[Viewpoint]We need a leader like Singapore’s Lee‘A swallow may be small, but it also has all five vital organs and the six viscera.”
This is a Chinese proverb frequently used by Singapore’s former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, to refute those who speak disparagingly about the success of Singapore, belittling its surprising achievements for a tiny city state.
In 1959, when Mr. Lee took power as the first prime minister of the autonomous government, the Republic of Singapore was in a precarious state, its viability as a nation in doubt. In a country with absolutely no natural resources, racial conflicts and ideological collisions drove Singapore to extreme confrontations and rampant sectarianism at that time.
There were constant riots, endless strikes and violence. Being geopolitically weak surrounded by big powers was a great burden. Under such difficult conditions, Mr. Lee accomplished the miracle of transforming Singapore from a poor country with a per-capita income of $400 to an advanced nation with a per capita income of $30,000 in just 30 years.
“I couldn’t afford to make the same mistake twice,” Mr. Lee recalled in his autobiography. The method he chose, therefore, was to learn from the mistakes of other countries. Early on, he realized that there were almost no problems Singapore confronted that had not been experienced and solved by other countries in the past. He emulated the experiences, big and small, and precedents of other countries as much as he could. “I liked to ride on the shoulders of other people ahead of us,” said former Prime Minister Lee. “I am greatly indebted to the great leaders of other countries who provided me with valuable lessons through their experiences.”
He now serves on the sidelines, holding the unique position of “Minister Mentor.” However, he still plays the role of thinking about the future of the country and drawing the big picture. The presentation last week of a vision for Singapore 10 to 20 years from now was part of the role he plays.
The blueprint for Singapore unfolded through a speech by Mr. Lee at a dinner celebrating the New Year was Singapore’s entry to the “upper half of the First World.” It is his diagnosis that although Singapore is an advanced country, it is still lingering in the lower half of the First World. Therefore, he aims to raise the country to the highest level of advanced nations within the next 20 years. It is an upgrade from business class to first class.
To achieve this, he plans to turn Singapore into an attractive country overflowing with around-the-clock economic and cultural energy, by creating the world’s best residential spaces comparable to London, Paris and New York, amid a tropical environment lush with greens and waterways. It is a strategy for attracting the world’s best human resources and investments, making them the driving force for Singapore’s continuous advancement.
I regret that we do not have a leader like Lee Kuan Yew. However, it is doubtful whether he would succeed if we imported him and put him in charge of national administration. What he shows us is a leadership of creation. He drew a picture on a blank sheet of paper as the founder of his country. However, what we need right now is a leadership of change and innovation. We must totally change the existing one and draw a new picture. Reform is even more difficult than revolution. It is not easy at all to appease the unhappiness of voters, reach a new consensus and put it into action.
Nevertheless, I am certainly envious of the political leadership of former Prime Minister Lee.
Transcending political factionalism, he appointed the most talented officials based on the standards of ability and integrity. He took hold of the bureaucracy through these people and transformed them into a first class group with the highest competitiveness. Through a transparent process of decision making and policy implementation, he blocked any possibility of irregularity and corruption, and he never backtracked once a rule was made. Korean leaders were different from Mr. Lee in this regard. They made a fuss with slogans of government reform, but failed in breaking the strong wall of officialdom where bureaucrats indulged in their vested interests. The commotion created by parachute appointments of officials, which is underway in the manner of year-end sales ahead of the expiration of the presidential term, is a manifestation of this.
We are sandwiched between the advanced and the developing countries right now. We could end up repeating our shameful history of subjugation if we happen to select another failed leader. It is the duty of all of us to find a competent leader with vision and political direction.
*The writer is an editorial writer and travelling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok