The Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew (Part 1)

The book contains more than 600 quotes. Lee Kuan Yew was always guided by reason and reality. His opinions are still widely sought after by world leaders. Quotes are extracted from his public speeches and statements.

On Singapore

  • ‘Singapore is the little laboratory where the British, the nationalists and the communists first try out their tactics, because if anything goes wrong, it goes wrong on a small scale.’
  • ‘To sit on a stool is more comfortable and stable than to sit on a shooting stick. Right? Now we are on a shooting stick…We will jolly well make it a strong shooting stick. You have seen Singapore, the people here? It is a shooting stick made of steel.’
  • ‘That is what is required of this community: all the time, that push, that thrust to counter the natural sluggishness which this climate tends to build into our physical systems, and all that while, we must have an awareness of the realities of life.’
  • ‘Nobody here dies of starvation. Nobody is allowed to beg in streets. When we find someone begging, we put him into a home and feed him.’
  • ‘For once supremacy has been established, whether it is an airport, a harbor, or a dockyard, it is very difficult for any other place to dislodge us. For others have to compete against an established centre with superior facilities, higher skills and expertise, and long-standing established customers.’
  • ‘We can build up this team spirit, this esprit de corps, where every individual gives of his best for the team, for the nation, to achieve its maximum. And the team, the nation, in turn, takes care of the individual, fairly and equitably.’
  • ‘We have secured our survival although we can never banish danger. We have provided for our basic needs, homes, schools, hospitals and health services, jobs, whatever. But in no case is the standard ideal. In each case, the next generation has to improve on what we have done.’
  • ‘It does matter, for if we are not near the top in competitiveness, there is no reason why we should have a seaport, or an airport, or an airline – or indeed why there should be a separate independent Singapore. It is as simple as that.’
  • ‘The world has millions of leaner, keener and hungrier workers to compete against us. We can only win a place in this race by being better educated, with higher skills, and by maintaining a more conducive and secure environment for investments, with a government that provides efficiency, security and industrial peace…’
  • ‘What I need is enough command of Mandarin and understanding of present-day Chinese culture to work easily and comfortably with them. And with Singapore as my home, the world is my oyster, for I can afford to travel anywhere in the world for leisure or business.’

On Singaporeans

  • ‘Citizenship is essentially a question of loyalty. A man is a citizen of a state and has the right to determine the future of the state because he is part of an entity.’
  • ‘But it was a bit harder, wasn’t it? It was more like the durian. You try and squeeze it, your hand gets hurt. And so they say, “Right, throw out the durian.” But inside the durian is a very useful ingredient, high protein.’
  • ‘I do not want an inert society where people say ‘yes’ to everything I say because that means it is a society with no verve, no vitality. But, at the same time, I expect you to start thinking; not just to mouth old slogans which are no longer relevant. Start thinking.’
  • ‘For every boy, every girl here tonight, there are fathers and mothers egging them on to perform better than the other pupils in school. Not all societies have this. In many societies, they are quite happy just to sit down under the banyan tree and contemplate their navel. So when there this famine they just die quietly. Here, they will not die quietly. If there is no food, Singaporeans will do something, look for somebody, break open stores, do something, plant something, and if they have to die, they die fighting for the right to live.’
  • ‘I am trying for you. But please remember you must try for yourselves all the time. I can’t do the work for you. I can work for you, sometimes 15 hours a day. I ask you to work hard and well, for yourselves, only 8 hours of that day.’
  • ‘Imagine what would happen if we towed Singapore out and left it in the middle of the South Pacific. Instead of two million active and vigorous Singaporeans, you have South-Sea Islanders with flowers in their hair, dancing to languorous tunes…It would not feed a population of even 20,000 people. But we are not in the South Pacific, nor are we South-Sea Islanders. We do not put flowers on our ears…’
  • ‘We do not want our workers submissive, docile, toadying up to the foreman, the foreman to the supervisor and the supervisor to the boss for increments and promotions.
  • ‘No amount of tourist promotion can equal the personal verdict of people who have visited us, and found us friendly and courteous, honest and efficient.’
  • ‘The Singapore worker votes for his government and then expects his ministers to take care of his livelihood and his children’s future. On the other hand, Hong Kong people are very independent-minded. They expect little of the colonial government. This is the key to understanding Hong Kong’s dynamism.’

