Worldly Wisdom from Lee Kuan Yew: 9 Lessons You Can Learn from LKY

lessons from Lee Kuan Yew LKYFriends, today is a sad day.

One of the greatest men of the 20th (and 21st) century, a political genius, died today: Lee Kuan Yew.

He became 91 years old, and remained sharp as a tack to his last breath.

Who was Lee Kuan Yew?

Everyone knows about Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, or Deng Xiaoping. Few know (enough) about Lee Kuan Yew.

–LKY, as I will refer to him from now on, was the ‘founder’ of Singapore.

Most far-reaching changes in the world are accomplished by organizations, companies, or large groups of people. It is exceedingly rare for one man to single-handedly put a dent in the universe.

LKY did just that–he changed the world.

He took Singapore from a small, poor, port town (originally founded by the East India Company in 1819) to. . .

. . .an economy with one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, having outgrown its neighboring countries by a factor of 5,5-31,6!

GDP per capita (in $) comparison 2013: Singapore vs neighbor countries

  • Singapore: $55,182
  • Malaysia: $10,538
  • Thailand: $5,779
  • Indonesia: $3,475
  • Vietnam: $1,910
  • Burma: $1,740

Singapore has also become the country with the second highest number of entrepreneurs per capita (the U.S is number one).

Why am I interested in Lee Kuan Yew?

–I first found out about LKY through Charlie Munger, who advises that every serious student of success should make a thorough case study of LKY and and his governance over Singapore.

Munger hails Singapore as the greatest political (and economical) success in history, and says that LKY is to Singapore what Warren Buffett is to Berkshire Hathaway.

The work has been heavily concentrated in one mind, Warren Buffett. Sure, others have had input, but Berkshire enormously reflects the contributions of one great single mind.

This is not how we normally live: in a democracy, everyone takes turns. But if you really want a lot of wisdom, it’s better to concentrate decisions and process in one person.

It’s no accident that Singapore has a much better record, given where it started, than the United States. There, power was concentrated in one enormously talented person, Lee Kuan Yew, who was the Warren Buffett of Singapore.

–Charlie Munger, Berkshire’s Hathaway’s annual meeting in 2007

As Munger hints at, the best leaders are philosopher kings, and the best form of (governmental) rule is enlightened despotism.

LKY was a benevolent dictator–probably the best one since the times of Ancient Rome, under the successive rule of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.

China can thank Deng Xiaoping (who converted China from a backwater socialist nation into a flourishing capitalist society) for its rocket-like growth.

Deng Xiaoping, in turn, was friends with LKY–and ‘stole’ many of his great ideas from him. Therefore, indirectly, China owes a great deal of its success to the brilliant mind of LKY.

But if that is the best way of doing things, then why is it that so few countries and organizations are run that way?

–Because it is extraordinarily difficult. Here are a few reasons why:

  • 1) Most (political) leaders are too self-serving and power-hungry (and even if they don’t start out that way, the winner effect has a tendency to warp their brains over time). That may be what happened to Napoleon.
  • 2) Few people have the raw intelligence and rational ability required.
  • 3) How many people have the strength of character to give up their entire lives to building a corporation or a country?
  • 4) Most countries are too culturally and ideologically messed-up by popular opinion to accept the notion of a benevolent dictatorship.
  • 5) Most (larger) countries have too many vested interests of different sorts, and corruption already runs too deep.

9 Lessons in Wordly Wisdom to Learn from LKY

[Note: all quotes are from Lee Kuan Yew, unless stated otherwise.]

#1 The Importance of incentives

Putting the right incentives in place is THE single most important factor determining the long-term success of an organization, corporation, or a country. It is the leadership’s role to assume that people will game the system ruthlessly, and therefore make it as hard as humanly possible to do that.

Unlike many other countries–such as Sweden, where most politicians are incompetent–LKY, like Napoleon, Caesar, and the Founding Fathers, understood that government must be meritocratic.

Dumb people must be kept out of important positions. How can this be done?

Simple, just raise the incentives (money, status, power) and you will automatically attract the best individuals. The dumb ones will be kept out by virtue of their own incompetence.

singapore payment -- lessons from Lee Kuan yew LKY

Singapore (at #2 in the top) pays its politicians properly. By doing so they have been able to minimize corruption and attract the best individuals. Sorry about the outdated numbers — I couldn’t find a more recent image!

Singapore’s current Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong (LKY’s son) earns ca $3,9 M per year. That’s roughly what  6-7 of the biggest countries’ leaders get paid, combined.

Is that too much?


Better to have a competent man–with integrity–than a half wit (like George Bush) or someone who is morally corrupt, and takes bribes (like Spiro Agnew).

LKY saw what had happened in countries like England and used it as a cautionary example:

In Britain, if you look at the First Class Honours list of Oxford or Cambridge and trace their careers, you will find that these people end up not in politics, but in banking, finance and the professions.

To attract the best people you must compensate them adequately. If you don’t, you can’t expect them not to use their power to make that money in some other, less ethical, way. That’s just human nature.

#2 The importance of prevention: Be ruthless in stomping out B.S

I think that Singapore’s stepping hard on things that will grow like cancer, is the correct way to govern a country.

–Charlie Munger

LKY, like Munger and many other of the world’s smartest people, understood the importance of prevention.

Mistakes should never have to be fixed, they should be prevented.

Most problems stem from incompetence or negative psychology (bad habits and lack of discipline), and as such they have a strong tendency to repeat themselves. . .

. . .especially on a countrywide level. It is nearly impossible to fix a problem once it has become culturally rooted.

Someone should have told the European and American politicians about this before the 2008 financial crisis. Oh wait, someone did. It was Warren Buffett, and no one listened.

The problem is that most people are not able to think long-term and deal with incremental change.

Instead, they make the mistake of allowing problems to grow like cancer, until they cannot be stopped. Only then does the media start reporting on it–in a not-so-constructive way, asking: “Who is to blame!?”

