The Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew (Part 2)

On Language

  • ‘It would be stupid for us not to recognize that language and culture is a stronger force that motivates human beings than political or ideological ideals.’
  • ‘If we try and seek a common language; and through that common language ultimately we will become a common nation with one cultural milieu to bind its peoples through history and a common experience.’
  • ‘If you lose that Chinese education and you go completely English-educated, you will lose that drive, that self-confidence. That is what is wrong. The danger is, if you are Chinese –educated and only Chinese-educated, you are monolingual, then your source of literature will be communist.’
  • ‘The mono-linguist is more likely to be a language chauvinist and a bigot. He only sees the world through one eye. He does not have binocular vision to see the world in depth, to realize that there are as rich, if not richer, worlds of human experience and knowledge, all expressed in beautiful words, elegantly, vividly and fluently in other languages.’
  • ‘We need a common language. We solved this by making everybody learn not one but two languages, English and the mother tongue. English is not any group’s mother tongue, so no advantage is gained or lost by any one group.’
  • ‘What is the responsibility of the government? It is, first and foremost, to give everyone enough English language skills to make a living. Because if he cannot make a living, nothing else is important. However, we also need to teach him his mother tongue, because that is what gives him his identity and makes our society vigorous and distinctive.’

On Race

  • ‘’I think we can safely predict that in two decades, either there [will be] a tolerant multiracial society comprising us in this region, or this will be an area of constant strife, very much like what the Balkan States were before and after the First World War.’ 1965
  • ‘I had a friend who was a Sikh. He threw his past away: he shaved his beard; he threw away his turban; he had a haircut. No harm at all. But something happened to him and in next to no time, he was doing foolish things. He lost his anchorage. You know, it gets very difficult for a ship without an anchor in a harbour when it gets stormy. I want you therefore, to have your anchorage.’
  • ‘We have made considerable progress in integrating our difference races into living in the same housing blocks and going to the same schools and serving in the same SAF units. Now we must aim at more socialising between them, whether in private or community-organised activities. Progress will depend on how comfortable our young feel about each other. The more they socialise, the stronger our mosaic of national cohesion. It is not easy, but it can be done.’

On Religion

  • ‘However different the various religions, this government is in favour of a man believing in something [rather] than believing in nothing. I would rather have a Muslim, a devout Hindu, than a permissive atheist. And it is because of the problem of atheism in the West that they are in trouble.’
  • ‘The values and traditions of Christian charity, Islamic brotherhood, Confucian ethics, and the Buddhist’s search for enlightenment, are all part of Singapore’s spiritual milieu. Everyone knows that virtue is not exclusive to any religion. As long as we preach and practise tolerance and harmony and freedom of religion, we shall continue to be at peace with ourselves and to make progress.’
  • ‘Religion must not get mixed up in politics, otherwise a clash of political views can easily turn into a clash of religious beliefs. Then there will be deep enmity between our different religious communities and our society will come to grief.’ In 1987

On International Relations

  • ‘If it is unjust and economically backward and old-fashioned to allow a man through his possession of property or status to exploit his less fortunate or status to exploit his less fortunate fellow men, then by the same token no nation or group of nations should be allowed through their possession of industrial capital and technological skills and scientific knowledge to exploit other groups of nations, who, through the accidents of history, have not got these essential for development.’
  • ‘We want the maximum number of friends and the minimum number of enemies, and naming anybody as an enemy is the surest way of making him your enemy.’ In 1968
  • ‘Satellite pictures transmitted into our living rooms vividly and nightly remind us of the troubled world we live in. The gap between the rich and the poor remains vast. The Commonwealth is probably one of the few settings in which rich and poor countries can meet and talk to each other candidly.’
  • ‘If the Ramos Administration can make ordinary Filipinos understand that politics is not simply elections with singing, fiestas, and giveaways, but that it is about their lives, jobs and wages, homes, schools and hospitals, the situation can change dramatically.’ In 1992
  • ‘I do not believe that Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore could have succeeded as they have done if they had to work under such a US constitution, where gridlock on every major issue is a way of life.
  • ‘And you will notice that since the Vietnam War and the Great Society some 28 years ago, the US system has not functioned even for the United States.’
  • ‘Every Chinese knows from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms that in ancient China. The time-honoured method for a more dynamic and vigorous people to achieve greater wealth and prosperity was to incorporate chunks of neighbouring territories and peoples into their kingdom.’
  • ‘What happens in China, Japan and the rest of East Asia will decide the kind of world we live in. It’s best for the world not to repeat the errors of imperial preferences and beggar-thy-neighbour policies of currency devaluations that led to WWII.’ In 1994
  • ‘This generation of Asians, especially the leaders, have learned their lesson: whatever your quarrels, if you go to war, you will be pauperized. By all means, let’s argue, but at the end of the day let’s work together. Let’s trade. Let’s get on with it. You grow, I grow. That’s the best.’
  • ‘However, I am convinced the axiom is true: that central planning and state-owned or nationalised enterprises lead to inefficiency and poor returns, whether the government is authoritarian or democratic.’
  • ‘I now believe that, besides the standard economic yardsticks for productivity and competitiveness, there are intangible factors like culture, religion and other ethnic characteristics and national ethos that affect the outcome.’

