11 Qualities In Lee Kuan Yew That Made Him A Great Leader

Lee Kuan Yew may have passed but his legacy is here to stay and there are a few things about leadership that we can learn from this visionary leader.

Cover image via Kang Li/Facebook

1. His clear vision. He planned and led with deep conviction.

Image via mothership.sg

Since Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965 — an event Mr. Lee called his “moment of anguish” — he had seen himself in a never-ending struggle to overcome the nation’s lack of natural resources, a potentially hostile international environment and a volatile ethnic mix of Chinese, Malays and Indians.

“To begin with, we don’t have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors: a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny. So, history is a long time. I’ve done my bit.”


2. His resilience and tenacity. This helped him persist through some of the toughest days.

Lee had gone through his toughest period when Malaysia chose to separate itself from Singapore. Him shedding tears on public television marked one of the most historic moments in Singapore history.

However, he never gave up, strengthened his resolve and continued to believe that he could develop Singapore into what he envisioned it to be.


3. His innovative approach. It transformed Singapore into a first world country which it is today.

Image via sharesinv.com

Zainuddin pays tribute to Lee’s strength of character, saying he did not waste his time moping over the separation but instead drew strength from it to create his vision of a Singapore that is “better and stronger” than Malaysia. He says Lee realised that vision by making sure that Singapore achieved developed-nation status before Malaysia would. He credits this to Lee’s creativity and innovative spirit.


4. His strict "iron first" governing. It earned him the position of a feared but respected leader.

Image via Straits Times

He was criticised for his iron-fisted rule, forcing several opposition politicians into bankruptcy or exile, and once invoked Machiavelli in declaring: "If nobody is afraid of me, I'm meaningless."


Lee led Singapore from a colonial backwater under British control to one of the world’s most thriving financial centers, and he did so with a tight grip on power.


Lee was both admired for Singapore’s efficient government, economic growth and safe streets — and feared for having jailed political rivals for decades without trial and for cracking down on protests and the press.


5. His incorrupt nature. This played a big part in shaping Singapore into one of the least corrupt countries in the world.

Image via Mothership

“He presented to the world a Singapore that is bersih, cekap dan amanah (clean, efficient and trustworthy) under an administration that is tough against corruption and scandal.”


In a policy intended to remove the temptation for corruption, Singapore linked the salaries of ministers, judges and top civil servants to those of leading professionals in the private sector, making them some of the highest-paid government officials in the world.


6. His ability to continuously fight the noble cause, even if it meant doing difficult things for the greater good

“I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honorable purpose,” he said. “I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.”


7. His unbiased nature. It lent a hand in integrating racial harmony in a multi-racial nation.

Image via ndtvimg.com

Zainuddin, also known as Zam, writes: “Lee succeeded in developing a strong new nation that transcends the divisions of race and religion. Not only did he suppress Malay communalism, but he killed the racial institutions of the Chinese, including Chinese schools and colleges, and he wiped out their secret societies.


If you live in Singapore, you need to play nice with all the races. Keen to avoid the racial riots of the 1960s, which saw the four races of Singapore at loggerheads, racial harmony is preached as a central government policy.


8. His honesty. He was known for a sharp tongue and he was fearless when speaking his mind.

Image via scmp.com

Lee Kuan Yew had a strong opinion about most anything. As he once said, “I have been accused of many things in my life, but not even my worst enemy has ever accused me of being afraid to speak my mind.”


This was one of his key strengths, in Kausikan’s view: “The disciplined clarity of his thought and expression was one of the primary sources of the influence Lee wielded, disproportionate for the leader of a small country like Singapore. His views were valued because they were unvarnished and gave a fresh and unique perspective. He said things that leaders of much larger and more powerful countries may well have thought and may have liked to say, but for one reason or another, could not themselves prudently say. And so he made Singapore relevant.”


9. His sense of humour and quick wit

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Singapore banned the sale of chewing gum in 1992, citing littering - sticking used gum on tables and chairs - as well as vandalism. Passengers reportedly started sticking chewing gum on the door sensors of commuter trains, disrupting services.

Lee Kuan Yew on chewing gum ban:
"If you can't think because you can't chew, try a banana."


10. His loyalty and devotion to his wife, a charming contrast to his strict demeanor

Image via Straits Times

The love story between Lee Kuan Yew and his late wife Kwa Geok Choo is a beautiful and touching one. Their marriage of 63 years was steadfast, and the late Ms Kwa’s sickness towards the end of her life brought out the softer side of Lee Kuan Yew that not many have seen before.


11. His open mind and enlightened view. He accepted differences.

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In 2011 in his book Hard Truths, [Lee Kuan Yew] said:
"No, it's not a lifestyle. You can read the books you want, all the articles. There's a genetic difference so it is not a matter of choice. They are born that way and that's that. So if two men or two women are that way, just leave them alone."


His views on homosexuality - that it is genetically determined - may have painted him as a liberal.


Today, we bid goodbye to a great leader, a visionary and a wise man who but left a great legacy behind:

A respected and beloved man, Lee Kuan Yew's death is not only a loss to Singapore but also to the world: