Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Remembering LKY as inspiration for future PMs

Just as well today the NYT has a story on Abraham Lincoln as the role model for modern US Presidents when we are trying to figure out how to honor our founding fathers as well.

Too many new states in the last century have founding fathers which are not even perceived as such. In fact they are best forgotten. They achieved independence from their colonial masters but made their people worse off than when they had no political freedom. Singapore is the glaring exception.

When LKY was alive but no longer PM, no PM dared to imagine trying to wear his very large shoes. Now that he is gone, I think future PMs will try to emulate him as American Presidents look to Lincoln for inspiration.

Like Lincoln, LKY can be expected to be beyond the reach and grasp of Singapore's future leaders.

Nevertheless we would have benefited in ways no less than US Presidents also had.

As Lincoln was the embodiment of the model top leader for them, ours would be LKY. So we must try to remember him in analogue ways the Americans remember Lincoln.

A lonely future Singapore PM  cannot but quietly and privately do the equivalent isn't it? Where else can he go for insight and inspiration? Don't tell me he looks outside Singapore. Of course he would but he cannot reject LKY. As I saw Low Thia Khiang trivalized LKY's contributions, I immediately rejected him. The opposition Democrats were wise to try own the Republican Lincoln. What was Low thinking?

Lincoln is their standard. LKY would be hours. 

And in the NYT story, Obama even trying to copy him as thoroughly as possible. He even tried to set up his own version of a Team of Rivals.

Update: 10:10 pm

I just read the above article and of course I can't helped but compare this against the main blog post.

We are also known widely at home and especially abroad as Singapore Inc. If the metaphor of business is more pertinent than nation everything I wrote in the main post is off  the mark (I don't believe that). Whatever, we must be cognizant of our tiny size and a big part of our livelihood is about making a living like many businesses do.

As our environment changes and the imperative to adapt successfully might take us far away from the challenges LKY faced to take us here. Immelt could never use the methods used by Welch and similarly Welch was quite different from his successor.

We keep the people morale up but we mustn't underestimate how challenging it is going to be navigating the future especially at the turning points. Do we even know when we are engaging one much less seeing it coming. These are not like those you can see behind the steering of a car. It is seen with the mind and imagination.

Basically I am afraid of our leaders seeing themselves as business people with political responsibilities than the other way round. We will surely get into big trouble doing that.


  1. The title of your blog is called : "To track some personally noteworthy events, observations and thoughts, letting them age and savor/regret them again a long time later." Give yourself several years, look back and see if you feel the same way about LKY being the equivalent of a Lincoln inspiration, as you do today.

    You quoted several parts from the article, but you neglected what to me, is the essence of what makes a Great Man who Belongs to the Ages :
    “The president really admires Lincoln’s grace and largeness of spirit, the willingness to subjugate his own ego and embrace former opponents and even enemies to put the greater good first,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s longtime adviser."

    Reading the autobiographies of Hon Sui Sen and Lim Kim San inspires me to greater good. But in today's world (aka high salaries is the only thing that count), we only shake our heads and say they don't make these kinds of men anymore, and of course admonish our children not to get carried away with being too idealistic.

    Reading the autobiog of LKY makes me admire him as a strong leader and politically shrewd man. Is track record in building a country from Third to First world the same as "man of the ages", who inspires "to greater good" ? I'm not sure. Li Ka Shing is a great businessman - strong leader, yes. Shrewd, yes. And in history's footsteps, there are many like him too. But these don't inspire.

    What I admire most about the founding fathers of USA is at the zenith of their power, they were skeptical of how power can corrupt themselves and make sure to ensure that the young nation is built on a foundation that ensures that it can last well into the future. Hence when George Washington united the whole country, he didn't make himself "king" but instead paved the way for establishing a system of govt that has strong checks & balances, to ensure that the system survives with changes in leadership in the future. Abraham Lincoln having obliterated the South, did not marinate in his victory but took pains to ensure the Union is preserved.

    We lose one, yes o n e, GRC and asks residents there to "repent". And spend years after that, fixing the opposition. We reek of smallness of spirit, not greatness. We tell citizens to have a spirit of sacrifice for the country and yet, is hard-nosed about how top leaders must be paid as well as bankers, businessmen. With ~30 out of ~80 of the PAP MPs being members of the cabinet, every single one is suddenly proclaimed to be deserving of a super-high pay. We're focussed on preserving PAP's overwhelming total dominance, not instituting a system of govt that survives the ages. We assume that one party can have monopoly of wisdom, just because the founding team deservedly did. We assume that everything will in the end be good for the country, no matter how ruthless the tactics, just because it did with that founding team. Look at companies with long histories like IBM. Do subsequent team's performance not vary from the previous? Then how can you build a system where all the bets are on 1 team. Not just in terms of political dominance, but in total dominance whether it is business (GLCs), public service (can't be separated from the Govt), literally everything.

