Lessons from Lee Kuan Yew

The father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew said: “The present generation, below 35, has grown up used to high economic growth year after year. And they take security and success for granted. And because they believe that all is well, they are less willing to make sacrifices for the benefit of others in society. They are more concerned about their individual and family welfare and success. Not their community’s or the society’s well-being. This is very dangerous.”

We can all relate to his statement. But why is it dangerous? And what would he want us to do correctly?

It is only rational if we put our needs first. We live in a competitive, complex, dynamic world where success is expensive and hard. Why should we care about strangers’ lives?

At work, I focus on being good so I can move up the ladder. I care about myself first then only I care about my company.

It’s the norm in our generation to focus on ourselves first. But, not in the older generation. Not for Lee Kuan Yew.

In his 2007 INSEAD keynote session, the moderator asked him “How leaders develop their sense of responsibility? How do they internalise it?”

He answered “In my case, we were thrown up as a result of wars and revolutions and that created a generation that was ready for a change. In that milieu, we turned into politics. It’s either we could mobilise to take over, or the communist will. You either do it or die. And we just had to do it.” Then he continued:

“It’s not a vocation it’s a crusade.”

He did not plan to be the father of Singapore. He did what he thought best over and over with one thing on his mind: a better Singapore. Whatever decisions and actions he did, his focus is to improve Singaporeans’ lives. He devoted his life to the people of Singapore. And I believe that is the highest success every man should strive.

“It’s not a vocation it’s a crusade.”

Notice the contrasts with the current generation?

According to David Brooks:

Today, commencement speakers tell graduates to follow their passion, to trust their feelings, to reflect and find their purpose in life. When you are young and just setting out into adulthood, you should, by this way of thinking, sit down and take some time to discover yourself, to define what is really important to you, what your priorities are, what arouses your deepest passions. By this way of thinking, life can be organised like a business plan.

Lee Kuan Yew found his purpose in life using a different method, one that was more common in past eras. In this method, you don’t ask, what do I want from life? You ask a different set of questions: What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do?

But, today’s world is at a much better place than the past. Do we have to be put in a time where our lives are at stake, so we can start our crusade for others?

The answer is no. Learning from LKY’s history, there are at least two habits we can cultivate now.

In whatever you do, shift the focus from yourself to others.

While writing this, I can focus my intention to look good and become a famous writer. But, I can also shift that focus to others. Instead of thinking about my success, why don’t I aim to share this writing so others can benefit by learning the wisdom from history? And in the process, I also benefited myself.

Because when you’re proactive about service, and when your service makes an enormous impact, people will do incredible things for you. They’ll do it not out of a need for reciprocity. But because they genuinely appreciate you.

Shift your focus to the communal. Because you are part of a group, a company, or a country. Never think small of yourself. If you’re an employee, remember you’re working for a company. It’s a no-brainer that you should think about the success of your company first. And when you make them successful, they will make you successful too!

Look around and fix the things that announce themselves as in need of repair.

Viktor Frankl described in his famous 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning “It did not really matter what we expected from life,” he wrote, “but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly.”

Look around you, ask yourself, what is it you could do to set things more right today that you would actually do? If you find that the answer is “no,” to any or all of the questions, then look elsewhere. Aim lower. Search until you find something that bothers you, that you could fix, that you would fix, and then fix it. It can be a small thing, throw the trash, tidy up your room, doing the administrative work, anything that would make the world slightly in order. It isn’t exactly so important that your room is in order although it is. What’s important is you learn how to distinguish between chaos and order. You put the world together a little more, and that spreads out; that makes you incrementally stronger.

These two immediate actions may look inferior to what Lee Kuan Yew did. It’s the accumulation of the two that shape a great leader like him. But, how he kept his vision clear and consistent all the time? He added one more thing: The imagination of a perfect Singapore.

He fixed things, and he focused on others first. He did it the other way around. Because he served others, others appreciated him. Because he thought for others, others thought of him. Because he helped others, others helped him.

Let’s not get complacent. Let’s not waste what has been built. Let’s learn and improve from history.

The key is to fix the immediate things for the common good. Repeatedly.

As Benjamin P. Hardy said:

“You’ll be successful because life gives to the givers and takes from the takers.”

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