On Colonialism

  • ‘The day I can say, “I am a free man. This is my country’, that day I will welcome you as a friendly host would do a guest. But I will not be a guest in my own country.’ 1955
  • ‘I give one compliment to the British. They, of all the colonial powers, know how to bow out gracefully. Unlike the French and the Dutch who got their brains beaten into the dust of Hanoi and Yogyakarta, the British are past masters at this art. They bow out gracefully when the time comes.’
  • ‘I speak for one and all of you that we have had enough of being pawns and playthings of foreign powers. We have a will of our own, and a right to live in peace on our own.’
  • ‘The Dutch, the British, the French never gave us any technology. They built our universities, but they never taught us engineering. They taught us medicine, law, history, culture. They withheld the modern part of the industrial society.’

On Merger and Separation with Malaysia

  • ‘Merged with the Federation, with local autonomy in education and labour policies to suit our special circumstances, we will have a viable economic base, and the essentials of a solution of our problems of an expanding population without an equally expanding economy.’
  • ‘A nation is great not by its size alone. It is the will, the cohesion, the stamina, the discipline of its people and the quality of their leaders which ensure it is an honourable place in history.’
  • ‘I give you my word that as long as there are men like the Tunku at the helm and we are in charge in Singapore we can make Malaysia succeed, and succeed it will. Banish all doubts and fears from your minds. The future is always full of challenge and trials. We can and will surmount them’
  • ‘Singapore shall be forever a sovereign democratic and independent nation, founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of her people in a more just and equal society.’
  • ‘Every time we look back on this moment when we signed this agreement which severed Singapore from Malaysia, it will be a moment of anguish. For me, it is a moment of anguish because all my life…you see, the whole of my adult life…I have believed in Malaysia, merger and the unity of these two territories. You know, it’s a people, connected by geography, economics and ties of kinship…Would you mind if we stop for a while?’ 1965
  • ‘Although our house is small, in our house, how we arrange the tables and the chairs and the beds is our own affair. Not our friends’ or our neighbours’ affairs. No one has the right to say that the bed should be moved over there, the chair should be moved over here. This is our house. Although it is small, it is our property.’
  • ‘So it is that into the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore will be built safeguards, in so far as the human mind can devise means whereby the conglomeration of numbers, of likeness, as a result of affinities of race or language or culture, shall never work to the detriment of those who, by the accident of history, find themselves in minority groups in Singapore.’

On the Future

  • ‘It is like the song that goes: ‘What will I be when I grow up? Will I be handsome, will I be rich?’ And the refrain is: ‘The future’s not ours to see.’ If we want to know what is going to happen in the future, we must know what are the forces at work. And having decided our position, we then try and work these forces in our favour.’ 1956
  • ‘To understand the present and anticipate the future, one must know enough of the past, enough to have a sense of the history of a people. One must appreciate not merely what took place but more especially why it took place and in that particular way. This is true of individuals, as it is for nations. The personal experience of a person determines whether he likes or hates certain things, welcomes them or fears them when they recur. So it is with nations: it is the collective memory of a people, the composite learning from past events which led to successes or disasters that makes a people welcome or fear new events because they recognize parts in new events which have similarities with past experience.’
  • ‘….You look at Venice. The Ottoman Empire came. The Silk Road became impassable, ships went round the Cape. Venice declined.’ 1995
  • ‘…The new divide in the world will be between those with the knowledge and those without. We must learn to be part of the knowledge-based world.’ 2000
  • ‘Our way forward is to upgrade our levels of education, skills, knowledge and technology. Life-long learning is a must for everyone in the knowledge economy with rapidly changing technology.’ 2001
  • ‘Friends tell me many young Singaporeans believe Singapore’s best years are behind us…They are pessimists and wrong. Singapore is like an aircraft flying at 30,000 ft. We have another 6,000 ft to rise to 36,000 ft, the height top US and EU airlines are flying. Furthermore we have not reached First World standards in the finer things in life, music, culture and the arts, the graces of a civilized society. The generation now in their 30s to 50s can take Singapore there in the next 15 to 20 years. The best is yet to be.’ 2004