    The post-LKY sentiment is still too strong for level headedness to prevail. Just look at some of your own posts, pre-LKY's death and I think you'll see that too. Fortunately, as you acknowledge from the title of your blog, time is a merciless and unyielding force and with the passage of time, hopefully our perspectives can be clearer too.

    1. Amen to that! We need to keep a level head. A swelled or an arrogant head will only get banged against the wall.

    2. Thanks for the very good comment. I would have loved to find a way to add that to the main post but the effort to make them sit well together would make it appear as a far too long essay to read not to mention write.

      There is no conflict in my mind. I just as usual chose no to explain myself, but I am sure future posts will clarify most of these issues. A hint here: Watch out for the myth making of LKY and his most steadfast colleagues. We need time for the myth to form....may I add that Thomas Jefferson raped his black women slaves, the American founding fathers are not short of horrid vices, it was a marvel such deficient characters had produced those founding documents.

      I might just be making the myth ahead of others. I am sure we will all get there. We have no choice. We aren't like the Chinese who can pick and choose from their long history which bits to guide them. Nearer to us, the Indonesians had to settle for Sukarno as their guiding light which does not illuminate very well. India had Nehru which fared better but they are all inadequate because they were economically unsuccessful. And how much can the South Africans draw from Nelson Mandela? I am sure many South Africans envied us. As a proportion of the population, more turned out to send off LKY than Mandela. So where do you think our population is heading? We will make our myths faster than the Americans because ours had fewer character flaws and mistakes for time to forget.

      Thank you very much for your comment.

    3. The proportion of population (sending LKY off vs Mandela) comparison is flawed simply because Sgp is a city state. The procession traversed 1/3rd the length of this country. Mandela's barely traversed 1%(??) the length? But this does not take away from the fact that I too, like you, believe that the vast majority of Sgp'eans do honor and respect LKY and shed tears for him.

      Anyway, my larger point is : the permitted narrative about LKY had been managed to perhaps an unprecendented extent here compared to many other places. The extent to which the merits vs flaws of a person, even a founding leader, is probably much tightly managed here than Indonesia, India or South Africa, to quote the examples you cited. So it is perhaps unsurprising that we perceive our founding leader to have "fewer character flaws and mistakes for time to forget" relative to the other great leaders. Heck, not a few Singaporeans actually believe that without LKY, China would not have developed its economy today. No doubt, China subtly tried to put us in our place by sending an unexpectedly low level of representation to the funeral. Or that without LKY, Sgp would have remained a 3rd world country today. But look at Taiwan, South Korea, Japan - economies who rose from the ashes of war, did they not within that same span of time also made it to First World? Again, this is not to take away the challenges then faced by the founding team here at that time and I certainly gave them A++ for our results too. But my main point is to have a proper sense of perspective.

      But just like the discussion in the first paragraph, all these are irrelevant. The vast majority of Singaporeans probalby don't care about "flaws" etc as long as their standard of living keeps improving and they feel better off compared to their neighbors, and that their children can have a better future than them. If what it takes to do this is a North Korea style autocracy, majority of Singaporeans will probably go along too. We're that practical and "kuai" a people. The problem today is that this part of the bargain, previously a straight-forward "given" because of the wisdom of the founding team, is increasingly in doubt. Simply because (which goes back to my main point) I don't think LKY did what he should have done to ensure a system is in place that will outlast him decades into the future, without necessiting a A++ team of leaders just like the founding fathers had. You put a B+ team here, and China now has a B- team, and we see our economic space, our "feel good about our future" space vastly diminished; just as I think many here are already sensing.

    4. I won't be responding to all your points because it would be too long or some I have more questions.

      Without the SG experience Deng would still have gone ahead and open up China but far more cautiously and slowly. Our example strengthened his faith and also helped him to persuade dissenting colleagues.

      Sure, the MSM painted LKY gloriously but my focus was on the unsolicited tributes from overseas. I think many of us were surprised how others described him.

      Yep, I am quite critical of the current team and often feel they are not up to scratch for what Singapore need, but LKY demise had also helped me see more clearly to what degree he was an influence on the government. Lesser than I imagined.

      The rest, opportunistically I shall discuss in future posts. Thanks.