Playing the blame game is for children.

Grown-ups think in terms of prevention.

#3 The importance of public perception

Not only did LKY put in the right financial incentives, thereby attracting the most competent ministers, but he also increased the respect and status by which the Singaporean politicians and statesmen are treated with.

LKY set a strict policy of non-acceptance against satire, crude jokes, or caricatures of himself and the leadership:

If you keep on mocking your leader, poking fun at him, everyday, and he has no right to reply, it is very difficult for him to command your respect.

lky lessons

A leader who gets ridiculed and caricatured is not a feared leader, and. . .

#4 The most efficient leader is a feared leader

LKY was not a power-hungry megalomaniac. He was a ‘dictator’ by necessity, and he understood the importance that authority plays in ruling a country:

Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.

Intelligent, rational and hard-working people can govern themselves perfectly fine. But unfortunately, only a small amount of the world population fit that description.

Intelligent, rational and hard-working people can be reasoned with through arguments. But most people only listen to those who have authority (or entertainment value).

Hence, the leader must have authority.

The leader must also, out of necessity, incite fear into his opponents; so that he is able to devote himself wholeheartedly to ruling, and does not have to worry about being attacked or slandered.

I say something and I mean it. If you’re willing to cross swords with me you’re going to get stabbed. That’s that. . . If I think that it’s going to be necessary to do, and you set out to fight me, then we fight. But to avoid a fight I make quite sure that you understand that I will fight. Simple as that. I am not interested in being loved. What’s the profit in it?

Enemies, opposition, and fools must be squashed before they gain sufficient strength to become a threat (remember, prevention).

It’s not about being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘evil’; it’s a matter of saving time, being efficient, and getting things done.

#5 Human beings are not equal–and never will be!

Only a person with a strong character can speak the truth, especially when his position in life depends on it. Fortunately, LKY was such an individual, and he dared to dish out ‘harsh truths’:

The human being is an unequal creature. This is a fact. . .

. . All great religions, all great movements, all great political ideologies start off saying ‘let’s make the human being as equal as possible’. In fact, he is NOT equal–never will be.

True to his word, in an interview during 2013 at Shell’s 120th anniversary, LKY was asked “what is the meaning of life?”, and answered the following:

Life is what you make of it. You’re dealt a pack of cards, your DNA is fixed by your mother and your father. . . Your job is to do the best of the cards you were dealt.

What can you do well? What can you not do well? What are you worst at?

If you ask me to make my living as an artist, I’ll starve. Because I just can’t draw. It wasn’t in my father or my mother or my great grandfathers and grandmothers.

But if you ask me to do mathematical questions, or to argue and point out, I’ll get by. Those are the cards I was dealt–and I make use of them.

Don’t try to do something you were not favored by nature to do.

Countries such as Sweden (where the notion of ‘equality’ has become some kind of strange religion for dumb people) would do well to learn this.

Play your hand to the best of your abilities.

#6  The importance of knowing what you don’t know: Staying inside your circle of competence

Success in all areas of life is based on understanding the underlying reality, and not deluding yourself about what you can do. It is often more important to know what you cannot do–your limitations–than knowing what you can do.

That also goes for running a company or a country:

Male reporter: Finland has produced Nokia, and Sweden IKEA… These are companies that seem to punch way above what the country’s physical size seems to suggest?

LKY: Alright, Sweden IKEA. . . Do we want to go into [retail and furniture]–have we got the wood and designers? The Swedes are good designers. Nokia was one of these flukes in history, from a communist–a controlled–society, overshadowed by the Soviet Union that they broke through.

But, they are about what? 7-8 million? Can they keep up with the competition from Korea? From Japan? Watch it in the long-term.

How many bright fellows have you got? With inventive and creative minds?

Female reporter: You are making us all very depressed [said semi-jokingly].

LKY: No. I am not depressed–I am realistic. I say: these are our capabilities, this is the competition we face, and given what we have–our assets and capabilities–we can still make a good living, provided that we are realistic.

Harsh Truths to Keep Singapore Going

Know thyself.

Don’t stray outside of your circle of competence. Keep to your core competence–or go under.

#7  The importance of genes and being rational in choosing a partner

LKY did not believe in love at first sight:

I don’t believe in love at first sight. I think it’s a grave mistake. You’re attracted by physical characteristics and you will regret it.

Does it sound like LKY might have been an emotionless and unhappy man?

Well, he wasn’t. He was happily married to his wife Kwa Geok Choo for 60 years. Without her help, it is unlikely that he would have been able to do what he did. She was a remarkable woman in her own right.

Kwa Geook Choo was the only student that was smarter than LKY in law school.

Kwa Geok Choo was the only student that was smarter than LKY in law school.

In his autobiography, The Singapore Story, LKY writes that he was confident that Geok Choo “could be a sole breadwinner and bring up the children”, thereby giving him an “insurance policy” so that he could enter politics, unimpeded by financial concerns or parental responsibilities.

LKY picked Kwa Geok Choo as his partner not just based on physical attraction, but based on her intelligence and apparent genetic potential:

There are many sons of doctors who have married doctors. Those who married spouses who are not as bright are tearing their hair out because their children can’t make it. I have lived long enough to see all this play out.

So when the graduate man does not want to marry a graduate woman, I tell him he’s a fool, stupid. You marry a non-graduate, you’re going to have problems, some children bright, some not bright. You’ll be tearing your hair out.

#8 Avoid the mainstream media, popular culture, and set your own course

I have come to believe that, so far as the foreign press is concerned, no news is good news.

LKY exercised rigorous restrictions on the mainstream media–in particular from the U.S–inside of Singapore.

We only allow the U.S papers into Singapore so that we can figure out what the U.S write about us. And what their perception of us is. We cannot allow them to assume a role in Singapore that the American media plays in America: That of invigilator, adversary, and inquisitor of the administration.

