hold a young country together.

It was Dr Toh's steeliness that galvanised his comrades when in 1961, the People's Action Party (PAP) split in two over the merger with Malaysia.

So many others, like Mr Eddie Barker and Mr Othman Wok, all played roles that Mr Lee himself has described as decisive.

None of these men ever desired to usurp Mr Lee's position, which gave rise to a unity of purpose and avoided the politicking that brought many other developing countries to their knees.

The reason it is so important to remember the founding fathers - plural - is that it was the way they challenged and complemented Mr Lee that made him the leader he was.

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