Introducing Maven: a new social network where you follow interests, not influencers. Be heard without needing followers and find others who share your interests.

The Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew


A collection of quotes from LKY on a whole host of subjects

The Rabbit Hole is written by Blas Moros. To support, sign up for the newsletter, become a patron, and/or join The Latticework. Original Design by Thilo Konzok.

Key Takeaways

  1. Lee’s pragmatism and unwillingness to be influenced by external pressures characterized his leadership style: “I was never a prisoner of any theory. What guided me were reason and reality. The acid test I applied to every theory or scheme was, would it work?”
  2. Between Japan and Europe, we must make Singapore the best place to bunker and repair ships, either in drydock or on water. Once we have established ourselves as the ship repairing and shipbuilding centre, we will remain so for a very long time. For once supremacy has been established, whether it is an airport, a harbour, or a dockyard, it is very difficult for any other place to dislodge us. For others have to compete against an established centre with superior facilities, higher skills and expertise, and long-standing established customers.
  3. Hard-headed industrialists and bankers of developed countries never take unnecessary risks. They look round the world for places where there is political stability and industrial peace before they invest. In Singapore they find such a place. Hence the massive inflow of capital, machinery, technological know-how and banking expertise.
    1. Deep fluency in being able to see from other's perspectives
  4. We can build up this team spirit, this esprit de corps, where every individual gives of his best for the team, for the nation, to achieve its maximum. And the team, the nation, in turn, takes care of the individual, fairly and equitably. The art of government is the art of building up team spirit.
  5. A society to be successful must maintain a balance between nurturing excellence and encouraging the average to improve. There must be both cooperation and competition between people in the same society. The Singapore cooperation and competition have improved standards of life for all.
  6. Singapore has survived and prospered by making ourselves relevant to the world. In the last century, we traded in spices; this century, in tin and rubber. After independence in 1965, we moved into simple manufacturing. Now, we are in wafer fabs, pharmaceuticals and Asian currency units. As the world economy changed, so did we.
  7. We have made home ownership the cornerstone of Singapore’s public housing policy – the vast majority of the population own, not rent, their homes. Ownership is critical because we were an immigrant community with no common history. Our peoples came from many different parts of Asia. Home ownership helped to quickly forge a sense of rootedness in Singapore. It is the foundation upon which nationhood was forged. The pride people have in their homes prevents our estates from turning into slums, which is the fate for public housing in other countries.
  8. It is not the individual performance that counts. Of this, I’m quite certain. You can have a great leader, you know. If the herd hasn’t got it in it, you can’t make the grade. The herd must have the capacity, the stamina, sufficient social cohesiveness to survive.
  9. One of the by-products of a migrant community is that it produces a population of triers. Whatever else they may lack, the offsprings of migrants are prepared to try anything to improve themselves. Having left tradition, their history, their past behind, they have only the future to go in quest of.
  10. An island city-state in Southeast Asia could not be ordinary if it was to survive. We had to make extraordinary efforts to become a tightly knit, rugged and adaptable people who could do things better and cheaper than our neighbours, because they wanted to bypass us and render obsolete our role as the entrepôt and middleman for the trade of the region. We had to be different.
    1. Check out Howard Bloom for more on this
  11. Our way forward is to upgrade our levels of education, skills, knowledge and technology. Life-long learning is a must for everyone in this knowledge economy with rapidly changing technology.
  12. Even in the sixties, when the government had to grapple with grave problems of unemployment, lack of housing, health and education, I pushed for the planting of trees and shrubs. I have always believed that a blighted urban jungle of concrete destroys the human spirit. We need the greenery of nature to lift up our spirits. So in 1967, I launched the Garden City programme to green up the whole island and try to make it into a garden.
  13. As a nation, we must have other goals. Economic growth is not the end itself. After the success of the economy, you want to translate it into high standards of living, high quality of life, with recreation, the arts, spiritual fulfilment, and intellectual fulfilment. So, we are also spending considerable sums for the arts, which will create a more gracious society.
  14. Politics is about human beings and their lives. It is an art, not a science. It is the art of the possible. In Singapore, it means what is possible, given a hard-working people, with a realistic understanding of our narrow economic base and the need for social discipline and high performance, to keep ahead of other developing countries with low wages and more natural resources.
  15. If democratic socialists are to make a contribution to the course of events, they must cease to think in terms of abstractions. They must give meaning to socialist ideals in pragmatic and realistic policies to produce changes for the better in the daily lives of their peoples.