Obviously he did this for political reasons, but I would like to hope that he also did it out of benevolence: to protect people from idiotic ideas of popular culture, gossip, and shock-and-awe.

I have never been overconcerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader.

In many countries, like the U.S, elections are based on polling and popular media. It’s called populism. Politics has become similar to entertainment TV and reality shows. LKY wouldn’t have that, and (rightly so) put his foot down.

Besides, opinion polls and focus groups are not to be trusted. People lie or answer under a pretense of political correctness.

#9 Be a life-long learner, copy the greatest ideas you can find, and be pragmatic in their implementation

If there was one formula for success, it was that we were constantly studying how to make things work, or how to make them work better. 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?

Charlie Munger explained how LKY made Singapore into such an attractive country to invest in:

He figured out what he wanted to attract, then he made the situation very user-friendly for those people.

‘Those people’ were wealthy investors, world leaders, and other big shots around the world. And what did they want? Stability.

To this end, LKY focused his efforts on making Singapore as safe as possible: Eliminating corruption, minimizing taxes, and weakening unions.

A few examples:

  • Drug-dealing is punishable by death.
  • Chewing gum has been banned.
  • Littering is fined with thousands of dollars, and if you do it three times you are forced to wear a badge that says “I am a litter lout

Two other tricky problems that LKY solved in a crafty way:

#1 Malaria:

There was a problem with malaria.

LKY found the root problem: a nearby swamp.

He drained the entire swamp, without regard for the protests of some squeamish environmentalists.

Who cares if some strange fish species goes extinct? Human lives are at stake.

#2 Ethnic diversity issues:

Singapore consists of something like 70 % Chinese people, 20 % Malai, and a bunch of other ethnicities. There is a tradition among the Chinese to consider themselves the ‘superior’ Singaporeans.

To foster stability, and do away with ethnical disputes, LKY passed a law prohibiting people to mention their ethnic backgrounds. Problem solved. Cost? A slight infringement on freedom of speech.

Worth it? Yes.

On pragmatism:

What are our priorities? First, the welfare, the survival of the people. Then, democratic norms and processes which from time to time we have to suspend.

On the necessity of making tough decisions:

I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbor is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.

On why democracy is problematic and short-sighted:

If I were in authority in Singapore indefinitely, without having to ask those who are governing whether they like what is being done, then I have not the slightest doubt that I could govern much more effectively in their own interests.

On why voting is problematic:

 One-man-one-vote is a most difficult form of government.. Results can be erratic.

On populism (another problem with voting):

Amazingly, throughout most of the contemporary Western world leaders in government require no special training or qualification. Many get elected because they sound and look good on television. The results have been unhappy for their voters.

On sincerity:

I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.

On India vs China:

Charlie Rose: Will India have an advantage over China, as some argue, because it’s a democracy and China is not?

LKY: Let me put it this way. If India was as well-organized as China is, it would go at a different speed. But it is going at the speed it is because it’s India. . . It’s not one nation, it’s many nations. It has 320 different languages, and 32 official languages. So, no Prime Minister in Deli can at any one time speak in a language and be understood throughout the country. You can do that in Beijing.

On the danger of complacency:

What I fear is complacency. When things always become better, people tend to want more for less work.


The ones [in Singapore] under 30, who’ve just grown up in stability and growth year by year, I think they think that I’m selling them a line just to make them work harder–but they are wrong.

On autonomy of mind and internal motivation:

Life is not just eating, drinking, television and cinema…The human mind must be creative, must be self-generating; it cannot depend on just gadgets to amuse itself.

On not being a confused consumer:

“I’m not interested in changing either my suit or my car or whatever with every change in fashion. That’s irrelevant. I don’t judge myself or my friends by their fashions. Of course, I don’t approve of people who are sloppy and unnecessarily shabby or disheveled… But I’m not impressed by a $5,000 or $10,000 Armani suit.

On using one’s youth well:

By the time you are past 30 your character is formed. You will not change.

On pragmatism (and not believing in B.S):

Question: Do you believe in Feng Shui and astrology? A lot of Singaporeans suspect that you do.

LKY: I don’t believe in any of that rubbish. I am a pragmatic fellow.

On his reading habits:

Usually, I read biographies of interesting people. I am not attracted to novels – make-believe, or recreations of what people think life should be.

(Check out some good book recommendations here and here.)

On being slightly dyslexic:

I read more slowly, but I read it only once, and it sticks.


I should’ve known something was wrong when I failed that speed-reading course, I mean, I am not stupid.

On meditation:

I started meditation about 1992 when my friend, who was speaker of Parliament, retired, and was dying of lung cancer…I found my breathing slows down and I think my heartbeat goes down and my blood pressure goes down. So, I use that as a kind of escape from stress.

On avoiding downward spirals due to poor sleep:

You know Shakespeare, ‘Give me men that sleep well of nights’. That is what he said. I think it right. Men who worry, you know, read all this, and they start shouting all this they get worried themselves, night time comes, they can’t sleep. Next morning they wake up, mind befuddled, wrong decisions, more trouble!

On the importance of free markets:

I believe Hayek was a very clear thinker and that he hit upon the eternal truth, explaining that the free market is necessary to get the economy right.

On inequality and genetics:

I started off believing all men were equal. I now know that’s the most unlikely thing ever to have been, because millions of years have passed over evolution, people have scattered across the face of this earth, been isolated from each other, developed independently, had different intermixtures between races, peoples, climates, soils… I didn’t start off with that knowledge. But by observation, reading, watching, arguing, asking, that is the conclusion I’ve come to.

The Man & His Ideas

On Israelis, Jews and genetics:

The Israelis are very smart… the rabbi in any Jewish society was often the most intelligent and well-read, most learned of all…the rabbi’s children are much sought-after by successful Jews to bring good genes into the family. That’s how they multiply, the bright ones multiply. That sums it up.

