The political legend who built modern Singapore on how nations can overcome corruption to give its citizens a better life and equal opportunities.
“I have had the privilege of meeting many of the world’s leaders over the past 40 years. None has shown greater insight, imagination and creativity than Lee Kuan Yew.”
— Henry Kissenger, August 2nd, 2011
When I was in my teens I heard about a political study. It found that while Singapore paid its civil servants one of the highest salaries in the world, they also had the least amount of money in their bank accounts among politicians in the region. That was because corruption was almost non-existent in this island nation of mine when I was growing up.
Truth be told, I’m a fiercely independent thinker. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself disagreeing intellectually with some of my government’s policies. But I can’t deny that without Lee and his founding team of statesmen who believed in meritocracy, this resource scarce island would never have gone from third world to first in 30 years. My brothers and I may not even have been able to afford our education!
That point was hammered home even stronger when I was in Nepal last year for a hiking trip. Visiting this mountain nation for the very first time, I saw and heard about how corruption had depleted a beautiful land and exhausted its hardy people. I wrote about this in the very first story I published on Medium, titled “Of Mountains & Monarchs — A Tale of the Real Nepal”.
In it I spoke about how my guides, who were the children of Gurkha soldiers who lived in Singapore, all had a picture of Lee in their homes. It was put there by their fathers, some of whom guarded the compounds of Lee’s home when he was the Prime Minister of Singapore. They revered him as a great leader and lamented the lack of someone like Lee to lead Nepal out of the downwards spiral it was in, due to endemic corruption and nepotism.
A lot of books have been written about Lee and his words extensively quoted, but this fateful journey in Nepal inspired me to look for more direct sources about him and his views on governance. It led me to a collection of all his speeches, interviews and articles spanning 60 years of his life and 19 thick volumes. In them I uncovered his thoughts and wisdom on topics ranging from education and entrepreneurship to careers and family life, much of which have never been published in other books.
After poring through all 19 volumes, I’ve distilled the following advice from him on political leadership and beating corruption.
Beating corruption is a top down affair
It was clear to Lee that for a nation to beat corruption and build a just society, the cleansing has to start at the very top.
In his speech for the ‘Africa Leadership Forum in Singapore’ on November 8th, 1993, he said…
“Once a political system has been corrupted right from the very top leaders to the lowest rungs of the bureaucracy, the problem is very complicated. The cleansing and disinfecting has to start from top and go downwards in a thorough and systematic way. It is a long and laborious process that can be carried out only by a very strong group of leaders with the strength and moral authority derived from unquestioned integrity.”
Furthermore, this group of core leaders right at the top must be determined and united, in addition to possessing a strong sense of social duty.
“Our first goal in Singapore was to shape the government into an effective instrument of policy. This requires strong, fair and just leaders, who would have the moral strength to command the respect of the people. Unity in the core group of leaders helped to send clear signals to the people thus avoiding confusion that would have arisen if the team had bickered and split.”
“Leaders must have the sense of trusteeship… Corruption, which we regarded as a cancer, must be eradicated as soon as detected.”
Once that leadership is in place, the country also needs an effective civil service to execute the government’s policies without being swayed by corruption. For this to happen, Lee Kuan Yew had often argued in parliament that the best way to attract top talents and avoid corruption was to pay civil servants top dollars — comparable to the earnings of the best doctors, engineers and lawyers etc.
“A strong political leadership needs a neutral, efficient, honest civil service. Officers must be recruited and promoted completely on merit. They have to share the same nation-building philosophy and development goals of the political leaders. They must be adequately paid so that temptations would not be difficult to resist.”
Use rivalry to beat corruption
Nonetheless, since man are prone to temptations no matter what, as a safeguard he advocated a policing system — driven, as he puts it, by jealousy and rivalry from those who sought to be corrupt.
In an interview with Lee Duk-Yul, Managing Director, The Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation, on Dec 19th, 1991, he said…
“We have a special bureau for the prevention of corruption… anybody is entitled to complain… anonymously or personally. It will be completely secret and investigations will be made.”
“And I think that’s very effective, because whoever gets the benefits by giving something, often cuts somebody else, and that somebody will complain, inevitably. If unfair advantage is taken, somebody must complain. So there is no need for a special committee. We just have a bureau to wait for complaints.”
But for this bureau to do its work effectively, first and foremost they must trust that the people they answer to are incorruptible.
“The top must set an example… (Then) the anti-corruption agency can do their work without looking over their shoulders. They know if they discover something wrong, the top will back them.”
It’s the people, not the system
Singapore is well known to have a pragmatic government. That characteristic was heavily influenced by Lee who felt that people were far more important than the political philosophy or system. In a parliament speech on November 1st, 1994, he said…
“I have seen many ideal systems of government fail. Britain and France, between them, wrote up probably 80 constitutions for their different colonies… But the leaders who inherited these constitutions were not equal to the job, and their countries failed and their systems collapsed in riots, in coups and in revolutions.”
In his book “From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965–2000”, he also noted…
“My experience of developments in Asia has led me to conclude that we need good men to have good government. However good the system of government, bad leaders will bring harm to their people. On the other hand, I have seen several societies well-governed in spite of poor systems of government, because good, strong leaders were in charge.”
Because again, in keeping with his top down approach to good government, he said in an essay titled “The Search for Talent” published in 1982…
“…bad leaders drive out good men from high positions.”
It has to come from within
And finally, Lee did not believe in external aid or interference. In an interview with Michael Suman, on August 30th, 2007, he said…
“…if you give aid to a corrupt government, the aid just trickles right down the drain… if you want to pull yourself up, you’ve got to do it by your bootstraps. Nobody can do it for you…”
Judging by Nepal’s experience he was right. There are many aid organizations in Nepal wanting to help, but to get anything done, they had to go through the government bureaucrats. My guide in Nepal told me that the bureaucrats had come to view them as US dollar cows, waiting to be milked…
So the above sums up quite simply, how Singapore became an economic miracle with very little corruption, despite having no natural resources on a tiny island other than people.
A bunch of good men, led by a great leader, who had exceptional morality and integrity.