  16. If you want to be popular, do not try to be popular all the time. Popular government does not mean that you do popular things all the time. We do not want to be unpopular or to do unpopular things. But when they are necessary, they will be done.
  17. How do you think today’s Singapore came about? Because everyone knows if I say that we are going in a certain direction and that we’re going to achieve this objective, if you set out to block me, I will take a bulldozer and clear the obstruction. I leave nobody in any doubt that is where we are going and that any obstruction will be cleared. So there were very few obstructions. So we got the highway cleared and travelled to our destination.
  18. When you put up an idea which I know is wrong and believe profoundly to be wrong and will do us harm, I must crush it. I don’t crush you, I crush your idea. I mean, if I’m wrong then my ideas deserve to be crushed. Maybe ‘crush’ is a harsh word, but this is a harsh world. It is a contest of whose idea is right because if it is wrong, we are going to do harm to many people.
  19. The weakness of democracy is that the assumption that all men are equal and capable of equal contribution to the common good is flawed.
  20. Contrary to what American political commentators say, I do not believe that democracy necessarily leads to development. I believe that what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy. The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development. The ultimate test of the value of a political system is whether it helps that society to establish conditions which improve the standard of living for the majority of its people plus enabling the maximum of personal freedoms compatible with the freedoms of others in society.
  21. The very fact that we are not challenged is a pretty strong mandate.
  22. There is no easy way to win power or stay in power. If the PAP does not renew itself regularly with fresh blood from the younger generation, stay honest and clean, upgrade the economy and improve the education and skills of our people, to have economic growth and bring a better life to people, it will soon begin to lose seats and eventually be defeated and ousted. So the PAP accepts the realities that the world is changing and we have to adapt ourselves to this different world. We are not stuck in any policy, theory or ideology.
  23. The system that we inherited from the British was lopsided. Too much emphasis was laid on the examination and the paper qualification. We were, therefore, rearing a whole generation of softies, who are clever; who wore spectacles but who were weak from want of enough exercise, enough sunshine, and with not enough guts in them. That was all right for a British colony, because the officers came from England [and] had the necessary brawn and toughness. It was they who gave the orders and our people just executed them. That is not good enough. We have to give our own people the orders. And you have to throw up a whole generation capable of that leadership, conscious of its responsibilities, jealous of its rights, not allowing anyone to bully it and push it around, prepared to stand up and fight and die. That kind of a generation will endure till the end of time.
  24. One of the reasons why Singapore thrived was because so many of the merchants, both British and non-British, when they gave their word, they kept to it, and the government when it gave its undertaking, invariably honoured it.
  25. Great leaders mirror the qualities of the nations they lead.
  26. We have continually to draw out younger leaders to fulfil the roles played by the traditional community leaders. Those with the higher social conscience must come forward to give of their time to get things done for the community. This is one of the strengths of Singaporean society, the absence of class divisions. It grew from our immigrant history. All started at or near the bottom. The successful immigrants have a tradition of helping the less successful.
  27. Good governance includes the pursuit of national interest regardless of theories or ideologies. Good government is pragmatic government.
  28. No army, however brave, can win when its generals are weak.
  29. Singapore’s progress, its verve, its vitality is assured because the administrative machine works. There is no grit. You don’t have to grease somebody to crank up the machine. We must keep it that way. To ensure this, I am thinking of an amendment to the law. The innovation is: if any official is found with wealth which cannot be explained and there is uncorroborative evidence of corruption, his whole property can be sequestered.
  30. Singaporean teachers feel unhappy at the higher salaries paid to native English teachers. Well, this cannot be avoided. We have to pay them what will bring them to Singapore – the market rate in the UK plus an extra to attract them to Singapore. I frequently meet expat bankers, executives of multinationals, indeed occasionally expat officers working for the Singapore government on contract, who are paid more than I am. I have learned not to let it disturb me. 
  31. It would be stupid for us not to recognise that language and culture is a stronger force that motivates human beings than political or ideological ideals.
  32. I learnt as a student that a word has three meanings: what the speaker intends it to mean; what the mass of people understand it to mean; what I understand it to mean.
  33. I paid a heavy price for not having learned Mandarin when young. To this day I meet my teacher/friend once a week to keep my Mandarin alive. Every day I spend 20 minutes listening to Mandarin lessons on tape and 15 minutes reading ZaoBao, or Chinese newspapers online. These keep up my passive vocabulary.
