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.”

All good things come in moderation

“Every praiseworthy characteristic has two blameworthy poles. Generosity is the middle between miserliness and extravagance. Courage is the middle between cowardice and recklessness. Humanity has been commanded to avoid every such blameworthy trait.” -Ibn Manzur

If you’re agitated, stressed, chaos, upset, exhausted, and nervous. There’s one underrated value in the modern society that you probably missing: moderation or balance.

We boast how few hours of sleep we maintain, how insatiable we are in our careers, and how comfy our lives are thanks to an excess of luxury goods. It’s hard for us to divide equally, to allocate things correctly, and to be moderate in many.

The famous example is work. I’m not telling you should aim for work-life balance. If working long hours is okay for you and those people you loved, then it’s a balance. Make sure you maintain an open and honest communication with your loved ones. If your work made you tired, easily upset, anxious, these are the cue for imbalance.

Balance means untroubled spirit; it means controlling oneself; it means justice; it means setting everything in its rightful place; it means unbiased.

Everything has two ends and a middle. If you hold one of the ends, the other will be skewed. If you hold the middle, the two ends will be balanced. You must seek the middle ground in all things.

Have these things in balance.

External appearance and internal character

Jordan B. Peterson’s first rule is to ‘Stand up straight with your shoulder back’. He’s saying to get your posture right, stand for yourself, get ready for whatever life throws at you, and speak your mind.

I like that idea, but I would add something to it. While standing up straight with your shoulder back, on the inside, lower your arrogance and ego.

That’s the ideal person we all like to see. Someone who stands tall and humble on the inside. Someone who is decisive and gentle. Someone who is serious and fun.

We should be even in our mannerisms with others, carrying ourselves with tranquillity and dignity rather than flamboyance or melancholy.

“And be moderate in your pace and lower your voice; indeed, the most disagreeable of sounds is the voice of donkeys.” -Quran [31:19]

The first and second half of life

“The second half of a man’s life is made up of nothing but the habits he has acquired during the first half.” -Fyodor Dostoyevsky

What you do in your twenties and thirties matter the most. During this period of life, your energy level is up; your brain is up, your ambition is up, your muscles are up. Use this period to do something hard. You could do whatever you want at this stage of life. You could party every night or study every night.

Remember, you have various duties in life. You have a duty to your lord, your country, your body, your family. You have to give each one its rights.

Aim for a straight path ahead in both the first and second half of your life, if you stray right or left, make sure to strike for the middle ground right here and now.

Make sacrifice now so you can enjoy your future. Balance the two.

“O people, remain straight upon the path and you will have taken a great lead, but if you swerve right or left, then you will be led far astray.” -Bukhari

Heaven and Earth

To quote Jordan again, “aim continually at Heaven while you work diligently on Earth.” I again like his idea of balancing the two.

These two are inseparable from having a great life whether you believe in religions or not. The idea of heaven can help to shape who we are today. Heaven is a place for the ones who do well right now on Earth. Why are we here? We’re here to help each other, to serve the public, to serve the common good and we won’t achieve that if we’re on the extremes.

“Seek the home of the Hereafter by that which Allah has given you, but do not forget your share of the world.” -Quran [28:77]

Life is suffering whether you do what’s right or not. Whether you believe in God or not, whether you are rich or poor. It’s all the same. Everyone suffers in their way.

Balancing Heaven and earth will orient ourselves in this life. It will make us aware of good and evil. So, we can choose the good and act well right now.

The Future and the Now

We are the only creature who can think about the future. That’s why human created all of these wonderful things. But, we live in the now.

If we think only about the future, then we might spend the rest of our lives only dreaming. We have to balance it with actions that are only happening in the now.

Benjamin P. Hardy says, “You decide who you want to be. But that decision is only a real decision if you do what that decision entails. Otherwise, it wasn’t really a decision. The decision is only a decision if action aligns with it.”

Doing the right things and doing things right

Notice the difference? One is asking “why do I want to do something?” versus “how do I do it?” the first focuses on the ends; another one focuses on the means. The first tells you whether you should do something; another one tells you whether you can do it. The first leads to improvements of a transformational nature; another one leads to improvements of an incremental or evolutionary nature.