On trouble integrating Muslims:

I have to speak candidly to be of value, but I do not want to offend the Muslim community… I think we were progressing very nicely until the surge of Islam came, and if you asked me for my observations, the other communities have easier integration – friends, inter-marriages and so on – than Muslims… I would say, today, we can integrate all religions and races, except Islam.

On leaving a legacy:

What they think of me a generation after I’m dead will be determined by researchers who have PhDs, who write papers on me. So there will be lots of revisionism. I’ve lived long enough to realize that you might be idolized in life but reviled after you’re dead.

Reflecting on his life achievements:

“In the end what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given? My life.”

He paid the price.

He left a legacy behind and will not be forgotten:

Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him. Or give it up. This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine. I’ve spent a whole lifetime building this and as long as I’m in charge, nobody is going to knock it down.

Not long ago, in an interview, LKY said that:

People believe that what has been achieved is always secure. I don’t believe that is so. I believe that once you have weak and ineffective government, the whole progress you have made will spiral downwards. But the majority of people believe it is secure for them.

Let us hope for Singapore’s sake, that LKY’s system–his legacy–turns out to be antifragile, and does not collapse like a house of cards, but only gets stronger with time.

Rest in peace Lee Kuan Yew.

-- lessons from Lee Kuan yew -- LKY



At the latest Berkshire Hathaway meeting, in April 1th 2015, Munger said this about LKY’s death:

I’m going to commit a bust somewhere of Lee Kuan Yew, and stick it somewhere important. That is the most important governmental leader, that is the most important nation-builder that ever existed in the history of the world. There is no other record equal to Lee Kuan Yew’s. Unbelievable achievement. . . . There’s never been a career like Lee Kuan Yew’s.


Resources on LKY


LKY autobiographies:


Further readings on LKY:


Best videos on LKY:


A short summary video


A funny video

Munger on LKY


My favorite political system, in terms of being adapted to its particular circumstances–successfully-is Singapore. I think Singapore is the single most successful governmental system that exists in the world. They’ve taken a small swamp from nowhere to a very credible place. They’re doing the Lord’s work in a number of very important ways. I’m sorry they’re bringing in derivatives trading–even heaven makes mistakes.

–Charlie Munger


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  1. #1 Malaria:

    There was a problem with malaria.

    LKY found the root problem: a nearby swamp.

    He drained the entire swamp, without regard for the protests of some squeamish environmentalists.

    Who cares if some strange fish species goes extinct? Human lives are at stake.

    * Citation pls. I believed LKY would not be so stupid to not know when there are aquatic creatures, no mosquito larva will survive. Hence Spore is called garden city, filled with big trees, parks, lakes & water ways.

    #2 Ethnic diversity issues:

    Singapore consists of something like 70 % Chinese people, 20 % Malai, and a bunch of other ethnicities. There is a tradition among the Chinese to consider themselves the ‘superior’ Singaporeans.

    To foster stability, and do away with ethnical disputes, LKY passed a law prohibiting people to mention their ethnic backgrounds. Problem solved. Cost? A slight infringement on freedom of speech.

    Worth it? Yes.

    * Nonsense. There is never such law or needs. Every one Identity Card stated his racial ethics as Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian, or others. Every one is used to live together under multiculturalism, except Muslim Malay is impossible to be integrated, which LKY was forced to be Political Correct to change his word due to Muslim intolerance & hypocrisy. But gov did set rules to prohibit preference of race in employment ads(most prefer hardworking Chinese) & property rental(no one like India Indian), still a PC hypocrisy.

  2. Such a badass. Is it weird that I have had the same exact ideas/solutions for my country except the chewing gum one ? I need to study him some more.

  3. William Chou says

    Shared and bookmarked this. I can tell you’re a follower of Munger. It’s nice to see an incredible post online. Thanks!

  4. If you ask to despots, they will all think of them as enlightened…
    I don’t think Munger is qualified for judging everything.
    For all I know Singapore didn’t bring people such as Buffet and him. AND he does not live there neither, even if he thinks it’s heaven. :)
    I’m glad Karl Michael Syding stepped into the comments to voice his wise opinion.
    For me it appears that you fell into the lack of critical thinking (Munger = authority on everyting) and also you should realize there are no such thing as a good despot, whatever you call it (enlightened, benevolent, etc.). This is something too romantic and too childish to think.
    Anyways, still a very good blog !

  5. Great Read.

    What a man.

  6. I know I’m suuper late to the party, but..

    Firstly, awesome article Mr. Sunstrom, I’ve been a reader of yours for a while now, and this is my first comment.

    After reading your article I did a little searching and found that…
    after LKY died, a singaporean blogger/youtuber named Amos Yee made a video explaining that he hated LKY, that LKY made the country a sad place, that they took away freedom of speech, and said some generally offensive stuff. video-> ( or just search Amos Yee)

    Afterwards, this 16 year-old kid’s video goes viral and it seems like his video struck a lot of nerves, as he did release it in the time everyone was mourning LKY. The hate was, I thought, comparable to that of popular bad videos like “friday” or “hot girls have problems” something like that.

    Then the government straight up arrests his ass, dragging him to court, making him pay lawsuit fees, etc.


    It struck me personally as injustice on the government’s part, but many Singaporeans were glad that this Amos Yee was arrested. And I can sort of get where they’re coming from, nobody wants hate towards their idols.

    But I got to give to this kid for speaking his mind on political matters without fear, even if what he says is offensive or wrong. But you know who else spoke their mind on political matters without fear, even if what he says is offensive or wrong? Mister LKY himself.

    It always gets me, those odd connections. Anyways there’s obviously two sides to every story, blah blah. If you happen to read this comment, I would be interested to know what you think. If not, well I felt like I had to put it out there.

    Great article. Cheers.

