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18/10/97 The Consistent Story Of Mr Lee Kuan Yew
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26/10/97 Oh, to be a fly on the Mall
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The Straits Times : Life Section Page 2
The Consistent Story Of Mr Lee Kuan Yew
THE leader of a people must first have a story to tell.
It must be a story that answers to the people's need to know who they are, where they are heading, what are the struggles ahead, and how they can overcome them.
The story should help the people determine their personal, social and moral identities.
The successful leader is one who can communicate his story effectively to his people. Equally important, he must embody that story.
In the conventional study of a leader, there are the four P's: power, policies, public or people, and personality.
POWER in itself cannot bring about significant changes. Terror can reign only so long, if the leader has no legitimate story to share with his people. Power is useful as a means to an end, which is to be able to tell the particular story.
Singapore: The Ultimate Island, a 1990 book on Lee Kuan Yew by T. S. Selvan, a former researcher of the Internal Security Department, is flawed because its whole thrust is about power as an end, and it interprets Mr Lee's every move, political or otherwise, as one that is calculated to further his goal of absolute power.
A leader whose goal is absolute power will not give up his leadership the way Mr Lee did in 1990, handing over to Mr Goh Chok Tong.
Prime Minister Goh is his own man, backed by his Cabinet. As Senior Minister, Mr Lee retains power, but certainly he does not have absolute power.
Another hatchet job is the 1973 book Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore by T. J. S George. Many of the interpretations of facts and events are forced, to make up dark, negative pictures.
ACADEMICS tend to focus on policies, whether they have been successfully implemented, and how they have changed or shaped society. But a leader is more than his policies.
In Mr Lee's case, especially, the academic is hard put to categorise him based only on his policies, because he subscribes to no theory or ideology. What works is what matters.
WHEN Mr Lee took over the charge of Singapore from the British, the people were not one community, they belonged to different societies that had been brought together under colonial rule. They had their own stories.
To pull them into a community, to build a nation out of a disparate group of people, Mr Lee had to sell them his story.
Even with power on his side, he had to persuade and convince the people that his story was the most relevant one for them, and the best one with which they could define themselves?as he had defined himself.
They were their own people, with their own stake in the sun, regardless of race or religion.
TO PIN down the personality of a leader is to go into the realm of psychology: early childhood experiences, hurts, needs, traits and relationships.
An attempt to pin Mr Lee down was made by the Australian Anglican priest James Minchin, in his 1986 book, No Man Is An Island.
There is an attempt at fairness and the author concedes that Mr Lee's project is "masterful". But his diagnosis, of hypochondria, paranoia and narcissism suggests sickness rather than health.
However positively channelled, the psychic energies derived from sickness could never have been enough to mount Mr Lee's masterful project, which was to transform Singapore, in a short 30-year period, from a swampy colonial entrepot port into a worldclass city state.
PSYCHOANALYSTS focus on personality and motivation, while the behaviourists examine overt actions. But cognitive science, which has developed in the last few decades, is concerned with the mind.
On the subject of leadership, its practitioners, like Howard Gardner, author of Leading Minds, An Anatomy Of Leadership (1995) will ask questions such as:
What are the ideas, or stories, of the leader? How have they developed? How are they communicated? How do they interact or compete with other ideas or stories of the people? How do the leader's key ideas, or stones, affect the thoughts, feelings and behaviour of his people?
Gardner is a respected authority in his field. He is both Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Adjunct Professor of Neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine, and he has 14 books to his name, two of them the studies of human intelligence and creativity.
The latest attempt to put Mr Lee between covers, by three senior Straits Times journalists, succeeds to some extent in answering the kind of questions which would be posed by Gardner, precisely because it does not pretend to psychoanalyse the man or examine his policies or interpret his ideas.
It is based on more than 30 hours of interviews with him?the most extensive he has ever granted?and the more than 2,000 speeches which he made over 40 years in politics.
Because of its lack of pretension to be anything else, it succeeds, as probably no other book before it has, in providing the key elements of Mr Lee's story.
