Emulating Lee Kuan Yew
IT is no longer news that Lee Kuan Yew, the innovative architect of modern Singapore, died on March 23 at age 91. During his 31 years as prime minister, he astounded global leaders by his problem-solving and forward-thinking ingenuities.
These ingenuities accelerated the transformation of a tiny third-world, multi-racial, vulnerable, and volatile city-state to an equitable first-world fortress of wealth and power.
Hence, he is seen as the élan-vital of the political history and economic miracle of modern Singapore. The occasion of his demise presents us another opportunity to reflect on the dynamics of prescient leadership.
When I heard about his death, the question that came to my mind unbidden was: When will Nigeria start raising leaders like him? The cogency of this question is underpinned by President Goodluck Jonathan’s candid assessment of Nigeria’s political leaders.
On December 9, 2013, a national newspaper reported that: “Goodluck Jonathan on Sunday said Nigerian politicians lacked the virtues of great men and that none could be compared to the late former South African President, Dr. Nelson Mandela.” If Nigerian politicians truly lack the virtues of Mandela, they also lack those of Lee.
Lee demonstrated that great leaders retain a style repertoire. As the need arises, they deftly switch from visionary style to coaching to affiliative, but almost always shun the autocratic mode.
I assume that if Nigeria’s ruling elite will emulate Lee and have doable succession plans, the benefits will be enormous. Political instability, project truncation resulting from change of regime, and economic woes stemming from the foibles of rookie leaders will significantly abate
Lee invented a pragmatic system of governance, void of pseudo-ideological frills, yet, artily integrated democracy with benevolent authoritarianism and the free market with state capitalism.
Lee is a model of the coaching leader. Knowing that success without successor is the flipside of failure, he effectively developed bright minds for leadership positions. In 1990, at the age of 66, he handed over power to his loyal friend, Goh Chok Tong.
Thereafter, he groomed his son Brigadier-General Lee Hsien Loong, for premiership. Lee Hsien Loong, the incumbent Prime Minister of Singapore is a glowing tribute to the efficacy of his father’s succession plan.
However, some critics have dubbed it dynastic politics and a negation of his merit-driven public service. I assume that if Nigeria’s ruling elite will emulate Lee and have doable succession plans, the benefits will be enormous.
Political instability, project truncation resulting from change of regime, and economic woes stemming from the foibles of rookie leaders will significantly abate.
Sadly, mentoring is not part of our political culture, because of the deep-rootedness of die-on-the-throne syndrome. Many politicians prefer to die in power than to empower budding leaders for excellence in public service.
Not many leaders in Nigeria are like Lee, a come-with-me leader, who transcended the trappings of hierarchy, authority, and prestige. In 1965, when Singapore was evicted from Malaysia, his strength of character and sagacity enabled him to provide meaning, guidance, direction, and purpose to a resource-deficit nation at the cusp of decline. His influence flowed from his vision-value harmony.
This is not a common attribute of Nigerian leaders. Their vision of a transformed Nigeria hardly inspires popular support, because it does not align with their manifestly skewed values, which makes them do-as-I-tell-you leaders, not come-with-me leaders. Lee once posited that: “A strong political leadership needs a neutral, efficient, honest civil service.”
Therefore, he made meritocracy the hallmark of Singapore’s public service; where there is ample room for competent and credible professionals to grow and no space for the unprincipled and intellectually lazy to excel.
Low salaries will draw in the hypocrites who sweet talk their way into power in the name of public service, but once in charge will show their true colour, and ruin the country
Think of what will happen in Nigeria, if what you know trumps who you know, if capacity ranks above connection. We will be at the vanguard of global development, not its backwaters.
We endanger the nation by not putting due accent on merit. Anywhere merit is not prioritised mediocrity flourishes at the expense of long-term development. To achieve systemic revamping of Nigeria, we should jettison quota system and promote meritocracy. To entrench efficiency and probity in the public service, public servants must be well paid.
Huge income disparity between public servants and their private sector counterparts incentivises corruption and half-hearted commitment to noble service. Lee says it best: “Low salaries will draw in the hypocrites who sweet talk their way into power in the name of public service, but once in charge will show their true colour, and ruin the country.”
Singapore’s remarkable success is a glowing tribute to the centrality of selfless leadership. Nigeria’s pursuit for shared prosperity will be dreamlike, if the predatory instincts of the ruling class are not tamed. Self-centredness makes leaders objects of odium, instead of stimulants of innovations and admirations.
We now associate leadership with the causes of hardship. This rather faulty association is partly correct, because some insensate leaders shaped our political history and are setting tomorrow’s tone.
It is easier for the blind to hit the bull’s eye than for a self-seeking leader to elevate people to higher spheres of meaning and wellbeing. Self-seekers are bad leaders.
As fatal parasites, they weaken the viability and stability of nations. Lastly, short-termism is a characteristic of leadership in Nigeria. Our leaders should endeavour to be like Lee, a long-term thinker. For example, in 1961, when Singapore needed to secure her water supply, she ratified a 100-year memorandum of understanding with Malaysia.
Giving the vulnerability of such reliance, she invested in self supply by developing reservoirs, desalination plants, and water reclamation facilities.
Lee teaches that good leadership solves present and anticipated future problem. He aptly summarised his life mission and leadership philosophy thus: “Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up.” @omozuwaspeaks (on Twitter).