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Lee Kuan Yew: The Transcendent CEO

(Featured Image © The Russian Government / government.ru)

Leader. Visionary. Mentor. Common adjectives to describe the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, founding father of Singapore and arguably the most famous Singaporean son of all time. But Chief Executive Officer? Probably not the first thing that comes to mind.

But such a title may not be as farfetched as you think. Wait, what?

In fact, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was not just your typical CEO but arguably the greatest one of modern times. Breaking down the complexities of business into its purest forms, the job of a CEO is essentially to ensure the survivability of a company during his or her tenure. This can be achieved either via profitability (profit) or impact (non-profit). Mr Lee had set up Singapore like a business, developed the appropriate processes and steered the nation to become an internationally recognized brand name. After all, it takes certain business acumen and savvy to turn an economic liability into a profit centre.

To commemorate his 1st year anniversary since his passing, here are 5 business strategies adopted by Mr Lee illustrating why he is indeed, the transcendent CEO

1. Human Resource

Mr Lee recognised early on that human capital would form the backbone and become the sole product for competitive advantage on our tiny island bereft of natural resources and spared no effort to promote the appropriate programs to ensure Singaporeans would all be adequately equipped to take on future challenges.


Launched on the 7th of September 1979, the Speak Mandarin Campaign was the brainchild of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and it was woven into our education system. The results speak for itself, with literacy rates at 97% and Singaporean companies quickly making a name for themselves in markets around the world, like Hyflux and Sembcorp to name just two out of many. U.S and China are the world’s largest markets today, and majority of Singaporeans have a distinct language advantage when dealing with these two behemoths.


In the pursuit of progress, welfare of the nation’s most important asset was not ignored. The Housing Development Board (HDB) made affordable, high-quality homes to the masses.  Coupled with an efficient public health care system, ranked 6th in the world by the World Health Organisation (W.H.O), almost every Singaporean’s most financially encumbering needs are addressed. As the saying goes, “Happy Employees Make Happy Customers”

Compensation & Benefits

Meritocracy is a word bandied around by Singaporeans in equal parts praise and condemnation depending who you ask. Its roots are no different from the compensation structure of any organization, everyone receives equal opportunities at the start (i.e. in primary school) and those who capitalize on the opportunity to perform are promoted and rewarded accordingly. Mr Lee believed there is no ‘free lunch’ in this world, and everyone has to do their part to create opportunities for themselves.

2. Merger and Acquisition

Building an effective workforce would be meaningless without giving them the necessary tools and assets to ply their trade. Without natural resources, accessibility became key to position Singapore as an international hub. In 1975, Mr Lee fielded a controversial plan to construct an airhub in Changi amidst strong criticism and opposition. The new project would cost $1.5b to build while writing off an existing $800m investment in Paya Lebar airport. He foresaw that the existing airports in Paya Lebar, Kallang and Seletar would eventually become insufficient and further development would limit urban expansion in land scarce Singapore. Today, Singapore Changi Airport continues to grow, with terminal operations globally and a network logistics services. It has, in 2016, been recognised for the 4th year running as the best passenger airport in the world.

3. Marketing

With a solid product coupled with easy access means, the next step is maintaining the product’s competitive advantage to price it at a premium. The power of marketing cannot be understated, and no other retail brand encapsulates this concept like Apple Inc, a company that sells pencils for USD$99 (S$148.00) with a straight face. The consumer isn’t merely buying a product, but an entire lifestyle.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew took it a gigantic step further.

Ask any foreigner what words are associated with Singapore and the term “Clean” is likely to come up. “Garden City”, the moniker for which Singapore is known was part of a project envisioned by Mr. Lee in 1967. This front runner to the modern day green revolution, was initiated to clean up the thriving, bustling city and turn it into a liveable city. Keeping abreast with this objective, the abjectly filthy Singapore River, a long suffering testament to the entrepot city’s progress was cleaned up in 1977 under his instructions. The second phase in the long term master plan was Mr. Lee’s Marina Barrage, and Gardens by the Bay as an extension of this idea. Yes, the modern attractions we see today were thought up by him over 3 decades ago!

Singapore has been labelled the most expensive city in the world for foreigners, yet we also have the distinction of being ranked 3rd best financial hub globally. Selling $148.00 pencils suddenly doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore. Oh, we’re also concurrently ranked 49th in the world in environmental friendliness.

4. Culture & Best Practices

Another word that frequently pops up to describe Singapore is “Safe”. Safe to walk the streets alone at night, safe to be seen without fear of discrimination, safe to consume food and drink anywhere, safe to fall sick without worrying over medical access, safe that your money will not suddenly vanish from the bank.

Things were very different during Singapore’s early days. The Konfrontasi threat loomed constantly when terrorist agents sought to undermine the security of the island state, coupled with ideological threats from behind the Iron Curtain. Older folk will recall, or even have participated in the racial riots and inter-dialect altercations. Mr Lee took the bold step to enforce racial and religious harmony as a core social tenet into the mind-set of Singaporeans. To quell the perceived threat of communism, he pushed ahead with controversial plans to cull the ideological spread. This can be likened to an organization pushing ahead in a brand new direction by making sweeping changes. Some may welcome it, others may loathe it; but time will eventually tell whether it was a correct decision or not.

The results speak for themselves. Singapore today has one of the lowest crime rates in the world comprising of a fusion of different races and cultures living harmoniously, her GDP per capita is ranked among the top 5 in the world, and is one of the most attractive country for foreign direct investment. Singapore tops global education ranking, and is one of the top tourist destinations in the world. Good CEOs build up and run their empires effectively, Mr Lee Kuan Yew literally brought an entire nation from third world to first while putting Singapore on the global map.

5. Effective Management

Mr Lee was a polarizing figure. So was Steve Jobs, Donald Trump and Warren Buffett. Ruthless, controversial, authoritarian, calculative. But like them or not, each of these men had tremendous foresight and achieved incredible feats within their careers, and their success will only be replicated by a very select few in every generation.

A true leader is measured by the ability to guide the organisation through adversity. It takes tenacity to stay the course and make difficult, unpopular decisions for the greater good. For Mr Lee, the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) consolidation of power in the 60s and 70s with piecemeal political opposition has long been a contentious point. Seen as a weakness in our political system by some, a strong governmental mandate has instead been a source of strength. As a nation, we become more results orientated and efficient in our actions. Rival political parties stonewall important decisions and lengthen the time needed to decide on critical matters, or worse; reach a stalemate and halt all progress on a problem. Could things be better? Sure it could. Could things have possibly been worse though? Definitely. That said, would any individual want to take that risk to find out? Not only did Mr Lee take that plunge in 1965, he fronted it personally.

He also adopted the colour white to symbolise its zero tolerance attitude for anything less than impeccably morally upright behaviour amongst its ranks. Another facet of its stance on dependability, is a long term approach to policies and an unwavering commitment to seeing plans through despite resistance from the ground. This mantra has served the country well, propelling it to becoming one of the least corrupt countries globally. The build-up to GE2015 and the final results are a testament to the citizens’ faith in the ruling party.

Governing a nation is not much different from running an organization. A good CEO must have the foresight to steer the company in the right direction, the tenacity to identify opportunities, the guts to make tough decisions and the stomach to go against the grain. For all the good and bad, Singapore today is objectively prosperous, secure, respected and an internationally recognized brand. It is for these reasons that Mr Lee Kuan Yew was peerless in his field, and deserving of the title ‘The Transcendent CEO’.

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