    • I’m from Singapore, let me answer that question for U. The kid was charged not for insulting Lee Kuan Yew but for insulting Christianity. U probably want to get your facts right. Singapore is a very conservative nation and majority have old Chinese values which is respect for others. The kid showed no respect for anything which basically pissed everyone off that’s why many were glad that he was arrested. There were definitely some who were pissed off at him insulting LKY but that’s in the minority.

      Finally if you bother to follow up with what happened. Some of those who helped bail the kid out and claimed to do it for the sake of “freedom of speech” were subsequently attacked by Amos and threatened to sued him. Even the pro-Opposition website which was supporting Amos throughout the ordeal abandoned him. His is a classic case of spoilt brat who needs some discipline(by Singapore standards), If U are not from around here U might not understand out point of view

      With regards to the article, if the author is reading this I am going to correct U on the last point on Ethnic diversity issues. It was not resolved by not allowing to mention ethnicity, in fact our race is stated clearly on our identity card. He did this in a few ways
      1)Making English the working language hence forcing all races to learn a single language
      2)Force pple are different race to live together. Most Singaporeans live in Govt built apartments, they have a racial ratio according to the national ratio. Right now we have around 70% Chinese/20% Malay/5% Indian/5% Other races so the allocation of apartments will have roughly the same ratio in every estate
      3)Finally they erect laws against Hate Speech for on Racial issues and Religious Issue. If U post hate speeches about another race or religion(which was what happened to the kid Amos mentioned by Sina), U get into trouble. Most pple get let off with a warning and a small fine.

      • Interesting stuff, EL. I’ve always felt like it’s best to get someone from the country’s perspective. I hadn’t looked into it very deeply, just thought it was relevant to point out. Again, I’m not from Singapore so I have no idea what the standards are. Personally, I felt like he didn’t do something so wrong so as to deserve a legal action (from what I saw in the video), but then again some ‘western’ thinkers thought that LKY’s rule was unjust but Singapore seems to have gotten better because of it.
        Also, I was wondering, why did this Amos kid try to sue the people bailing him out?

      • That’s going to take forever to explain. I’ll try to summarize

        Some background on this, since this was a case that had some links to LKY, the opposition activist were tried to bring politics into this and claim the govt was trying to restrict Freedom of Speech. Amos even met members of the local opposition party known for the far left ideals. When they went before the courts, Amos was charged for insulting Christianity there was no charge for insulting LKY

        After Yee was arrested, his father bailed him out. He broke the bail condition of not posting online by writing an article about how his dad “abused” him(his idea of being abused is getting shouted at and pushed the ground because of something he did)

        Went back before the judge and the father decided not to post bail for him. Since Amos was technically still a minor he can only be bailed by the parents/relative. The judge not wanting to see him in jail allowed him to be bailed by non-related pple. The opposition activist managed to find a volunteer, a Christian counselor name Vincent, post bail for Amos with the same condition, no posting online. Vincent did so claiming that he wanted to protect “freedom of speech” and as a Christian he was not offended by what Amos said.

        Amos broke bail again, this time he claimed that the volunteer molested him. This piss off Vincent so much he threatened to sue Amos unless he apologize. Amos posted an article pretending to apologize but later retracted the apology. Vincent accepted the initial apology not like he had a choice, either he pretended to accept the fake apology and look like and idiot or sue Amos for defamation and look like a hypocrite. Vincent discharged himself as Amos’s bailor and Amos was remanded in prison for a few days

        Amos was then found guilty of insulting Christianity. It was obvious at this point that the judge wanted to give him probation, Amos rejected to go on probation and even refused to meet his probation officer before the final sentence is to be passed. Right now we are waiting for him to be sentence. For reference, almost all cases of this nature, the person being charged either got let off with a warning or at worst a fine unless the offender was actively inciting violence against a certain race/religion. Amos is the only person I heard of to ever get into so much trouble for what he did. It was obvious all parties involved including the judge was trying to let him off lightly, it was his own actions that is making it hard for everyone

        Finally on the note of LKY vs his western image is mostly distorted. Yes he did some dubious things in his time including lock up some political rivals during the early days of his rein but those guys were communist and he himself admitted to doing so. Many of those arrested subsequently joined up with communist movement in other countries after released.

        What he was more famous for was suing his political opponent into bankruptcy. The western media like to claim he use this to silence his political opponent, what they never say is that those who got sued are those making baseless accusation of him being corrupt. There are other opposition members in Parliament who never got sued. In fact, Chiam See Tong, the longest serving opposition leader in Parliament successfully sued a PAP(Singapore ruling party) minister for defamation proving that the law works both ways. That part of our history is usually omitted from the article about SG politics

        Finally, in Singapore we see Freedom a bit different from the Western world. While Freedom in the West usually refers to free press and freedom of speech. For us it’s a bit different, here is a good article to read about what I meant

      • Thankfully, I’ve never presented myself as an expert on Singapore, because that would great injustice. EL, I would like to thank you for taking the time out to write the reply. Amos’ case was quite an endeavor. To quote Richard Nixon, “Mistakes were made”- on my part in terms of research. But as was once said by somebody, mistakes are the only way one learns. Now, I’m more informed on Singapore than ever before (though I’m still a bit hazy on it’s “city-sate” vs “island country” status) thanks to the power of discussion on the internet. LKY’s book is now on my (ever expanding) summer reading list.


      • What Amos’ confrontational tactics boil down to is an insistence on confronting the truth; i.e. he insisted on being punished for speaking freely, thus drawing attention to the reality that speech is not free in Singapore. I don’t know if this was intentional on his part (I do not necessarily trust government portrayals of him as a spoilt brat) but the tactic is well established. Examples that come immediately to mind are the Scopes and Dred Scott trials in the U.S.

    • Sina,

      –I skimmed the video: Seems like an intellectually premature 16-year old. What excellent vocabulary and dialect for a Singaporean.