Other books on Mr Lee include Alex Josey's, which are, in the main, cut-and-paste jobs, and rather tedious reads, and those by John Drysdale and Dennis Bloodworth, which chronicle specific episodes of independent Singapore's early history.
Chan Heng Chee's two books, Singapore: The Politics Of Survival, and The Dynamics Of One-Party Dominance, are academic studies, which I am sure will be useful for the discussion here, but unfortunately, I could not find them in the bookshops.
THE book by The Straits Times' Han Fook Kwang, Warren Fernandez and Sumiko Tan is more readily accessible to the reader than the others.
The prose is uncluttered, clear and to the point, and the liberal use of Mr Lee's direct quotes, together with the pictures of him and his family, makes the subject more immediate and vivid.
The book also includes, in the last section, what the authors believe are some of his key speeches made during his career.
They demonstrate how consistently Mr Lee has held on to the key elements of his story, even as he told it in different ways at different times.
The organisation of the book is journalistic, so that there are separate pages which break the main narrative to highlight an episode or an anecdote or an interesting reflection on a subject.
The device assumes that long, dense columns of text in a newspaper or magazine may turn the reader off, but the book reader is accustomed to read a book from page to page, in a purely linear fashion.
While they are interesting in themselves, those "sidebars", in journalistic parlance, may irritate the reader, who has to choose between pausing in the main narrative to read them as and when they appear, or to read the narrative first, and then backtrack to read them later.
This is a minor quibble, and should not detract from the fact that the book is an achievement, especially considering that the authors worked on it intermittenly, while continuing with their daily load of work.
All Men Are Brothers, But They Are Never Equal
THE leader who hopes to bring about significant change in his people must in some way, help them think through who they are.
He does this through the relating of a story, the core elements of which address the issues of personal and group identity.
How effective he is as a leader depends on how convincing and persuasive he is. And certainly, he must be the role model in that story.
The key elements of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's story, as presented in the book, Lee Kuan Yew: The Man And His Ideas, are:
* All men may be brothers, but people are never equal because they have different genetic make-ups and every individual is hardwired differently from the others.
A just and free society should allow every individual the opportunities to achieve his fullest potential, but people should not expect equal results, although, to borrow a clever heading from the book everyone has a prize.
* The best must necessarily lead, because a strong government needs good men more than it needs sound policies or institutions.
* What enables the world to develop? Trade and technology. The level of technology limits the trade a people can do. More opportunities open up only when the people succeed in brealdng through to another level of technology. So learning and hard work must be encouraged and rewarded.
* An environment that is conducive to learning and hard work is one where there is social discipline and law and order. There should be no slack?despite the tendencies to idleness and torpor in the troE;Pi cal heat?or sentimerg Those who lead must tki firm, but fair.
* Discipline and order begin in the family, which is the building block of society.
* Culture has its equivalent of the DNA, and over long periods of time, people in different places are shaped differently by their cultures. So the Chinese are
different from the Malays as they are from the Indians, even though they may be third- or fourth-generation Singaporeans.
The difference must be acknowledged, and managed, so that gaps between races can be narrowed over time. Cultural evolution can be nudged, if not forced, unlike biological evolution.
*What works is what counts. Ideologies do no allow for flexibility. Economic well-being comes before the development of the other more intangible qualities of life.
*The media, the vehicle for a leader's story, must be subordinate to the elected government. Better still if they believe and share in the leader's story, and help tell it to the widest audience.
(Here is where the leader's embodiment of his story is paramount. If there are contradictions, if he is not his story's best rolemodel, it will not take long for the people to realise they have been fooled.)
THESE elements have been consistent throughout his career, even as he had to tell the story in different ways at different times.
And, of course, there were, and still remain, the specific circumstances of Singapore: a fleck of an island surrounded by large countries, with no resources to speak of, except people.
Its colonial history and its occupation by the Japanese forged a leader like Mr Lee and his Old Guard colleagues, and a generation of people who were prepared to follow their way.
I shall discuss how some of the key elements of Mr Lee's story have been validated by time and new thinking based on empirical findings.