Lessons from Mr Lee Kuan Yew

When I was young, my dad hardly watched TV. The only time he did was when Mr Lee Kuan Yew was giving his national day speech. My dad turned up the volume and we had to be quiet. I wondered who this man was, who spoke with such power, and whom my dad revered. My parents went through the war and the Japanese occupation and they will forever be staunch supporters of the PAP and Mr Lee.

It was quite different for me. I was born into a generation which took much for granted. Over the years, controversial headlines in the newspapers left me with a different opinion of the government as that of my parents, and it was hard to shake off the fearsome image of Mr Lee.

This past week, as I followed the articles in The Straits Times, I was enlightened by the personal sharings from our ministers and many world leaders. I was ashamed that I knew so little about the history of a man so pivotal to the transformation of our nation.

Photo: Ministry of Communications and Information

The article by our current Education Minister, Mr Heng Swee Keat on Mr Lee’s ‘red box’ was a real eye-opener. Mr Heng was his principal private secretary from 1997 – 2000. We have heard about the policies he had implemented and how he has taken us from third world to first. But here was finally an account of how he worked.

“Mr Lee Kuan Yew had a red box. Before Mr Lee came in to work each day, the locked red box would arrive first, at about 9am.

This red box held what Mr Lee was working on at any one time. Through the years, it held his papers, speech drafts, letters, readings, and a whole range of questions, reflections and observations.

Mr Lee was well-known for keeping extremely alert to everything he saw and heard around him – when he noticed something wrong, like an ailing raintree, a note in the red box would follow.

Inside the red box was always something about how we could create a better life for all. We would get to work right away. Our aim was to do as much as we could by the time Mr Lee came into the office later. While we did this, Mr Lee would be working from home.

In his days as PM, Mr Lee’s average bedtime was 3.30am in the morning. Deep into the night, while the rest of Singapore slept, it was common for Mr Lee to be in full work mode. Before he went to bed, Mr Lee would put everything he had completed back into the red box, with clear pointers on what he wished for us to do in the office. The last thing he did was to place the red box outside his study room. The next morning, the duty security team picked up the red box, brought it to us waiting in the office, and a new day would begin.”

Such discipline. Even when he was in his 70s and 80s. And here I am, begrudging the fact that I am over-worked and have no time for myself. How self-indulgent. He makes me want to squeeze more life out of my days and to set the bar higher. To be the best that I can be, in my own capacity.

I also liked the tribute written by Mr Bilahari Kausikan, former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He says of Mr Lee:

“He wanted to get things done. He always dared to try. Mr Lee never stopped learning and was never too proud to seek information even from the most junior, and certainly never too proud to change his mind whenever the situation warranted. His sense of mission, his dedication to and passion for Singapore inspired an entire generation of Singaporeans from all walks of life to defy the odds and to serve some cause larger than themselves.”

The greatest of our founding fathers left a lasting legacy for all of us.

What legacy do we want to leave for our children, our grandchildren, and for those around us?

If we dare to dream big dreams, have the dedication and determination to see it through, put our hearts and souls into making the world a better place for ourselves and our fellow Singaporeans, I’m sure our nation will not just survive in the next 50 years, but thrive.

As a friend put it so eloquently in her post
“The best way to remember your spirit is not in weeping, but in girding up our loins, putting our shoulder to the wheel, and working for a better tomorrow for all Singaporeans. We will mourn for there is sorrow, but more importantly, we will try to make you proud.”

Here’s a round-up of tributes from our community of mummy bloggers.

~ www.mummweeblog.com – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~