On the Greening of Singapore

  • ‘Even in the sixties, when the government had to grapple with grave problems of unemployment, lack of housing, health and education, I pushed for the planting of trees and shrubs. I have always believed that blighted urban jungle of concrete destroys the human spirit…’ 1995
  • ‘Without the greening effort, Singapore would have been a barren, ugly city. There would have been few trees, planted haphazardly here and there, but there would have been none of the planning or the care and maintenance that sustain our greenery today.’ 2012

On Arts and Heritage

  • ‘The Chinese festivals and rituals remind us of our past and identify ourselves with the history of our ancestors. Our history did not begin when our forefathers came to Singapore. It goes back deep into the beginnings of Chinese civilization over 5000 years ago. That history is a part of us because of the tradition and culture they have bequeathed us.’
  • ‘Instead of demolishing old and quaint Singapore buildings, we undertook extensive conservation and restoration of ethnic districts such as Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam and of the civic district, with its colonel era buildings…The value of these areas in architectural, cultural and tourism terms cannot be quantified only in dollars and cents.’
  • ‘Economic growth is not the end itself. After the success of the economy, you want to translate it into high standards of living, high quality of life, with recreation, the arts, spiritual fulfilment, and intellectual fulfilment. So we are also spending considerable sums for the arts, which will create a more gracious society.’ 1995

On Politics

  • ‘Politics is about human beings and their lives. It is an art, not a science. It is the art of the possible.’ 1955
  • ‘Those without this indomitable fighting spirit had better go and sell stocks and shares. This task [politics] is not for the faint-hearted. It is for people with deep and abiding convictions.’ 1955
  • ‘Some people believe that, having debauched themselves in one political party or front, they can, like the phoenix, arise from the ashes of the old in the feathers of a new party, front or movement as fresh as if nothing had happened.’
  • ‘In fact, there is no magic formula for longevity in political life other than the simple and the obvious: just honour your promises; do not corrupt and debauch your party.’
  • ‘It is for the minister, having been elected by the people, to decide where the driver is to go and how and by what route. It is the business of the civil service – the driver, the fitters and the rest – to keep that car in sound mechanical condition.’
  • ‘If democratic socialists are to make a contribution to the course of events, they must cease to think in terms of abstractions. They must give meaning to socialist ideals in pragmatic and realistic policies to produce changes for the better in the daily lives of their peoples.’
  • ‘Politics is a marathon, not a hundred yards spurt. With every passing speech, with every passing act, the character, the style, the strength, the weaknesses are etched in the minds of the public.’
  • ‘If you want to be popular, do not try to be popular all the time. Popular government does not mean that you do popular things all the time. We do not want to be unpopular or to do unpopular things. But when they are necessary, they will be done.’
  • ‘Fierce combat has made the older ministers what they are. For those amongst us, the older ones that were weak or slow or nervous, they became early casualties. Those present are survivors of a Darwinian process of natural selection. We have keen survival instincts, familiar with every trick, underhand or dastardly manoeuvre. We know how to deal with every scoundrel.’
  • ‘An MP must now not only be good at speaking but also at getting things done. When an estate is dirty, lifts out of order, and rubbish not regularly and properly collected, that is when residents realize that without regular maintenance, the value of their flats will drop.’ 1992
  • ‘However good the government, there will always be voters who are disappointed and dissatisfied with the government, and who want to have opposition MPs. But no opposition party has been able to assemble a team which is a credible alternative government.’ 1996
  • ‘The able and talented have not come forward to form a credible alternative team and challenge the PAP. They know the PAP is doing the right thing, and there is no alternative way. They are content to thrive and prosper with the present men in charge. Those who have come forward to be an alternative to the PAP are mostly lightweights or, worse, flawed characters.’ 1996
  • ‘When you put up an idea which I know is wrong and believe profoundly to be wrong and will do us harm, I must crush it. I don’t crush you, I crush your idea. I mean, if I’m wrong then my ideas deserve to be crushed. Maybe ‘crush’ is a harsh word, but this is a harsh world. It is a contest of whose idea is right because if it is wrong, we are going to do harm to many people.’ 1996
  • ‘Translated in real life, politics means: ‘How is my life affected by the government? Do I have a job? Do I have a home? Do I have medicine when I need it? Do I have enough recreational facilities? Is there a future for my children? Will they be educated? Will there be a chance to advance yourself?’ 2006