On Security

  • ‘It is difficult to rob a weaker man if he has strong friends prepared and able to give the robber a hiding.’ Year 1956
  • ‘We do not want to make a man more embittered and frustrated with society than he need be. If he as youthful inclinations towards extreme political views, well, by all means, let him go through that phase; let him mature. But when we know a man is already committed to the destruction of the democratic State, it is not our business to spend money on him to equip him to carry out his purposes better.’ 1964
  • ‘We will defend ourselves. Whoever else wants to defend us, I will say to them “Thank you very much. But please remember I can defend myself and make no mistake about it.” In year 1968
  • ‘Whether we are shirkers or quitters, or stayers and fighters, will determine whether we live in peace or not. If people believe that we are stayers and fighters, we are more likely to live peacefully. Next year, I hope to see my own son in uniform present on such an occasion. Nobody who is fit and able-bodied can shirk what is a responsibility and an honour, to see that Singapore thrives and prosper, and is left undisturbed and at peace.’
  • ‘New weapons must be bought, younger men must be better educated to handle more advanced weapons. More important, they must have able and resolute leaders. Security is like electricity. It can be stored but not for long.’
  • ‘If I am sure that if I belong to a pack that’s got a big dog, I would consider a nip. If we are all small dogs, it may be wiser just to bark.’ In 1995

On Communism

  • ‘I cannot in all honesty say that communism is a diabolical evil, because I can imagine certain human societies where it was a great relief to have the communists displace a ruling power. That is another of the very difficult problems we face in this country. To some 600 million Chinese, that philosophy was the answer and is the answer to a decadent, a corrupt and an evil society which has become evil because men have lost their self-respect and lost their values.’
  • ’70 years in the Soviet Union of the egalitarian society, have they banished beggary, prostitution, misery, hunger? Is that the way, to suppress the individual instinct to perform, to excel, to be better than the other, to get better rewards, bigger prizes, to increase his family’s chances in life, so that they can have a better kick-off? All that was stifled with the objective of an equal egalitarian society.’
  • ’45 years of competition against the West has broken the Soviet Union and her cluster of Marxist states. They cannot match the productive abundance, the comforts and technological excellence of the capitalist economies of the West. Suddenly, they have decided to disclose their industrial backwardness. Never has there been so propitious a moment in history.’
  • ‘The communist ideology no longer holds the Chinese people in thrall. No Chinese in China any longer believes that communism is the wave of the future. They know of the Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong and want to be as prosperous as them.’

On China

  • ‘In China the laws are incomplete and rules and procedures not transparent. A “level playing field” is not part of Chinese culture; guanxi or personal links is’ in 1992
  • ‘The difficulty arises from America’s expressed desire to make China more democratic. China resents and resists this as an interference in its domestic matters. Outside powers cannot re-fashion China into their own image. Let us not forget that even China’s conquerors like the Mongols in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the Manchus in the 17th to 19th centuries, could not change Chinese culture. Instead China changed them and they were absorbed and assimilated.’
  • ‘China’s history of over 4,000 years was one of dynastic rulers, interspersed with anarchy, foreign conquerors, warlords and dictators. The Chinese people had never experienced a government based on counting heads instead of chopping off heads. Any evolution towards representative government would be gradual.’

