Three lessons from Lee Kuan Yew, the ultimate patriarch

Lee Kuan Yew. Photo from
Lee Kuan Yew. Photo from

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore who died recently at the age of 91, ran a country – or, to be precise, a city state – but his career has plenty of lessons for family firms. Not least for patriarchs.

As everyone knows, Singapore enjoyed phenomenal growth between 1959 when Lee took power. That year its GDP per capital was $476. In 2014 it was $58,000. You couldn’t ask for a more concise summary of his leadership of Singapore than the title of his memoir From the Third World to the First.

Lee Kuan Yew was far from being a dictator, but he had an aura of power  more fitting to a business founder than a mere politician – he was perhaps the ultimate patriarch. Here are three tips from his career.

1. Be autocratic.

Democracy is all very well, but when you really want to things done quickly then Lee’s career suggests other methods are best. “I learned how to govern, how you dominate the people, as the British did, and how the Japanese used their power,” he once wrote.  

Lee was not afraid to use an old law from colonial times to jail – without trial – communists, trade unionists or opposition politicians who threatened to thwart his plans. His supporters call it pragmatism, others authoritarianism. Notoriously, he wasn’t afraid of suing opponents who criticised him in the press (which wasn’t exactly free to start with).

Lee wasn’t afraid to ban things either, including spitting, littering, graffiti and jaywalking. In Singapore you can be fined for urinating anywhere except a toilet – and for failing to flush it afterwards. Complaints were ignored. Speaking about the famous chewing gum ban, Lee said: “If you can’t think because you can’t chew, try a banana”.

And yet Lee was loved by many – when he died thousands queued for hours to see his red ministerial box at the national museum. 

The lesson: As long as people are getting richer, they won’t grumble too much about anything else. 

2. Be clear about your successor

And make sure it is your son. When Lee stood down as prime minister in 1990 after 31 years, he was replaced by Goh Chok Tong. Goh held the post until 2004 when Lee Hsien Loong – Lee’s son – took over the post. Goh looks very much like a non-family CEO in a family business brought in to steer the business until the successor is ready to take on the job.

Some saw this as nepotism. Lee disagreed, saying: “I am not that bereft of satisfaction with my life that I need to live vicariously through him. In fact, if he doesn’t measure up, it is better that he does not show up, because he’ll just besmirch the family reputation.” From which it follows that the best man for the job just happened to be his boy. 

The lesson: do whatever it takes to install your chosen successor, but flatly deny nepotism is involved. 

3. Leave the stage, but hover in the wings

Lee might have been president for 31 years, but he didn’t exactly retire from government in 1990. On stepping down he became “Senior Minister” and when his son got the top job took on wonderful-sounding post of “Minister Mentor” until he left the cabinet in 2011. He was still a member of parliament when he died.

It is no secret that Lee was never to far from power, just like many founding fathers. He once said: “Even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is wrong, I will get up.” 

Now he is beyond interfering, can Singapore’s stability continue? The temptation is to say yes, but don’t underestimate the cult of Lee. As The Economist wrote, “in Asian countries “political power and influence often accrue to individuals rather than their office”. 

The same is often true of family business patriarchs. And as with family firms the question now is, exactly how important was the father figure? We will soon find out. 

The lesson: hang around if you want, but be aware that you leave a vacuum when you go.