On Democracy

  • ‘It means giving one man, one vote, and allowing him to decide who should govern, and how they should govern for a specified number of years. It means the right at the end of that specified number of years again to pass judgment on that government and on others who may present themselves for the mandate of the people.’
  • ‘From my experience, constitutions have to be custom-made, tailored to suit the peculiarities of the person wearing the suit. Perhaps, like shoes, the older they are, the better they fit. Stretch them, soften them, resole them, repair them. They are always better than a brand new pair of shoes.’
  • ‘In new countries, democracy has worked and produced results only when there is an honest and effective government, which means a people smart enough to elect such a government. Remember, elected governments are only as good as the people who choose them.’
  • ‘The weakness of democracy is that the assumption that all men are equal and capable of equal contribution to the common good is flawed.’
  • ‘If we had a world government for this small and interdependent world, will one man, one vote lead to progress or regression? All can immediately see that the developed and educated peoples of the world will be swamped by the undeveloped and the uneducated, and that no progress will be possible.’
  • ‘The problem now is how to work the system of one man, one vote when we have to get quality leadership to the top. If we leave it to natural processes it will be a contest on television performances as in the West. And the best television performers and rally entertainers are not necessarily the best leaders who can deliver good government.’
  • ‘A free and fair election is not the best first step to nurture a democracy in a country that has no history or tradition of self-government. Without adequate preparations, elections will allow a people to vent their frustrations against the corruption and the inadequacies of the incumbents and vote in the opposition. That led to Hamas gaining power in Palestine.’

On the PAP

  • ‘In a future full of uncertainties, one factor is certain. The PAP does not run away from problems. We solve them for you and with you. We analyse our difficulties, explain them and propose practical solutions. Then, together, we set out to resolve them.’
  • ‘What would be cause for despair would be if a transient mood of disappointment among the people for some setback or mishap just before an election were to lead them to reject the PAP and vote in a motley crew of incompetents and adventurers. That could end up in tragedy for Singapore. Hence it is important to expose opportunists and incompetents before they can pass themselves off as possible replacements for the PAP.’
  • The very fact that we are not challenged is a pretty strong mandate.’

On Leadership

  • ‘I do not know yet of a man who became a leader as a result of having undergone a leadership course.’
  • ‘The acid test is in performance, not promises. The millions of dispossessed in Asia care not and know not of theory. They want a better life. They want a more equal, a more just society. He who gives them this is their saviour.’
  • ‘One of the reasons why Singapore thrived was because so many of the merchants, both British and non-British, when they gave their word, they kept to it, and the government when it gave its undertaking, invariably honoured it.’
  • ‘The moral is that if all turns out well, and a decision proves correct, even though taken for the wrong reasons, keep quiet about it. Your judgement may be the better respected.’
  • ‘There is a heavy price to pay if mediocrities and opportunists ever take control of the government of Singapore. And mediocrities and opportunists can accidentally take over if Singaporeans, in a fit of pique or a moment of madness, voted for the politics of opposition for the sake of opposition. Five years of such a government, probably a coalition, and Singapore will be down on her knees.’
  • ‘Those with the higher social conscience must come forward to give of their time to get things done for the community. This is one of the strengths of Singaporean society, the absence of class divisions. It grew from our immigrant history.’
  • ‘A good administration is essential but in a developing country, let me add, a good political leadership is critical. It is life and death. In a developed society, you can have mediocre, indifferent ministers and the country will get by.’
  • ‘As long as the leaders take care of their people, they will obey the leaders.’
  • ‘For me, they [the major personalities of the 20th century] are Churchill, de Gaulle, Mao, Deng. They changed the world. They were giants, with great ideas.’