On Economics and Development

  • ‘There is a hallmark of whether a country is developed or underdeveloped. If the people do not understand why they are poor and they believe that either you have a messiah who makes a speech or an army general with a gun, who looks efficient, military-like, business-like and that he can cure problems of poverty, unemployment and development, then I say you are underdeveloped, because it is only in an underdeveloped situation that such a thing can happen.’
  • ‘For Singapore only just getting industrialised, it will be disastrous if we think we can get more and more pay for less and less work. No one owes us a living. Nothing is for free.’
  • ‘Did I ever contemplate nationalisation, socialist planning for industrialisation and economic transformation? Frankly, no…Further, I had before me, by 1965, the salutary lessons of U Nu’s Burma, Bandaranaike’s Ceylon, and Sukarno’s Indonesia.’
  • ‘And in the developed countries, the person who is out of a job has got the benefits of unemployment relief almost as good as if he were in the job. He only suffers the inconvenience or the stigma of not being at work and not having pleasure of the company of his workmates. But in developing countries being out of a job means being hungry.’
  • ‘Like Nehru, I had been influenced by the ideas of the British Fabian Society. But I soon realised that before distributing the pie I had first to bake it. So I departed from welfarism because it sapped a people’s self-reliance and their desire to excel and succeed. I also abandoned the model of industrialisation through import substitution. When most of the Third World was deeply suspicious of exploitation by western MNCs, Singapore invited them in.’
  • ‘If we cannot increase the productivity or the output of our citizens, our economy will slow down. Then Singaporeans will discover that instead of many job opportunities and rising asset values, including prices for resale HDB flats, the reverse will happen across the board. It will be worse for most people, fewer jobs, lower salaries, lower asset prices including HDB home values and resale prices. Young Singaporeans will face more difficulties finding jobs to support themselves and their families. So although more new flats will be available, they cannot afford to buy these flats when they are not earning good incomes. Opportunities will diminish for Singapore citizens. We will have a deflating economy, with a series of knock-on effects as prices of all assets including flats will go down, demand will lessen, pay will fall and so will the number of jobs and promotions. When this happens, many of our own talents will leave for greener pastures, which will exacerbate the downward spiral and eventually lead to Singapore’s decline.’

On Prosperity

  • ‘Wealth and poverty are relative things. You have acute tensions, either within a society or internationally within an international community, not so much because you are too poor as against another person or you are too rich, in the absolute sense, but whether you are relatively too much better off than the other to cause the other fellow dissatisfaction.’
  • ‘The poor know that you don’t get your mana falling from heaven, not in Singapore anyway.’
  • ‘Singapore is a society based on effort and merit, not wealth and privilege depending on birth. There is nothing in the lifestyle of the employer which is not open to the worker. If executives play squash, tennis or golf, so can workers. If executives go on holidays abroad, so do workers.’
  • ‘Our young should prepare to seek their fortunes in this golden age. It is silly to moan that properties and cars are going out of their reach. They will never be out of reach of those who seize their opportunities. Of course, those on profit-sharing schemes and stock options will do better than those on salaries. But even those on salaries will have their salaries double in the next 10 years of high growth.’
  • ‘For over 30 years we have aimed for an egalitarian society. If we want to have successful entrepreneurs, Singaporeans have to accept a greater income disparity between the successful and the not so successful.’
  • ‘If you have not borrowed excessively to buy assets and have sufficient cash to service your loans, you can hold on to your investments until the market turns up and prices recover. Singaporeans need not despair or be depressed. We will have to endure some hardship. But nobody will be destitute, depending on soup kitchens or begging in the streets.’
  • ‘Whatever your job, you are better off in Singapore than if you are in a similar job in any other Asian country, including China and India. The only country where job for job you can be better off, is Japan.’

On Entrepreneurship and Innovation

  • ‘I wish you well. How well you do depends on how enterprising you are. That is what private enterprise means.’
  • ‘We cannot predict which of our younger managers, engineers and professionals will have the entrepreneurial flair. It has to be by trial and error, tossing them in the deep end of the pool.’
  • ‘By history, our young have always taken the safer course of joining a big corporation, usually an MNC or local corporation, and climbing up within their ranks. Hong Kongers, after joining a company, leave as soon as they have learned the ropes to start up their own. Not everybody has got the inventiveness and shrewdness to go for such ventures. We must encourage and support those who have.’
  • ‘The dream of wealth attracts everyone. But it is those who innovate in creating new products or services, who will be the new rich. Few are born entrepreneurs, and not many will succeed. To succeed as an entrepreneur one has to have some extraordinary qualities as high energy levels, a cut of mind that sees opportunities where others see problems, and a keen sense of what products or service will be profitable.’