Before you can address the details of “how”, you must be clear about the “why” so that the implementation details are aligned with the ends and consistent with the assumptions.

“I can’t call a person a hard worker just because I hear they read and write, even if working at it all night. Until I know what a person is working for, I can’t deem them industrious…. I can if the end they work for is their own ruling principle, having it be and remain in constant harmony with Nature” -Epictetus, Discourses, 4.4.41; 43

Balance the two.

Generalist and specialist spectrum

Optimising at the too high level of generality runs the risk of not having enough type and technical competence. Optimising at too low a level of generality ensures type and technical competence but insufficient task or team competence.

Brazilian football team have individuals who are very talented but not always robust enough as a team. German teams on the other hand often have less world-class individuals but gel solidly as a team and repeatedly do well in international tournaments. If we strike the right balance, the result will be a strong team of great individuals.

Tolerant of others strict with yourself

It’s rooted in the stoic teaching about things within and without our control. You won’t be able to control what others say, think, act about you. But, you can control your reactions, your assessment of it. That’s why you need to tolerate other people, but not yourself. For yourself, what you say, think, and do is within your control. If you’re not strict with yourself, you’ll get carried away with something else that is not you.

We should be moderate in our relationships with others. This includes not only all of the virtues we mentioned that lie between extremes but also to keep our feelings and emotions in check. We should love for people what we love for ourselves, but not as infatuation that we endorse their sins. And we should hate the sins and evil deeds people commit, but not as malice that we want to harm them.

“Let not your love be infatuation and let not your hatred be destruction.” –Umar Ibn Khattab

Giving and taking

We should be moderate in our charity for much the same reason. We ought to spend enough to help others in need, while still retaining enough to take care of our families and ourselves.

“And [they are] those who, when they spend, do so not excessively or sparingly but are ever, between that, [justly] moderate.” -Quran [25:67]

Conclusion

Let moderation guides you through all of your activities in life. Let it be the way you strive ahead. Let it balances your physical and mental state.

It is the avoidance of any extremism that leads us astray from the straight path. With this understanding, we can live healthier and happier. Also, being in moderation help counter the extremism that threatens all humanity.

All good things come in moderation.

 

A little reminder

What shall I do with my life? Aim for Paradise, and concentrate on today.

What does all that mean? Orient yourself properly. Then—and only then—concentrate on the day. Set your sights on the Good, the Beautiful, and the True, and then focus pointedly and carefully on the concerns of each moment. Aim continually at Heaven while you work diligently on Earth. Attend fully to the future, in that manner, while attending fully to the present. Then you have the best chance of perfecting both.

It’s a balance. Always a balance.

You cannot only have external success without internal depth. You won’t be satisfied, and end up worse than where you started.

When you feel fixated on a goal and suffers badly, ambition could blind you if you don’t balance it with inner aspirations.

How can you aim continually at Heaven while you work diligently on Earth?

Perform each task in front of you, as if it’s God’s tasks. It’s specifically designed for you to do. It’s not by luck or random occurrence, it’s well-planned only for you. So, do your best in each moment. 

It’s Holiness, Not Happiness

What you seek is seeking you – Rumi

What do we actually seek? Is it happiness? I don’t think so. Although we seek out pleasure every day, deep down, we are endowed with moral imagination. We all seek to lead lives not just of pleasure, but of purpose, righteousness, and virtue. That’s holiness.

We’re not only want to be rich, but we also want to be humble. We’re not only want to be famous, so we feel accepted, but we also want to accept ourselves fully. And according to Carl Jung that is the most terrifying thing.

Why? Because we are flawed creatures. And we don’t want to accept that. We say we do one thing but end up doing the opposite. We know what is better for our health but end up ignoring it. We give in to short-term desires even when we know we shouldn’t.

Adding to that, we are also bombarded by self-help, self-improvement, self-this, self-that teachings that say: “be true to yourself if you want to be happy.”

Happiness is a byproduct of holy actions, holy decisions. In reality, those actions and decisions are difficult. Mostly a struggle, not joyful or happy feelings. Life is essentially a moral drama, not a hedonistic one. A moral drama is a struggle against sin and virtue.

The struggle to always choose holiness will make our life meaningful. It will mature us.

