Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015): Singapore’s State maker remembered

March 23, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew was one of the influential State makers of the 20th Century. A case could be made that he conceived and brought about a prosperous and peaceful future for Singapore.

I became interested in the culture of Singapore some years ago, after taking part in the celebrations of its national day. After three decades in power, Lee Kuan Yew had handed over control of the State he had helped create. In the process he was showing dynastic aspirations.

Dynastic aspirations

It was being rumoured at the time, correctly as it turned out, that Prime Minister Goh, who succeeded him, was a transition figure who was to be replaced by Lee’s son. Informally we were also given to believe that Lee would remain the power behind his son’s actions.

Tickets for a celebration

It had been hard to get tickets for the celebrations at the old National Stadium in Kalang Leisure Park, close the Changi airport close to where the new and impressive modern sports stadium was later built.

Our tickets had came from a Singaporean friend who had seen enough ceremonies to make them less valued for him. Well worth seeing it all for the first few times, he reassured us.

We reached the stadium by subway, another of Singapore’s marvels. Allegedly, it was maintained in those days in pristine condition through President Lee’s regime of corporal punishment handed out to any litter-making individual. Westerners tended to admire the results, if not the means of achieving them.

Pre-conceptions

I had preconceived beliefs that we were going to observe a demonstration of State orchestrated loyalty. What happened was enough to unsettle such assumptions. To be sure there was the orchestration. Everyone was issued with a goodie bag, complete with a national flag to wave, an a small torch with coloured tissue paper over the business end,

There were the obligatory displays of military music, and marching discipline. Jet fighters roared low over the stadium, trailing slipstreams in the national colours. We tried to join in the passionate singing of the national anthem. Later, as night fell, the torches helped produce an equally impressive light-show in the national colours.

Unexpected experiences

What was unexpected was a warmth and mood of enjoyment throughout the lengthy event which seemed spontaneous and genuine. This was not evidence of a State operating under dictatorial edict.

At the time, the charismatic President had already become a mythic figure, a State-maker in the mold of Nelson Mandela. Much later, Lee attributed the role of ‘China’s Mandela’ to Xi Jinping, a judgement not shared by Time magazine.

Today, the appreciation of Lee’s period as all-powerful State maker is more balanced internally. His contribution towards the creation of the modern hi-tech, highly educated little country is recognized. But opposing views can be expressed publicly.


On the week of the School Massacre in Connecticut we ask “where have all the leaders gone”

December 21, 2012

Last week ended with news of the Sandy Hook School massacre in Newtown Connecticut and President Obama’s public agony at failures in America to protect the nation’s childrenSandy Hook School Sign

Before the dreadful week-end news, I had been scanning the net to see what leadership stories I could find. These notes are in chronological order.

Leadership training

The first item I came across was a promotional ebook from a successful experiential leadership programme at the Said Business School, Oxford . The approach offers an imaginative mix of experiences involving drama, moral philosophy, music and poetry. The book [53 pages] is worth browsing by leadership trainers.

HSBC money laundering

The next item that caught my eye was the settlement of the money-laundering charges at HSBC. The bank has agreed a $1.9 billion fine with the US Department of Justice over anti-compliance regulations.

“We accept responsibility for our past mistakes. We have said we are profoundly sorry for them, and we do so again,” said Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver in a statement.

Branson Brand Bashing

The next story had a familiar feel, with cult business hero Richard Branson defending his Virgin Atlantic business from a bit of turbulence (Sorry. That cliché is almost compulsory). And alongside Sir Richard we have the egregious Willie Walsh, now fighting his corner from chief executive International Airlines Group (IAG) which now incorporates British Airways.

Sir Richard Branson pledged to keep control of his airline after his arch-rival, BA chief Willie Walsh, said that Singapore Airlines’ sale of its [49%] stake in Virgin Atlantic would lead to the demise of the brand.

From China with Love

Now that’s more like it. A full-on profile of China’s new leader as Xi Jinping, the new head of the Communist Party, made a visit over the weekend to the special economic zone of Shenzhen. The south China province has stood as a symbol of the nation’s embrace of a state-led form of capitalism since its growth over three decades from a fishing enclave to an industrial metropolis.

After Mandela

One of the all-time great leaders, Nelson Mandela, is hospitalized [later he was successfully operated on for Gall Stones]. The news comes at a time when the ruling ANC party in South Africa is engaged in further leadership struggles.

The Glass Ceiling in Oz

The Glass Ceiling has not yet been shattered in Australia, despite the influence of the mighty Rupert Murdoch and residual members of his dynasty.

Starbucks

The tax row in the UK continues to hit at Starbucks image, and perhaps its profits

Japan’s shift of leader

The Liberal Party [LPD]’s massive victory in Japan will re-elect former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who has called for major monetary easing, an increase in the inflation target and big spending on public works to rescue the economy.

Sandy Hook School Massacre

The Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/12/15/uk-usa-shooting-connecticut-idUKBRE8BD0Z220121215 contributed to the sense that political leaders have to deal with forces beyond their powers to deal with. There are calls in America for tighter gun control legislation, but few commentators believe that President Obama will be able to introduce meaningful change.

Reflection

Before the New Town Massacre, I was impressed by the number of encouraging stories in the news about leaders and leadership challenges. There are still positive leadership stories around, and the leader vilification count was rather lower than I expected. Indeed there were quite a few stories offering accounts of positive leadership. However, the end-of-week news takes us back to a more nuanced views of distributed power and leadership’s struggles, rather than stories of heroic leaders with the skills to deliver transformation through a compelling vision of change.