On the Workplace

  • ‘I know that change is sometimes unpleasant, particularly when, if you have been working at a leisurely pace and somebody comes along to put the heat on you.’
  • ‘Employers must understand that good personnel relations are an asset. If you have supervisors who are rude and crude to Singaporeans, our self-respect demands that we put a stop to this. We can make our workers strive harder. But we will not allow them to be humiliated or browbeaten.’
  • ‘There are jobs that must be done. And whether they are in air-conditioned offices or factories or out in the sun and rain, the work has to be done, and done well. That is our way forward.’
  • ‘The Singaporean’s attention is confined to his own job and his promotion prospects. He is not keen to widen his responsibilities. That together he and his fellow workers can make the company more efficient and productive, and therefore make more profits, bringing more wages for everyone – that is too vague a vision and does not move him. Too many workers have not identified themselves with companies like the Japanese workers do.’
  • ‘The Japanese worker can be a model. A Japanese worker is proud to be an excellent waiter and goes about his work efficiently, with grace and style. A Japanese cook is proud of his excellent training. When he appears at your table in a hotel or restaurant to present his dishes, he is clean, smart and cheerful, and he slices the sashimi or fruit and serves his guests with panache.’
  • ‘Troublesome employers will soon run into trouble with their profits, because if they don’t get the cooperation of their workers, their competitors who does the cooperation of his workers will beat them.’

On the Welfare State

  • ‘When people get equal handouts, whether or not they work harder or better, everybody then works less hard. The country must go down. It is when people are encouraged to excel by being able to keep a large part of the extra reward earned by their extra efforts that the society as a whole becomes wealthier and everybody thrives and prospers.’
  • ‘I will be very unhappy if I went around Singapore and in spite of our prosperity, I saw a few hundred people living on the streets, begging, playing a violin, or pretending to play a violin to collect money. That means something has gone wrong with the society. They have not been given the proper chance.’
  • ‘More can and will be done for the elderly, the young and the needy, provided we can find the men and women to give their time. The government will provide the buildings and facilities. What the government cannot provide is the personal touch and the direct contact of voluntary social workers. Their altruistic and charitable feelings can motivate people to help themselves.’
  • ‘Welfares and subsidies destroy the motivation to perform and succeed. Where we must help, give cash or assets and leave it to the individual to decide how he will spend it. When people become dependent on subsidies, and the government can no longer afford and has to cut subsidies, people riot.’

On Life

  • ‘As you solve a set of problems, new ones appear. That is part of the nature of life.’
  • ‘If there is a touchstone for success, it is confidence. A people must have confidence in themselves. If they lack it, if they feel they are unequal to the challenge, then they will never make the grade.’
  • ‘I believe the human being wants an equal chance with his fellow human being, regardless of his father’s wealth or status in order that he can do his best, in order that he can compete and climb to the top. And that is so, whether you are in Moscow, whether you are in Peking, whether you are in Washington or London. And you can’t reverse human nature.’
  • ‘I believe that life is a process of continuous change and a constant struggle to make that change one for the better.’
  • ‘Every generation has a quota of those who feel that society does not give them the status, the position, the influence, the rewards, that they deserve. They want to overturn the order of things.’

On Asian Values

  • ‘What Asian value may not be what Americans or Europeans value. Westerners value the freedoms and liberties of the individual. As an Asian of Chinese cultural background, my values are for a government which is honest, effective and efficient in protecting its people and allowing opportunities for all to advance themselves in a stable and orderly society where they can live a good life and raise their children to do better than themselves.’
  • ‘My experience in governing Singapore, especially the difficult early years from 1959 to 1969, convinced me that we would not have surmounted our difficulties and setbacks if a large part of the population of Singapore were not imbued with Confucian values.’
  • ‘I think the Americans seem to be willing to spend now and to mortgage the future, whereas no society in East Asia is mortgaging its future and letting their children pay for it. They are saving up their children a better start.’

On the Family

  • ‘Quite apart from religious principles, by and large, Chinese and Indian families believe that the more children a man has the greater is his good fortune. In the old days the more wives a man had, the higher his status. Just like motor cars, wives and children were a status symbol. All this proliferating made sense in an age where periodic plagues, droughts, floods and famine regularly decimated the population.’
  • ‘When the less educated who are also in the lower income groups have large families, the problems they create for their children are compounded.’
  • ‘Every person, genius or moron, has the right to reproduce himself. So we assume that a married pair will want to be allowed two children to replace them. This is already the average size family of the skilled worker in industrial Europe.’
  • ‘Our strong family structure has been a great strength for continuity in bringing up the next generation. The family has transmitted social values, more by osmosis than by formal instruction. We must preserve this precious family structure if our society is to regenerate itself without loss of cultural vigour, compassion and wisdom.’
  • ‘We cannot measure our happiness just by our GDP growth. It is how our families and friends care for each other, how we look after our old and nurture our young, they are what make for a closely knit society, one which we can be proud to belong to.’