As David Brooks in his wonderful book says:

“The person who successfully struggles against weakness and sin may or may not become rich and famous, but that person will become mature. It is earned not by being better than other people at something, but by being better than you used to be. It is earned by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. Maturity does not glitter.”

Those are hard to achieve, but we can try one thing that has been used and tested by many successful people.

Watching the wise and improve on them

The purpose of the struggle against sin and weakness is not to “win,” because that is not possible; it is to get better at waging it. You become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship, and refined enjoyment. Thousand of small acts or a habit. As Aristotle said:

We are what we repeatedly do, therefore, excellence is not an act but a habit.

What’s the right habit? what small acts should we do? The answer: follow the wise and improve on them.

Choose an ideal person. Who that person is up to you. Perhaps it’s your father or your grandfather. Maybe it’s a prophet or a philosopher or a writer. They are here as an example, as a role model, as a reference. Use them as inspiration, learn what they say ‘yes’ to and what they say ‘no’ to. Cultivate their habits.

Because no one can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. An individual will, reason, compassion, and character is not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside—from God, family, friends, role model, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars.

The Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius found this piece of advice important enough to jot it down to himself. It’s worth considering today and practical enough to incorporate into your life immediately:

To think continually of one of the men of old who lived a virtuous life.

It doesn’t stop there. We can further improve what we have learned from our ideals.

Let’s say your ideal is your father. He has a habit of waking up early, speaking softly, kind and generous. You continuously stretch yourself by trying to do what he would do. You also aware that he’s a human after all. He makes mistakes, we are the same flawed creatures. What you can do is to improve that mistake for yourself.

You will not only become that ideal but someone better.

Above all, we need an anchor to guide us daily. Why do we do all of these? Because we seek something and we know that thing is also looking for us.

We are both flawed yet wonderful creatures. We can’t only seek happiness; it won’t mature us. We want something better, something more important than being happy.

Always remember: seek, strive, struggle for holiness.

Believing Sleep Is A Small Death Is Good For You

To contribute to World Sleep Day, I’d like to share one habit to cultivate on sleep to have a better life.

I will not bore you with another research, nor mentioning successful people who are pro sleep, nor making another attempt to convince you of the importance of sleep. It’s obvious you need it. It’s a natural process, and when you go against nature, you go against life.

If until now you still think sleep is for the weak. Read this, this, and this. Or go to google and find thousands of articles that you don’t actually need because you know you need sleep. Don’t waste your time.

One last thing before going to the core message. While drafting the article, this made me laugh. This dead piece of metal called laptop has a “Sleep” button to continue its life. It’s that important.

Sleep

Use sleep as a reminder of our mortality

Ancient religions provide significant information about the historical and cultural views of sleep. Their view is unique, they resemble sleep with death.

One of the verses in the Quran states:

“It is He Who takes your souls by night (when you are asleep), and has knowledge of all that you have done by day, then He raises (wakes) you up again that a term appointed (your life period) be fulfilled, then (in the end) to Him will be your return. Then He will inform you of that which you used to do” [verse 6.60]

Homer called sleep “death’s little brother”, Buddha described sleep as “the small death”.

What is wrong with them? You may argue, however, I do found similarities between the two. Both are natural and mysterious, both are outside our control, both make us lose body consciousness. I can’t tell you the truth, as I never experience death. According to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus:

“Those who are awake have a single and common world, but in sleep each person turns away from this and enters their own world.”

Whatever beliefs you have, we can cultivate a habit based on these ancient religions to practice humility, appreciation, self-examination, self-mastery, priority in life, and other virtues.

Many great people have been finding ways to remind themselves of their mortality. They knew it would energize them and provide them with a sense of urgency and priority as Ryan Holiday puts it in his great article. They wear memento mori rings, cufflinks, even tattoos to become present and aware that their lives are momentary.

Just like what memento mori does, the ancient religions taught us the same thing. Why don’t we approach sleep as a small death? When we believe it like that, every night we practice humility. We know we might not be awake in the morning, thus, each night we practice gratefulness. We end our day with a prayer. We close our day by saying thank you for life. We don’t take life for granted.

And if we’re lucky to have another day, awaken from the small death, we practice appreciation. We start our day by being grateful, by again saying thank you for life.

Isn’t that a good habit to start and end your day?