      This got my attention (probably quoted wrong):
      “A leader is someone who makes a country prosperous and happy based on the unique talents of the people.”

      –No. It may apply in business or in a hobby club, but not to governmental leaders. Except with their closest lieutenants.

      The “job” of a governmental leader is to make a country strong (economically competitive) enough to survive, and then–at second place–to create ways in which people–themselves–can find more freedom, choice, and responsibility. (not ‘creating’ jobs, politicians can’t create jobs).

      A country–in particular a small one like Singapore–must specialize. That is why Singapore has created an environment conducive to ‘importing’ entrepreneurs and foreign investments. Because the trade-offs of its existing systems doesn’t seem to be able to accomplish that internally.

      Productivity, specialized knowledge and skill sets, as well as labor and technology, is what provides the freedom–the pre-requisites–for allowing the people to “be happy based on their unique talents”.

      The kid seems bright, but naive. His lack of experience shows. This is natural for someone so young.

      • Government can’t create jobs? Bullshit.

      • How can government create jobs?

      • Singaporean adult under 30 says

        Ever heard of working for the government? Permanent jobs in the government, step boards, town councils etc. There are also many other jobs that are not permanent, but related to providing a service for a government body, including but not limited to construction, repairs etc. These are ways in which jobs are ‘created’.

  7. Good article, but referring to Singapore as a ‘ small, poor, port town’ is rather disingenuous. Singapore isn’t Dubai.

    Pre-independence it was already one of the top 3 richest nations in East Asia, and by virtue of the British Empire’s naval base there, it was the shipping capital of the region and one of the world’s busiest ports.

    That said, LKY was no doubt a great man. Look how most of the other post-colonial dictators fared. There are few non self-published books on the wisdom of Mugabe…

    • Singaporean under 30 says

      East Asia? I think you meant Southeast Asia.

      Regardless, here is some interesting data, comparing Singapore with some big players (1960 vs 2018).


      In 1960, Pre-independence (British colony 1819 – 1963 excluding WWII 1942 – 1945, merger with Malaysia in 1963, independence in 1965),
      GDP per capita of the following countries and regions:
      United States: 3007 (7.03 times that of Sg)
      United Kingdom: 1380 (3.22 times that of Sg)
      Singapore: 428
      Malaysia: 234 (0.55 times that of Sg)

      Singapore first surpassed United Kingdom in 1994 and United States in 2011 (in terms of GDP per capita)

      At Present 2018, GDP per capita:
      United States: 62,641 (0.97 times that of Sg)
      United Kingdom: 42,491 (0.66 times that of Sg)
      Singapore: 64,581 (Ranked 7th in the world)
      Malaysia: 11,239 (0.17 times that of Sg)

      ‘Southeast Asia is composed of eleven countries of impressive diversity in religion, culture and history: Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.’
      Source: (on Google)

      ‘East Asia is the eastern subregion of Asia, defined in both geographical and ethno-cultural terms. The region includes China, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Mongolia and Taiwan.’
      Source: wikipedia

  8. Kudos on writing this masterpiece of a tribute. I’ve spent all the last days reading about LKY and rhis is by far the most riveting piece of content I have come across. I just subscibed.

  9. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, people’s needs, in order, are:

    1. Biological and Physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep.

    2. Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.

    3. Love and belongingness needs – friendship, intimacy, affection and love, – from work group, family, friends, romantic relationships.

    4. Esteem needs – achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, self-respect, respect from others.

    5. Self-Actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

    It seems LKY has given his people probably the first four.

    Does anyone think he has given his people the fifth?

    • I don’t see how a government can provide anything beyond the first two levels in Maslow’s heirarchy. The most it can do for the higher ones is not to interfere. Do you think Singapore’s regime has discouraged personal fulfilment?

    • Singaporean under 30 says

      I am a Singaporean, born in 1990, grown up and educated in Singapore. I am sure that there is a wide range of what’s included in point 5, but one thing which is absolutely present is the meritocracy system in schools. The Singapore education system is renowned worldwide (as I’ve heard, both positively and negatively). (I think most kids don’t particularly like school, esp schoolwork, regardless whether they were educated in ‘stressful’ Singapore)

      We are required to attend a minimum of 6 years of Primary education and 4 years of Secondary education (not exactly sure if the latter is compulsory) and entry to schools is by merit (scores in nationwide tests) only, with a little ‘discount’ given for affiliation, which most of us do not have the luxury of anyway.

      It is probably the same in many other countries, but the difference is that the public schools in Singapore (vs private) are pretty darn good, in my opinion, having attended only public schools in Singapore up to Pre-University. And cheap too. About $5/ month for Singaporeans (free for Malays, who are the indigenous people of Singapore).

      We also have automatic yearly topups into our EduSave accounts, to be used for approved enrichment programmes in school.

      The government (led by Mr LKY) and teachers put in lots of effort to ensure that no kid is disadvantaged, regardless of his or her social or financial background. I know because I have friends and schoolmates across different races, religion and financial background.

  10. I have been reading about.this guy for.the past few days and I cant believe i didnt.know about him. Total badass and what each man should be !!

  11. “…my friend and I call them “Sing-Bots”.

    “…there are no manners, no friendliness, no character outside of make money and behave like a robot. I’d take chaotic, smelly, disorganized, fun and friendly Indonesia any day of the week.”

    I’m not in the slightest bit surprised that Singapore is like this.

    It seems LKY did a lot of good things for Singapore but the man seemed bland, lacking in personality and quite frankly, robotic.

    Economic success is NOT everything.

    It made me think of a scene in the first Matrix movie where agent Smith tells Morpheus how the original matrix (which was “perfect”) was rejected by humanity.

    I tend to think many intelligent people are like this (I used to be like this quite often), they tend to view everything literal, as matter-of-fact, are unimaginative and struggle to evoke emotion out of other people.