On the Generations

  • ‘Our young are ambitious and energetic. They must also acquire those qualities which enabled their parents to make Singapore what it is today – the grit and determination to stay the course, the strength and stamina to ride over rough patches.’
  • ‘Younger Singaporeans are better educated. They have more knowledge, though that does not make them wiser. But being better educated, they can easily gain information; they are able to read and acquire information in newspapers, magazines, radio, television and through travel. They want more consultation and participation in the major decisions which affect their lives.’
  • ‘I’m of a different generation. 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 dishevelled. You don’t have to be like that. But I’m not impressed by a $5,000 or $10,000 Armani suit.’
  • ‘You are better placed than your fathers: better educated, able to use English, and your mother tongue. Singapore is now a brand name for integrity, efficiency, transparency, consistency and resourcefulness. But what my generation has is that fire in the belly. We knew war and enemy occupation. We have experienced fear, hunger and hardship, the terrors of communist insurgency, of communal riots and bloodshed. These trials and tribulations have steeled us for life.’

On Education

  • ‘If I have to choose one profession in which you give the most for the least it is probably teaching – if you take it seriously. You have to have the temperament for it to coax, to stimulate, to cajole, to discipline a young mind into good habits. You must have an aptitude.’
  • ‘Performance in examinations depends upon two factors: nature and nurture – nature being the natural intelligence of the child, nurture being the training and education…The fact is, individuals are born with different capacities. What we must set out to do, therefore, is to help students achieve the maximum potential of whatever nature has endowed them with. In other words, to nurture them, to give them the software, to encourage, support and help them to achieve their fullest.’
  • ‘A person learns most vividly and remembers longest and best when his lessons are accompanied by sharp pain or great joy. After he has enjoyed his first encounter with the durian, he will never forget how to identify the fragrance. Some can learn by watching others scald themselves. Few or none can learn to sniff out a good durian without having eaten both good and bad ones.’
  • ‘If your option was, I want a condo, I want a Mercedes, then you aim for those professions which will bring you those results. But you have chosen English Literature. If you were my granddaughter, I would tell her (and she also likes writing and she’s in this tutor programme and she writes little stories) there’s no money in it unless you are really good.’
  • ‘Imparting knowledge to pass examinations and later to do a job, these are important. However, the litmus test of a good education is whether it nurtures citizens who can live, work, contend and cooperate in a civilized way. Is he loyal and patriotic? Is he, when the need arises, a good soldier, ready to defend his country, and so protect his wife and children, and his fellow citizens?’

On Discipline

  • ‘Quite a number of countries, after gaining independence, have failed economically and collapsed socially. They lacked one essential quality: self-discipline, either in their leaders, or more often both in their leaders and their people. It requires self-discipline to budget and live within your means, when you can just print more money.’
  • ‘When morale is down, people become apologetic and the place is in a shambles. Singapore will not be allowed to go thus. We will keep it trim, clean and green. Flowers will bloom and ferns will grow where there was dirt and tarmac. Other governments can give you fountains or stadiums or monuments. But they can’t give you the capacity to organize and discipline yourselves.’
  • ‘I have never understood why Western educationists are so much against corporal punishment. It did my fellow students and me no harm.’

On Himself and the Family

  • ‘I have been accused of many things in my life, but not even my worst enemy has ever accused me of being afraid of being afraid to speak my mind.’
  • ‘Rest on laurels? I wish I could do that. No, you rest when you’re dead.’
  • ‘And even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me in the grave and I feel that something is going wrong…I will get up!’
  • ‘The three and a half years of Japanese occupation were the most important of my life. They gave me vivid insights into the behaviour of human beings and human societies, their motivations and impulses. My appreciation of governments, my understanding of power as the vehicle for revolutionary change, would not have been gained without this experience.’
  • ‘I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.’
  • ‘I was never the 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?’

For Part 1, click here

lee kuan yew in his own words bw


One thought on “The Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew (Part 2)

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

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