Every night, remind yourself with something like this:

“Allah, it is with Your Name that I live and it is with Your Name that I die.” and upon waking up, say “Praise is due to Allah, who gave us life after our death (sleep) and to You is the resurrection.”

To copy Ryan again, it’s not morbid to think about death constantly. It’s stupid not to. Spending a few minutes every day on our mortality is not sad. It creates real perspective and urgency. The existence of death need not be depressing. Because it’s actually invigorating.

Do it tonight and for the rest of your life.

How Being Self-centered Is A Good Thing

It doesn’t matter whether you’re introverts or not. No matter your locations nor your occupations. We share the same problem: we are all self-centred.

The word has a negative connotation. Yes, there are many bad implications of this trait. But, looking it in a different way, self-centeredness can be good.

On the bad side, whenever I see someone, I would find his/her weaknesses and find things that I’m better at, to fulfil my ego. To shift the focus back to me. Believing that I’m better, smarter, cooler, kinder, whatever.

Many factors causing this: social status, a circle of friends, background, and culture. It’s dangerous if we don’t control it. Why?

It leads to selfishness, the desire to use other people as a means to get things for you. Also leads to pride, the desire to see you as superior to everybody else. It leads to the capacity to ignore and rationalize your own imperfections and inflate your virtues.

When you’re selfish and full of pride, you can’t see the flaws in you. You become busy scanning for opportunities to improve externally, and forgetting your inner integrity. You think about how the world will accept you, reward you, believing that you are different and better. You are busy proving instead of improving.

We all serve our ambitions. If you don’t have one, decide now. Ambition provides the structure necessary for action. It provides a destination, a framework. It makes life exciting. An ambition reduces anxiety because if you have no ambition everything can mean anything or nothing. And neither those options makes a tranquil spirit.

Choose the better ambitions: the ones that build on inner integrity, character and ability. Not the ones that build status and power. The status you can lose, as well as power. You carry character with you wherever you go, and it allows you to prevail against adversity.

Without inner integrity and character, eventually your scandal, your betrayal, will happen. And you won’t be ready for it. You will lose your status and power.

A simpler approach, whatever your ambitions are. Have these meta-goals with you always. It’s a way of approaching and formulating your ambitions.

  1. Tell the truth especially to yourself
  2. Pray. Be humbled by something bigger than you
  3. Respect yourself
  4. Catalogue your flaws for future improvement
  5. Always aware: you’re not different, you’re just as human as everyone else

We are all self-centred after all. You can think of it as a problem or a solution, bad or good. It can lead to selfishness but it can also lead to character, inner integrity, and self-respect.

The key differences lie in choosing the “centre” of the self-centeredness. There are only two options: inside or outside, internal or external.

If you build your internal well, your external will follow.

Always centred yourself by focusing on and improving on your inside. Not your outside.

One last thing, you have full control of your inside. You can decide and act to improve your character, inner integrity, and self-respect right now.

Stop Dreaming. Start Struggling.

Whatever you want to achieve, your enemy is yourself. You know it.

Pursuing dreams without the struggle to beat your enemy is useless. You won’t reach it.

If instead, you struggle to fight the enemy and improve daily. You will have a better chance of achieving your dreams.

Look at your list of goals now. Have you achieved any of those?

The thing that holds one dream is the same thing that holds the rest. It’s something deeper. It’s rooted within you.

It might be your character, your work habit, your lack of attention, hard work, persistence, efficiency, processes, or something else. The point is, you know what you lack at, you also know you have to fight it. So, fight it.

Instead of fantasizing on your dreams. Wake up! Invite your enemy to your house. Get ready. Struggle to fight it.

Win over your own weaknesses. Every day.

Confront yourself. Every day.

“I lack discipline and focus.” Make strategies and take actions to improve tomorrow. “I made good plans but rarely follow through.” Then do something now. “I constantly compare and finding myself slightly better than others.” You know it’s a bad habit. Stop it.

The most important thing is whether you are willing to engage in moral struggle against yourself.

Inner triumphs build self-respect. It’s earned by being better than you used to be. When you earned that self-respect, you’re ready for whatever life throws at you. You will have the character to achieve whatever you want.

Stop dreaming. Start struggling.