  34. Every time I think of people whom I have met and known as friends in school or in college, I think of those who became too de-culturalised too quickly. I had a friend who was a Sikh. He threw his past away: he shaved his beard; he threw away his turban; he had a haircut. No harm at all. But something happened to him and in next to no time, he was doing foolish things. He lost his anchorage. You know, it gets very difficult for a ship without an anchor in a harbour when it gets stormy. I want you therefore, to have your anchorage. But slowly, we must begin to learn to have the same basic points of anchorage. It may take a hundred years.
  35. Whatever our race or religion, it is what we produce that entitles us to what we get, not our race or religion. Developing the economy, increasing productivity, increasing returns, these make sense only when fair play and fair shares make it worth everyone’s while to put in his share of effort for group survival and group prosperity.
  36. A US-style constitution failed [in the Philippines] long before Marcos declared martial law. It was re-adopted in 1987 by President Aquino. The system worked in America because of a super-abundance of resources and riches in a vast underpopulated continent. I do not believe that Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore could have succeeded as they have done if they had to work under such a constitution, where gridlock on every major issue is a way of life. And you will notice that since the Vietnam War and the Great Society some 28 years ago, the US system has not functioned even for the United States. 
  37. If the US tries to thwart China’s growth, China will surely want to return the compliment when it can do so. 
  38. Japan’s best investment is in the younger generation of potential leaders of China. The more Chinese students there are in Japan, especially the children of central and provincial leaders, the better the prospects for long-term understanding and cooperation between the two countries.
  39. Americans are not criticising Singapore because they are concerned about democracy and human rights enjoyed by three million Singaporeans. Whether Singapore succeeds as a multiracial community in Southeast Asia or fails makes little difference to the future of America. Their real interest is what Freedom House has stated, that Singapore sets the wrong example for China, showing China that it can maintain social discipline and order with high economic growth but without becoming a full-fledged American-style democracy. This is the reason why the American media always attacks Singapore.
  40. From time to time in the history of human civilisations, more civilised, more cultivated societies, with higher standards of living, have been overrun and subjugated by barbaric and less advanced groups. So the Roman Empire fell. And so successive Chinese and Indian civilisations were conquered by virile warrior races, who were socially and culturally of a cruder order, and less sophisticated in their social organisations. We must be on our toes all the time. We must never allow this to happen to Singapore through our growing self-indulgent and soft.
  41. Our basic approach is never to allow fears and tensions to grow and mount in intensity. Early preventive action can forestall an ugly build-up. So whether it is a communist conspiracy to create pressure points for mass action, or growing interracial or inter-religious frictions and tension, they have to be defused early.
  42. The communists failed because it was a propaganda based on the barricade, and you get men running to the barricades only if they are really hungry, really desperate. Then, they are prepared to take up the stone, throw it into the glass window, turn the car over and burn it. When they are not desperate, when they are reasonably fed, reasonably clothed, I won’t say contented, but not altogether frustrated and dissatisfied, then argument and reason become operative factors.
    1. Mao Zedong said: "A single spark can light a prairie fire." LEE: A prairie fire will only start if there's a dry spell.
  43. Communism, like so many other things, is best met when one knows it and gets immune to it. I believe the policy of complete isolation from communist thought, tactics, thinking, policy, is a dangerous thing. One day the windows will come open and like the South Sea islanders, when they first meet the tuberculosis bacilli, we will all perish. It is better to let these things come in gradual doses, containable, enough to generate a counter toxin in our wholesome society.
  44. The difficulty arises from America’s expressed desire to make China more democratic. China resents and resists this as an interference in its domestic matters. Outside powers cannot re-fashion China into their own image. Let us not forget that even China’s conquerors like the Mongols in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the Manchus in the 17th to 19th centuries, could not change Chinese culture. Instead China changed them and they were absorbed and assimilated. The language and culture of its conquerors could not overcome Chinese language and culture.
  45. Fortunately, we never attempted to subsidise rice or other staple foodstuffs. Those governments which have done so face grave problems, as more and more of their revenue goes into feeding more and more mouths at subsidised prices, generating overpopulation, under-education, low economic growth, massive unemployment and resulting social unrest. And this is what has happened because elected governments in several new countries have baulked at taking unpopular decisions.
  46. While the western MNCs have the know-how, the Asian conglomerates have the know-who as they are conveniently plugged into the social, cultural, political and business networks in the region.
