Building on the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew

In the early morning of the 23rd of March, Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of independent Singapore, passed away. Lee had been Prime Minister for 31 years if one includes the period when Singapore was still under colonial rule and the two years when Singapore was part of Malaysia. However one felt about Lee, one could not argue against the tremendous impact that he had on a country that defied all expectations to become one of the richest countries in the world as measured by per capita GDP and one that is widely admired for the lack of corruption, good infrastructure, educational systems and generally strong social bonds.

I have been fortunate in that I have enjoyed many of the benefits of growing up, and living in the Singapore that Lee and his team built, without having had much experience of the sacrifices and hardships that the first generation of independent Singaporeans had to endure.

Lee’s death has unleashed a huge and, I would say to some extent, unexpected outpouring of emotion amongst Singaporeans. Hundreds of thousands of people have queued for up to ten hours at a time in the hot sun to view Lee’s body at the Lying of State in Parliament House. My Facebook timeline has been taken over by my friends posting and reposting articles or their own reflections about Lee Kuan Yew. I myself,took a half day of leave yesterday to travel to the Singapore High Commission to sign a condolence book.

I never knew Lee Kuan Yew personally so I don’t know what he would have made of all this. He would probably have disapproved of all this fawning attention and the time taken off productive work. As it has become clear through the reflections of those who have worked with him, Lee worked tirelessly for Singapore, even asking his security detail to take a photo of some litter floating on the Singapore River that he had seen, so that he could get the relevant agencies to more thoroughly clean up the river the next day. This on the day his wife of many years had just passed away.

I did attend one meeting when Lee Kuan Yew was present. I was sitting in the corner of the Cabinet Room as the designated note-taker and I of course can’t reveal any details of the meeting as I am bound by the Official Secrets Act. But I do remember the combination of Lee Kuan Yew’s intellect, wit and steely resolve were all on display that day to great effect. Many people have shared their own experiences of Lee’s softer side. This was not one of those occasions.

One comment that Lee did make in that meeting, and which I feel comfortable to write about because he has spoken about this at many public occasions is why Singapore struggles to produce entrepreneurs to the same extent as Hong Kong. I am a good example of this. I attended the top schools in Singapore, where admission is based purely on merit, was awarded a government scholarship to study in Stanford and later London Business School and joined the public service where I was surrounded by others who had similarly strong academic backgrounds. And yet, I cannot think of one person in our cohort that started their own business. Everyone either joined the civil service, a profession such as medicine, law or engineering, or worked for a large MNC mostly in finance.

It is a question that I have been thinking about much more frequently as I watch my daughter, who is now three years old, grow up. I wonder what sort of career or careers she will have. And while I would be happy whatever career she chooses so long as she can morally defend her choice, it would make me so proud if she were to choose to become an entrepreneur. Lee has spoken about how Singapore managed to catch the right waves at the right time and I believe that one big wave in the next 20 years will be changing societal attitudes that will see the emergence of women entrepreneurs. I hope Singapore and my daughter will be able to catch that wave and that will be the best way to build on Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy.

For my part, what I lack in entrepreneurial DNA, I hope I have the foresight and strength, to always create the conditions under which my daughter can develop entrepreneurial instincts and traits, and not extinguish them by telling her to embark on the safe, tried and tested path.

As a last note, I want to thank the candidate from Saudi Arabia who wrote to me personally after he learnt of Lee Kuan Yew’s death. This candidate could not attend the Cambridge MBA for various reasons but he wrote extensively about how he admired Lee, especially for suggesting that Saudi Arabia start a massive scholarship programme to help its youth develop.

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