On Corruption

  • ‘We don’t have to be lawyers to understand right, wrong, good, evil. This is basic and fundamental in the values of the people.’
  • ‘It is sad to see how in many countries, national heroes have let their country slide down the drain to filth and squalor, corruption and degradation, where the kickback and the rake-off has become a way of life, and the whole country sinks in debasement and despair.’
  • ‘If government workers are adequately paid, they deserved to be punished with severe punishments when they take bribes.’
  • ‘Once a political system has been corrupted right from the very top leaders to the lowest rung of the bureaucracy, the problem is very complicated. The cleansing and disinfecting has to start from the top and go downwards in a thorough and systematic way.’

On His Critics

  • ‘Not all who oppose the PAP are communists; some are communists, some reactionaries, some opportunists and some merely confused.’
  • ‘Men who have not got the courage to pursue their allegations publicly should desist from making sly and oblique references.’
  • ‘Supposing I had been a different person and when people throw darts at me, I smile at them. Then they will take an arrow and put arsenic on the tip and strike me, and I smile back?’

On the Media

  • ‘One value which does not fit Singapore is the theory of the press as the fourth estate. From British times, the Singapore press was never the fourth estate. And in Singapore’s experience, because of our volatile racial and religious mix, the American concept of the ‘marketplace of ideas’, instead of producing harmonious enlightenment, has time and again led to riots and bloodshed.’
  • ‘The American press is appalled that I am suing them. But if I didn’t sue them I change my relationship with my own people. They sell their newspapers in Singapore, commenting on Singapore, influencing my voters. And if I do not challenge them when they libel me, there will be no end to it. Singapore’s newspapers will do likewise. I say if you sell here, you abide by our laws.’
  • ‘Why am I so strong against the media? Because they tried to put us down, they twisted everything I said, {they said} that I was a communist. And they knew I wasn’t. So I told them, in 1959 during the election campaign as they were gunning for me, I said when I win, I will show you how you have to behave yourself.’

On Equality

  • ‘I believe in socialism because I believe it is one of the most effective ways of mobilising human resources. Give equal opportunities to all regardless of rank, race, religion, sex in a given nation and you are likely to draw from each of your nationals, the best in him.’
  • ‘We want an equal society. We want to give everybody equal opportunities. But, at the back of our minds, never deceive ourselves that two human beings are ever equal in their stamina, in their drive, in their dedication, in their innate ability. And my preoccupation is with those who can really make a contribution, who can matter, given the training and discipline.’
  • ‘Human beings are not born equal. They are highly competitive. Systems like Soviet and Chinese communism have failed, because they try to equalize benefits. Then nobody works hard enough, but everyone wants to get as much as, if not more than, the other person.’

On Immigration and Emigration

  • ‘Our progress must not falter through a shortage of skilled workers. We are bringing up to date our educational system and preparing our students with the skills required. Meanwhile, we must allow skilled workers to come in and help us take advantage of this spurt in industrial growth.’
  • ‘I frequently meet expat bankers, executives of multinationals, indeed occasionally expat officers working for the Singapore government on contract, who are paid more than I am. I have learned not to let it disturb me.’
  • ‘Unless we are able to instil patriotism and self-respect, unless we succeed in inculcating a sense of commitment to fellow Singaporeans in our talented youths, we can be creamed off. We shall become diluted like skimmed milk.’
  • ‘The Singapore pool of talent is finite and limited. Singapore has been like the American space shuttle. It has two rockets to boost it into space. We have a powerful Singapore-made rocket. For that extra zip, we had a second rocket, assembled in Singapore, but with imported components. We must try hard to continue to have that second rocket.’
  • ‘Some Singaporeans are discomforted by seeing so many strangers around them in the MRT and the buses. Please remember, we need the 900,000 foreign workers on two-year permits. They do the construction and other heavy work, jobs Singaporeans are not willing to do. Their two-year permits can be extended several times. But they will not stay here permanently.’

For Part 2, click here.

‘St Paul’s Cathedral in London was built by Sir Christopher Wren. He was the architect, and he is buried in the cathedral, which was his masterpiece, his life’s work. The Latin epitaph on his grave reads: si monumentum requiris, circumspice (If you seek his monument, look around you). Mr Lee Kuan Yew built Singapore. To those who seek Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s monument, Singaporeans can reply proudly: “look around you”.’

– Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s PM

lky pic


One thought on “The Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: The Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew (Part 2) | Book & Quote Monster

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