  47. Like Nehru, I had been influenced by the ideas of the British Fabian Society. But I soon realised that before distributing the pie I had first to bake it. So I departed from welfarism because it sapped a people’s self-reliance and their desire to excel and succeed. I also abandoned the model of industrialisation through import substitution. When most of the Third World was deeply suspicious of exploitation by western MNCs, Singapore invited them in. They helped us grow, brought in technology and know-how, and raised productivity levels faster than any alternative strategy could.
    1. See How Asia Works
  48. Every citizen already feels he has a stake, a sense of proprietorship, in the stability and progress of Singapore. Every citizen can expect to get his commensurate shares of the prosperity to which he has contributed.
  49. For over 30 years we have aimed for an egalitarian society. If we want to have successful entrepreneurs, Singaporeans have to accept a greater income disparity between the successful and the not so successful.
  50. Knowledge and technology once disseminated, cannot be put back into the bottle and corked up.
  51. We cannot predict which of our younger managers, engineers and professionals will have the entrepreneurial flair. It has to be by trial and error, tossing them into the deep end of the pool.
  52. Corporations that get their ideas from only one culture will lose out on innovations.
  53. Japanese people have been excellent in perfecting technologies. The standard example was the way they improved on the Chinese abacus which has seven beads, two above, five below, rounded and noisy. The Japanese reduced the seven beads to five, one above, four below, with sharp edges, silent and fast. So too Japanese chopsticks. The pointed ends make it easier to manage small rounded morsels like peanuts that are difficult to handle with the Chinese chopsticks. This ability to improve on present technology is worth preserving and maintaining. But improving on what others have invented is not enough. You have to be like the Americans and invent products that others have not thought of, that will be desired and bought by billions across the world.
  54. No nation has ever become the major power without a clear lead in technology, both civilian and military. From the Roman legions, to the naval powers of Portugal, Spain and Great Britain, to Germany in World War I and the US post-World War II, great power status was achieved by those nations that were able to harness their technological advantage for holistic development of their civilian and military capabilities.
  55. In the earlier stages of our labour movement, the trade union often became a place of refuge for the inefficient, the slack, the lazy and the anti-social. As has happened elsewhere, these are the first to join the union to seek protection against the natural desire of any employer to be rid of bad workers. […] I am not asking our trade union leaders, in an open democratic society, to take on the role of management. But I do urge them, with the help of these new laws, to stop giving cover to those who do not pull their weight. We must avoid slipping into a situation where trade unionism is the practice of protecting the weakest and the slowest worker and, with everybody being paid the same wage, nobody will have the slightest incentive to work harder than the weakest and the slowest.
  56. We are mindful of the dangers of high welfare and unemployment benefits, watching the consequences of this compassionate policy on the job-seeking habits of the unemployed. Visiting the major cities of the industrial countries, I am struck by this curious phenomena of high unemployment and yet a shortage of waiters, cab drivers, nurses and garbage collectors. Some jobs are not worth doing, as a result of welfare benefits. Whatever principles may be applicable in highly developed industrial countries, for a resource-poor country like Singapore, hard work, and high performance amply rewarded, is the best way to attract capital and technology into the country to generate wealth.
  57. When people get equal handouts, whether or not they work harder or better, everybody then works less hard. The country must go down. It is when people are encouraged to excel by being able to keep a large part of the extra reward earned by their extra efforts that the society as a whole becomes wealthier and everyone thrives and prospers.
  58. I believe that life is a process of continuous change and a constant struggle to make that change one for the better.
  59. Even in the capitalist West where they have tried throwing money at problems, what is the end result? You go down New York, Broadway. You will see the beggars, people on the streets. Worse than in the 1950s and in the early ’60s before the Great Society programmes. Why? Why did it get worse after compassion moved a President, motivated with a great vision of a society which was wealthy and cared for, could look after everybody – the blacks, the minorities, the dispossessed, the disadvantaged. There is more unhappiness and more hardship today and more beggars, more muggers. Why is that? Have we not learnt? Where are the beggars in Singapore? Show me. I take pride in that. Has anybody died of starvation? Anybody without a home left to die in the streets and have to be collected as dead corpses? Because we came to the realistic conclusion that the human being is motivated by instincts that go deep down into the basic genes of life. And the first basic instinct is to protect yourself, and stronger than that, to protect your offspring so that there is the next generation. You kill that link, you have killed off mankind.
  60. East Asians are highly competitive peoples training themselves to win life’s marathons.
  61. My experience in governing Singapore, especially the difficult early years from 1959 to 1969, convinced me that we would not have surmounted our difficulties and setbacks if a large part of the population of Singapore were not imbued with Confucian values. The people had a group cohesion and a pragmatic approach to government and to the problems in society. Confucianist traditions have made Chinese Singaporeans revere scholarship and academic excellence, and also respect officials when they are chosen on the basis of their scholarship.
