What I Learned from Lee Kwan Yew

By Shlomo  Maital   

  Lee Kwan Yew

Singapore’s legendary founding leader, Lee Kwan Yew, has passed away; he was 91. 

 I personally learned a great many  things from this wise and courageous man, who led Singapore to independence in 1965 and like the founding leader of my country, David Ben Gurion, knew the odds were strongly against survival.    He shaped a prosperous country with per capita GDP of over $60,000, double that of my country Israel. 

   I recall two things vividly.  First, in the early days of Singapore, he appealed to the mothers of Singapore, to “urge your children to study math”. Why? So they could study engineering in college. Why? So Singapore could build its wealth on knowledge, having no resources or land.  And it worked. They did, they did, and it did. 

  Second – he explained why America leads the world.  China has 1.4 billion people.  Among them are geniuses.  America has only some 340 million.  But America is a magnet. It attracts talent from the whole world – its talent pool is 7 billion, not 340 million.  That is a huge advantage.  My own parents migrated to Canada as immigrants from Bessarabia, now Moldova, worked hard, and passed their aspirations on to me.  Canada, I think, benefited.  

    Recently, Harvard Professor Joseph Nye wrote a book, with the title asking a question, is the American excellence and domination over?   His answer was, no.  But I’m not sure. Because many Americans (especially the Republican party) are anti-immigrant,  and I personally have waited hours and hours and hours to have my visa approved (in Toronto), just so I could go to Boston to teach a course FOR FREE. (Babson insisted I enter on a visa, rather than as a Canadian visitor).  Amusingly, I had to show my Princeton diploma to the immigration official; it was in Latin!  That took another few hours. 

     I know Singapore well, having taught there.  I got to know a very senior civil servant, a man of enormous wisdom.  I often wished my own country could have civil servants of such quality – and leadership like Lee Kwan Yew.  Very few countries do.  He will be missed.