    For example at point number four:

    Yes, It may be better to be feared than loved but how about admiration? How about getting the majority to do what you want them to out of inspiration. In this case you get people who do things, not because they want to but because they have to…and as a result you get a nation described as the one quoted above.

    Many intellects tend to view the mind above everything else, but the mind is JUST a tool.

    And ultimately, we as humans want to FEEL and express more than anything.

    And is it just me, but I get the impression that given the choice LKY would have rather implanted his wife with his semen than actually have sex with her because that would have been more “pragmatic”.

    • Nah, he enjoyed sex. He said so in a video, that recommended a young woman to get a boyfriend, and that it is more rewarding than getting a PHD.

      >It made me think of a scene in the first Matrix movie where agent Smith tells Morpheus how the original matrix (which was “perfect”) was rejected by humanity.

      Wow, yeah, I remember that. I like Matrix a lot, I like all of their hidden meanings. I’ll check that part again to see if I can get something more from it.
      Now, it reminds me of “A brave new world”. It’s a perfect world too, right? But for me (and most readers) a world so perfect sucks. I know that world has some flaws, but taking those aside, I still wouldn’t like it.

    • Lol at the semen part. Like someone else said, he succeeded at everything except getting Singapore laid.
      I watched the movie Brave new world not too long ago and it really was not as good as the book, although I read it at a much more impressionable age. The society seems very far from perfect in the movie, they fail to capture it.

    • Singaporean under 30 says

      Oh many Singaporeans have A LOT of respect and admiration for our founding father, Mr LKY.

      The national day parade before his death, when there were rumours of him being sick and unable to attend (or even passed away), many Singaporeans teared and rejoiced at the sight of him.

      In a week of national mourning, 1.7 million (there were less than 3.4 million Singapore citizens in 2015) residents and guests paid tribute to him at his lying-in-state at Parliament House and at community tribute sites around the island. (source wikipedia) Employees were given time off to join the queue at the parliament house (10+ hour queue at its peak), with individuals and businesses giving out free items like bottled water or setting up tentages to shield people from the sun.

      In his final sendoff on Sunday 29 Mar 2015, more than a hundred thousand people lined up along the route of his funeral procession, despite heavy pouring rains (i was one of them), countless others watching it on tv or through their devices. Many changed their facebook photos to a black and white ribbon with MR LKY’s face on it, some even as car decals on their cars etc (businesses were giving them out for free).

      We are still living in his legacy right now. Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world. The Singapore passport is ranked first (alongside Japan and S.Korea) with 189 countries with visa free or visa on arrival travel. Singapore is one of the most corrupt-free countries and governments in the world. Singapore Changi airport is the best in the world (not just in ranking, but in customer experience and many more – I love Changi airport).

      80% of Singaporeans live in government buildings (and actually own the apartment they live in). While many things are ‘worldclass’, many other things benefit Singaporeans, for example, cost of public transport is one of the lowest in the world for major cities, based on residents’ income relative to each country, cost of daily hawker food for most Singaporeans are also very low relative to income (of each country).

      I could go on and on about things that I am proud of about Singapore. These are part of the legacy left behind by the great man.

      If that’s not love, respect and admiration for our late founding father, I don’t know what is.

  12. Charlie Munger is like Yoda in that video, like a frog wizard in that chair!

  13. Wonderful post Ludvig. I knew nothing about LKY before this, so I have a lot of new reading to follow up on now!

  14. “When tyranny takes root in a small nation… it concentrates upon a host of minute details. It displays both a violent and fretful character. It abandons the political domain which is properly its own to meddle in people’s private lives. After actions, it aims to govern taste; after the state, it wishes to rule families.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

    As tyrants go, Lee Kuan Yew was certainly one of the most benevolent. But it seems to me his restraints were quite a bit more invasive than necessary. No talking about your family history, really? I bet family reunions were really a hoot. It seems unlikely that this, or the infamous “gum control”, were necessary to maintain public order. Not that I am suggesting a “democracy” would have been preferable.

    The emphasis on marrying a “graduate” vs. a non-graduate doesn’t seem sensible to me. In the U.S., and probably even more so in Singapore three generations ago, university graduation is more a matter of social class than intelligence. Even George WTF. Bush has an MBA. Besides, Lee wasn’t exactly biting the ugly bullet to get the good genes, judging by that photo. If he got his kids off a fat chick with a moustache problem and a math PhD I’d take him seriously.

    There is an argument that paying public officials well is a way of innoculating them against corruption. I do not agree. While paying the public servant so little that he /must/ sell his services to earn an acceptable living is probably a bad idea, excess wages are no guarantee either of honesty or competence. American experience shows that the greed of politicians cannot be sated by any wage; whatever they are paid, they are sure to steal even more. Low wages may, perhaps, drive the best people out of the public sector, but excessive pay does not attract better men – only better thieves. The kind of people who are attracted to a position by the promise of lucrative compensation may not be the kind to serve best. We see this today in America where the astronomical income of physicians has only filled the profession with vicious thugs who care nothing for the health of their patients and only live to squeeze the insurance tit.

    • Great quote by De Tocqueville, Abgrund. I have yet to read his magnum opus. But soon.

      As I said to Shaun before, I think the “graduate vs non-graduate” reference is more of a heuristic than anything else. He said it in passing conversation during one of those “Harsh Truths for Singapore” videos. And, as you say (and we all know), a university education has little to do with innate intelligence. . . although its role in representing or displaying intelligence–or ambition–in an individual is likely more accurate in Singapore than, for example, in Sweden.

      ” If he got his kids off a fat chick with a moustache problem and a math PhD I’d take him seriously.”

      –Haha. Well, his wife was very smart and hard-working, anyway.

      “excess wages are no guarantee either of honesty or competence.”

