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Lee Kuan Yew: Legacy of Vision, Modernisation and Transformational Leadership

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By Samuel Akpobome Orovwuje

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the legendary American poet and educationist, captures the life and times of Lee Kuan Yew when he said: “Look not mournfully into the past. It comes not back again. Wisely improve the present in it’s thine. Go forth to meet the shadowy future, without fear, and a manly heart”. Lee’s stature and prowess was undoubtedly remarkable in the global leadership landscape and wall of fame particularly in the developing world, where visionary, transformational and people -driven leadership is in deficit and corruption is second nature. Lee Kuan Yew’s gift to posterity, in my view, is his uncompromising discipline, focus and his untainted love for his people in the midst of western and communist propaganda in the 1960s.

This giant of transformational leadership was educated at Cambridge University, United Kingdom, qualifying in Law in 1950. He became involved with the Peoples Actions Party (PAP), a movement determined to bring a lasting change on political and social fortune of Singapore. Yew introduced a five-year development plan with an uncommon interest for urban renewal and construction of new public housing, greater rights for women, educational reform and industrialization that transform Singapore into a great nation.

Indeed Lee Kuan Yew’s towering and uncommon leadership attributes of  courage, discipline , sacrifice and selfless service, which helped to shape the socio – economic development of Singapore into First World should be emulated and sustained by Nigerian leaders and indeed provide the right leadership compass that would inspire followers for a new democratic values and ethos. In his words, “I have never been over concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader. If you are concerned with whether your rating will go up or down, then you are not a leader. You are just catching the wind … you will go where the wind is blowing. And that’s not what I am in this for”.

Crucially, one of the most single leadership values and national governance templates that Nigerians and indeed the political elites and power mongers must distill from Lee Kuan Yew is the spirit of national integration and pride. Singapore, under the watch of this uncommon and courageous leader, developed a deliberate policy of uniting and inspiring all nationalities towards a common goal of nation- building. Lee achieved this remarkable feat through pairing occupants of public flats to all nationalities that make Singapore at independence. The promotion of national identity and culture was used to ensure social justice amongst its people with a viewing to consolidating social harmony, order and sense of community that the emergent nation needed for its long-term development efforts. Furthermore, Lee was able to break the wall of personal self- preservation and take on the cap of sacrifice for the sake of others and fearlessly built a relatively corruption free society that has become the envy of the world.

Pointedly, another uncommon inspiration and indeed lessons from Lee Kuan Yew’s economic transformation experience is Singapore’s rapid growth in income and wealth, which was achieved through deliberate and robust price stability mechanism, huge accumulation of foreign exchange reserves, a strong Singapore dollar, full employment for over 40 years. It is also instructive to note that the rate of unemployment is less than 3% and a sustainable savings rate of over 45%. This is indeed the hallmark of focused leadership and should be driving force for our nascent democracy in Nigeria.

Lee’s modernization horizon was driven by his strong character, trust, credibility and above all, competency and reward system that attracted the best and brightest to public and civil service. In his demonstration of competency and service delivery, Lee had this to say: “You know the cure for all this talk is really a good dose of incompetent government. You get that alternative and you’ll never put Singapore together again: Humpty dumpty cannot be put together again… and your asset values will be in peril, your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people’s countries, foreign workers.”

Against this backdrop, the greatest challenge for Nigeria leaders and indeed the government is to go beyond rhetoric of transactional and self – seeking leadership that has characterised the political space since independence in 1960 to bring prosperity and future to Nigerian.

Interestingly, Yew’s extraordinary vision made Singapore a nation of homeowners with the citizens given grant to buy public houses at rates highly subsidized by the government. Singaporeans, no matter their social backgrounds, have access to mortgage and they live in their own homes, with more than three- quarters living in four – room or large public flats and private homes. Today, zero percent of the citizens live below poverty line.  Indeed, the social contract between the people and their leaders has shaped the average Singaporean spirit and it has constantly defined the political culture of this multi ethnic, multi -lingual and multi- religious country.

In the final analysis, Lee’s enduring legacy to mankind and indeed Nigeria, in my view, is that the key to effective and transformational leadership is learning how to influence in a way that engenders great trust, stronger partnerships for the ordinary people and giving yourself away for the common good for the benefit of a greater future. Indeed, Lee Kuan Yew was a modernizer, visionary leader and intellectual heavyweight that change the course of human development and international politics. Adieu!

*Orovwuje is the Founder Humanitarian Care for Displaced Persons, Lagos. He can be reached through orovwuje@yahoo.com.

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