5 Life Lessons From Lee Kuan Yew

5 Life Lessons From Lee Kuan Yew

Flag at half-mast at the Parliament House during national mourning week for Lee Kuan Yew

Last week, we mourned the loss of our first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Despite the very long hours under the sun, we waited in line just so we could have a few seconds in the Parliament House to pay him our last respects. Since his passing on 23 March 2015, words of sympathy, gratitude and respect had flooded local news and social media.

But Singapore is not alone in this time of grief. Many across the globe, from world leaders to celebrities and even those who have stayed in Singapore previously for a short period took to social media to express their condolences and share our grief. This certainly speaks volumes of Mr Lee’s legacy, recognising his undeniable contributions that had helped rapidly shape modern Singapore from a third-world slum to a proud first-world metropolis.

With so many stories in tribute to his life and hard work circulating the internet recently, we’re sure you have seen this touching quote too: 50 years ago, you cried for Singapore, and 50 years later, we cry for you!

So what about for the next 50 years? How can we, as one nation, ensure that we continue building our Singapore the right way?

As Mr Lee wrote in his book, The Wit & Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew, “We are the resource-poorest country in the region, and therefore we cannot afford to be other than honest, efficient and capable if we are to stay out of trouble.”

While we may not have our own natural resources, people are the nation’s most valuable resource. If everyone strives to be the best that we can be, there would be no doubts in the future of our home. Moving forward, we need not replicate exactly what Mr Lee had done for Singapore but rather, understand and build upon the values of his actions for a better tomorrow.

Here are 5 important lessons from the inspirational life of our founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.


A memorable quote by the late Mr Lee on life well spent
Photo sourced from themotivationmentalist.wordpress.com

1. Be a visionary, not a dreamer

Mr Lee had always kept Singaporeans and the nation on his mind, even long after he had stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990. He continued to act as an adviser to his successors and kept a vigilant eye on our country’s progress over the years. What he had was unwavering dedication and passion in his commitment to keep the Singapore flag raised high along with other great nations in the world. He didn’t just believe in a better Singapore for tomorrow; he strove for a better Singapore.

Another example of his tenacity was when he fell seriously ill and against his doctors’ advice, attended Parliament for his 90th birthday celebrations instead of going straight to the hospital. As told by Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen’s Facebook post, “His doctors advised him not to attend Parliament. We were informed and called off our plans. But just before Parliament adjourned, we were surprised when Mr Lee entered this Chamber. I found out later that he over-ruled his doctors, saying that he must attend Parliament because he had given his commitment.”


Mr Lee doing one of his regular workouts
Photo sourced from straitstimes.com

2. Maintaining a good exercise regime as a habit for overall health

When Mr Lee had reached his 70s, he continued to keep exercise in his daily routine. He would use the treadmill, go swimming and row as part of his fitness regime. He believed that without staying active, he would not be as fit or even able to sit up at the age of 89.

But that didn’t mean he always worked nonstop either. Back in 1965, at Tanjong Katong School during the Mountbatten Constituency tour, he spoke about the importance of having enough sleep.

“Today, I was a bit late because I took some time in getting up; slept late last night; some work to be done; two functions in the evening. But that is important. I like to tell you this because I think this is what we all must do: ‘sleep well of nights’. You know Shakespeare, ‘Give me men that sleep well of nights’. 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!”

Don’t neglect your need for rest. Recovery is just as important, so before you start screaming inside, don’t power through a busy day without taking necessary breaks in between!


Mr Lee at the Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979
Photo sourced from straitstimes.com

3. Be bilingual & know your roots

“Our economy will not flourish because in the rest of the world, either the first and second language is English,” he once said at a dialogue, arguing for the merits of having English as the nation’s first language.

While he had recognised the importance of the English language, he did not take the people’s cultural language lightly. Since 1966, every student in Singapore is taught two languages – English and Mother Tongue (Mandarin, Malay or Tamil). This is part of Singapore’s bilingualism policy to preserve our Asian cultural identities and values against Western influence. With this education system in place, it’s no wonder why we remain a harmonious multiracial society today.

“If we were monolingual in our mother tongues, we would not make a living. Becoming monolingual in English would have been a setback. We would have lost our cultural identity, that quiet confidence about ourselves and our place in the world,” he said in his memoirs.

In other words, learn English but don’t forget your roots, whether you’re Chinese, Malay, Indian or other!


The "red box" was Mr Lee's way of working to build a better Singapore
Photo sourced from channelnewsasia.com

4. Have an efficient daily working system and stick to it

Just like the rest of us, Mr Lee worked hard at his job every day, if not harder. According to a heartwarming anecdote written by his former Principal Private Secretary Heng Swee Keat in a Facebook post, Mr Lee had a daily routine revolving around ‘the red box’. Described as a “large, boxy briefcase”, the red box was Mr Lee’s trusty ol’ carrier that contained various documents like his speech drafts, letters, observations and even a list of questions.

“Before he went to bed, Mr Lee would put everything he had completed back in the red box, with clear pointers on what he wished for us to do in the office. The last thing he did each day was to place the red box outside his study room. The next morning, the duty security team picked up the red box, brought it to us waiting in the office, and a new day would begin,” Heng wrote.

This must have kept things well organised, maximising flow of efficiency.


Mr Lee and wife Madam Kwa Geok Choo during their younger days
Photo sourced from channelnewsasia.com

5. Love unconditionally

Love is a wonderful thing but that doesn’t mean it would always be easy. Yet it makes life all the more worth living. By now, Singaporeans are no stranger to the touching love story of Mr Lee and loving wife Madam Kwa Geok Choo. They met when they were teenagers and later fell in love during the Second World War. When Mr Lee left to study law at the University of Cambridge in the UK, she joined him a year after. Soon, they got married there before returning home to Singapore in 1950 where they lived a blissful marital life together, even when she fell ill and was bedridden.

“We’d have dinner together. At 10 o’clock he’d look at his watch and say, ‘Sorry, I have to leave you all now. I am going to read to Choo.’ That was very touching. It happened many times,” his brother Dr Lee Suan Yew recalled.

Being the devoted husband that he was, Mr Lee read her favourite poems and books by her bedside every night till her death in 2010. Life moved on and he continued to be the strict and resilient man that he was. His health begun to deteriorate after her passing, after all, she had been his intellectual equal and soulmate.

If it weren’t for his only daughter, Dr Lee Wei Ling’s essays for The Sunday Times, we wouldn’t know of the sentimental, softer side of him.

“For reasons of sentiment, I would like part of my ashes to be mixed up with Mama’s, and both her ashes and mine put side by side in the columbarium. We were joined in life and I would like our ashes to be joined after this life,” he had written on a note addressed to his 3 children.


Remembering Lee Kuan Yew – SAFRA’s tribute to Mr Lee Kuan Yew

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