If, like me, you are a middle-aged parent, you are of the generation that has truly enjoyed the fruit of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s (LKY) success. The first Prime Minister of Singapore was a man who evoked extreme emotions. Love him or loathe him, fear him or revere him, his accomplishments are undeniable. He was also highly quotable and the media is rife with what he has said. But reading what those close to him have shared has been so much more illuminating. These accounts of time spent with him are far more telling and more compelling than the never-ending lists of quotes, the rants, and raves. I’ve always thought that words mean nought without deeds to support them. In these stories I saw the man behind the words, the person behind the iron fist. These lessons — derived from the way he lived his life — are the ones I’d like to pass on to my kids.
Lesson #1: Love what you do, and it’ll never be work
LKY’s passion for Singapore is legendary. I love the Education Minister Heng Swee Keat’s (who was Mr Lee’s Principal Private Secretary, or PPS, from 1997 to 2000) account of LKY and his red box which never left his side.This red box contained correspondence and notes on whatever Mr Lee was working on at the moment.
In his article, Mr Heng reveals: “In 1996, Mr Lee underwent balloon angioplasty to insert a stent. It was his second heart operation in two months, after an earlier operation to widen a coronary artery did not work. After the operation, he was put in the Intensive Care Unit for observation. When he regained consciousness and could sit up in bed, he asked for his security team. The security officer hurried into the room to find out what was needed. Mr Lee asked, “Can you pass me the red box?””
Lesson #2: Keep on learning
Do you know what LKY was doing on his 91st birthday on 16 September last year? Getting ready for his Chinese lessons, we learnt from this post by ESM Goh Chok Tong on the MParader Facebook page: “Just dropped in at Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s office to wish him happy birthday. He was dressed smartly in his casual red jacket. He looked well and sharp and spoke with a strong voice. Unfortunately, he was having one of those hiccups triggered off by some allergic irritations. Even then, he was getting ready for his Chinese lessons. I cannot help but marvel at the spirit and fight of The Singapore Lion. More good years to you, Mr Lee. — gct”
Lesson #3: It’s never too late to start
From now, when the kids complain that Chinese is too difficult to learn, they’ll be told that Mr Lee started learning Chinese in earnest only when he was 32 years old. He did this to reach out to Mandarin-speaking voters and that year, made his first speech in Mandarin. It was “the most taxing speech I ever made in my life,” he said. Mr Lee also started to learn Hokkien. In his book My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore’s Bilingualism Policy he said “I made it a point to speak in Hokkien during every National Day Rally because that was the language that got me the most receptive audience.”
This continued until 1979 when the Education Ministry pointed out that he was not setting a good example by using Hokkien while schools were trying to teach Mandarin. Mr Lee never stopped learning.
As Koh Hock Kiat, 54, the former director of the Confucius Institute at the Nanyang Technological University, and LKY’s ex-Chinese tutor told The Straits Times here: “When Mrs Lee passed away in 2010, our Chinese lessons were put on hold. It would have been understandable if Mr Lee had decided then to permanently set aside the classes. But remarkably, within a month, he chose to resume lessons, and at a normal frequency, no less. Even in the later years, when his health did not permit for lessons to be held as frequently, he never completely gave them up. Sometimes, when he got tired, he would ask to rest for 30 minutes before resuming the lesson.”
Lesson #4: Make time to play and exercise
Or, for the kids: get out and play. “Even when I was a young boy in school… I used to swim, cycle and play games,” he told The Straits Times in a 1992 interview. “I find that if I am inactive I get slothful, I get slow.”
LKY picked up smoking in the 1940s while a student at Raffles College, but quit cold turkey in 1957 after he found that he could not make his City Council election speeches because his throat was burnt dry.
In his 50s, his daughter introduced him to aerobics. He started jogging. By now that picture (above) of him wiping his brow while jogging with this security officers during a China visit in September 1985 has made its rounds on the Internet.
As Richard Hu, who served as Finance Minister from 1985 to 2001 recalled: “He was a health nut. He would swim or cycle daily and kept telling me during our lunches that I should be exercising to keep fit, so I would last longer.”
All that exercise paid off. In an interview with The Sunday Times, he said: “At the age of 89, I can sit up and I do not need a walking stick.”
Lesson #5: Never be complacent
Viswa Sadasivan, Founder and Editor-In-Chief of IQ, a socio-political website, shares in this post what he learnt from LKY about the path to success. The key? That “you are only as good as your last success”.
“In his last few years as PM, I served as the producer of the National Day Rally TV coverage. Every year, the Prime Minister would come for a rehearsal on the eve of the Rally at the Kallang Theatre from 9.30pm and stay till past midnight. He would be accompanied by Mrs Lee. I could not fathom why a man of his experience and abilities would need a rehearsal. He could easily “wing it”! So, in 1988 I asked him why he takes time from his very busy schedule to come for the rehearsal. In his answer lay a key factor for his success: “… because you are only as good as your last performance.”
Main illustration: By Lee Xin Li, www.facebook.com/PokPokAway based on a photograph taken by Larry Burrows in May 1965. This was a proud moment for Mr Lee and Mr Lim Kim San, head of the Housing and Development Board (HDB) then, as they had succeed despite doubts that the HDB would be able complete its Five-Year Building Programme to build at least 1,000 units per year.