      –No, it’s not a guarantee. Nothing can guarantee it. Some people are plain dishonest/greedy/psychopathic–nothing can be done about that. But Lee put in place a system, and probably more importantly, an organizational environment where hard work and honesty was encouraged and rewarded, while anti-corruption was frowned upon (to put it lightly). He also led by example, and rejected hefty bribes over his career (without trying to score ‘honor points’ by it).

      Speaking of that…The Romans–and their political class–were an interesting bunch; reminiscent of modern U.S politicians (though admittedly more dutiful and hard-working) in terms of their incentives. There too, the dynamics were similar to a winner-takes-all game, and politicians took major financial risks and often went into debt (Caesar did too.). Then, when (if) they became successful and reached high positions, they were basically forced to make decisions of dubious moral character to pay back their loans.

      So, a big problem with politics, as I see it, is that it tends to attract a lot of people of the wrong kind, similar to the dynamics of the U.S law enforcement.

      It seems to me that Lee did a good job, overall, with solving/improving this problematic situation, in Singapore.

      Good point on physicians, by the way.

      • “…an organizational environment where hard work, honesty, and anti-corruption was frowned upon…”

        Methinks something got accidentally deleted from this paragraph.

  15. To focus only on LKY’s achievement as a good ruler of a nation, is only half the story. What made this man a giant in the political stage is that he was not only good in governing a country, he was also a brilliant geopolitical strategist.

    His main philosophy is that for a nation to prosper, there must be peace and stability. Both internally as a country and on the global scale, the region in which the country exist. Only then can the country have time to prosper and to attract investments.

    Many know of his style of governance and all the things he did to ensure stability and peace in the country, sometimes even into interfering or micro managing the lives of the citizens.

    But most are not aware of what he did to ensure stability and peace in the South East Asia region.

    He was constantly engaging the leaders of the US during the Cold War period and during the Vietnam war so as to ensure that Communism does not sweep across South East Asia. He was also credited for the formation of ASEAN.

    And when he perceived the rise of China, he started engaging China too but continued to seek the US to bring balance of power in the region, all these to maintain peace and stability, so that Singapore can prosper.

    Throughout his life, he was highly sought after by many political leaders, not just to understand how to govern a country, but his views of the political climate of the world. He has met every premier of China since Mao and every US president since Johnson. Margaret Thatcher had these glowing words for him, “He’s never wrong”.

    • Yeah I read something similar about Thatcher and him being held in high regards by politicians, but I didnt know about the geopolitics.
      Maybe it is because many in the west (like Me, until now!) don’t know this about LKY that he is sometimes spoken of harshly?

  16. “He took Singapore from a small, poor, port town (originally founded by the East India Company in 1812) to. . .”
    >> Wait, I thought Singapore was founded in 1819?

  17. As a post-independence Singaporean, most of my peers don’t really get the obsession some foreigners have on labelling the man. He is just a very good problem-solver. If you think of Singapore as a huge but nimble company, everything he did will start to make sense. Well paid CEO, no discrimination, good training, accelerated path for the talented, etc..

    Frankly, on a daily basis, we do not feel our lives curtailed in any way.
    As a child to uneducated parents in menial jobs, who has had a good education and decent job, what I do see is true meritocracy.

    This article kinda sums up how we feel from the inside.

    • Very poignant Mr. I agree

    • Singaporean under 30 says

      Yes I fully agree with you.

      Even other things which foreigners like to make fun of Singapore about, such as not being able to chew gum in Singapore. Having been born in 1990, it’s just one thing that differs between my country and other countries. As a kid, I do like to chew gum (in Malaysia) but as I grow up and understand the difficulties in passing a law, I really have to say that I admire the man for being so hard on Singaporeans in terms of littering, spitting, banning of chewing gum, and to more serious issues like no discrimination in speech (of other races, religions) etc.

      Because of that, I have been able to grow up in a very ethnically diverse country where everyone is given equal rights to education, work etc.

  18. What a brilliant man, Singapore is my number 1 destination for medical tourism and retirement. Hopefully his successor will be just as sharp. Great piece as well, it’s always such a treat to be able to sit down with great long form content like this.

  19. Hello Ludvig,

    Here’s a speech from Mr. Lee Kuan Yew on Getting the Best out of life…..

    In it, he mentions his chain smoking and drinking past. Also citing the reasons why he gave them up…


  20. Hi Ludvig, Just my thoughts below…

    1) Most (political) leaders are too self-serving and power-hungry (and even if they don’t start out that way, the winner effect has a tendency to warp their brains over time). That may be what happened to Napoleon.

    “Welcome to the world of politics, baby”

    3) How many people have the strength of character to give up their entire lives to building a corporation or a country?

    None. In the UK it’s what we call a career politician . A few years at the job then get out. In fact this week David Cameron (UK’s current Prime Minister) made a reference between a third term as PM (1 term is 5 years) to having to many “Shreddies”. Yes, the cereal.

    “A third term is a bit like Shreddies. Two is just enough, but three is not necessary” – And this is the dedicated man who runs my country?

    My thoughts on LKY are mixed. It’s obvious that he has done a lot for Singapore. But his leadership seemed very black and white. It’s like he was building and running the country under the law “They’re to stupid to know what’s best for them”.

    I disagree with 90 %…
    #4 The most efficient leader is a feared leaders

    and #5 Human beings are not equal–and never will be!

    Could be interpreted as so many things. In terms of capability (which I believe LKY meant), then no, we aren’t equal because we would all be Olympic champions. But in terms of who we are or who’s life is more valuable then no, I see all humans as equal.

    I would never take away from his success and I understand why he ruled the way he did because he had a tough job to do and it needed a tough man….

    R.I.P Lee Kuan Yew


    • Lky did not mean one person’s life is worth more than another. When he said people are not equal he meant that capabilities are not equal and therefore attainments, including economic, will not be equal. But his policies always was to help the less capable in society. From a lifelong student and admirer of lky.

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