  62. They accepted that the interests of society were above that of the individual. They did not believe in the unlimited individualism of the Americans...One fundamental difference between American and Oriental culture is the individual’s position in society. In American culture an individual’s interest is primary. This makes American society more aggressively competitive, with a sharper edge and higher performance. In Singapore, the interests of the society take precedence over that of the individual. Nevertheless Singapore has to be competitive in the market for jobs, goods and services. On the other hand the government helps lower income groups to meet their needs for housing, health services and education so that their children will have more of an equal chance to rise through education.
  63. The first principle of any civilisation is orderly living and the rearing of the young.
  64. There is one aspect of this process of change or modernisation which we must avoid at all costs – that is the break up of the three-generation family. The three-generation family is a rarity now in Western Europe and in America. Yet it is still common in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, despite their industrialisation and modernisation. It is a question of family structure, of social framework, of filial ties and bonds, which hold family units together. Our strong family structure has been a great strength for continuity in bringing up our next generation. The family has transmitted social values, more by osmosis than by formal instruction. We must preserve this precious family structure if our society is to regenerate itself without loss of cultural vigour, compassion and wisdom. There is another compelling reason why we must preserve the three-generation family: simply, that we do not have the land to build the flats needed if we break up the three-generation family.
  65. That we have the will, the ability and the discipline with which to acquire higher knowledge and new skills, there is little doubt. The question is whether the next generation will have the same drive to keep well out in front fighting against the complacency which greater comfort and ease bring in their train.
  66. If I have to choose one profession in which you give the most for the least it is probably teaching – if you take it seriously. You have to have the temperament for it to coax, to stimulate, to cajole, to discipline a young mind into good habits. You must have an aptitude.
  67. We have given every student, regardless of language, race or religion, equal opportunities for education and employment. Hundreds get scholarships every year, over 150 to go to universities abroad. All are judged and rewarded according to their performance, not their fathers’ wealth or status. Economic progress has resulted from this and made life better for all. This has checked communist subversion and recruitment, especially of good cadres.
  68. Performance in examinations depends upon two factors: nature and nurture – nature being the natural intelligence of the child, nurture being the training and education. Or to use computer language, it depends on hardware and software, the hardware is the size or capacity of the computer, and the software is the teaching or educational programme. What weightings are allotted to hardware as against software, or nature against nurture, is a matter of deep controversy between the experts, the psychologists and doctors. The fact is, individuals are born with different capacities. What we must set out to do, therefore, is to help students achieve the maximum potential of whatever nature has endowed them with. In other words, to nurture them, to give them the software, to encourage, support and help them to achieve their fullest.
    1. I had never thought of nature/nurture through this analogy and find it intriguing
  69. If we want high morale, we must have high standards. If we want high standards, the law must be enforced fairly and firmly. There will be no squatters or beggars sleeping on our pavements doing their ablutions in our drains. People will be housed and cared for. Hawkers will not clog up the main streets. There will be thorough and proper cleansing every day of the year. Laws will have to be passed to help rid us of the malpractices that have crept into our workforce. Only a year before last, malingering and shirking and sabotage to create overtime and treble pay for public holidays was a way of life. Discipline and efficiency must be re-established.
  70. It is Asian values that have enabled Singapore to contain its drug problem. To protect the community we have passed laws which entitle police, drug enforcement or immigration officers to have the urine of any person who behaves in a suspicious way tested for drugs. If the result is positive, treatment is compulsory. Such a law in the United States will be unconstitutional, because it will be an invasion of privacy of the individual.
  71. Rest on laurels? I wish I could do that. No, you rest when you’re dead.
  72. I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.
  73. At the end of the day, what I cherish most are the human relationships. With the unfailing support of my wife and partner I have lived my life to the fullest. It is the friendships I made and the close family ties I nurtured that have provided me with that sense of satisfaction at a life well lived, and have made me what I am.

What I got out of it

  1. Amazing lessons from one of our generation's great leaders and nation builders. Do what works, be pragmatic, honor incentives and human nature, have conviction

In the Latticework, we've distilled, curated, and interconnected the 750+book summaries from The Rabbit Hole. If you're looking to make the ideas from these books actionable in your day-to-day life and join a global tribe of lifelong learners, you'll love The Latticework. Join us today.