HR professionals: Learn from Lee Kuan Yew and surround yourself with intellectuals

Who do you surround yourself with? Lee Kuan Yew was a successful leader in part because his circle was full of intellectuals not supporters, Malaysia’s former deputy finance minister says.

HR professionals: Learn from Lee Kuan Yew and surround yourself with intellectuals
Part of Singapore’s success compared to Malaysia can be attributed to Lee Kuan Yew’s circle of intellectuals over Malaysia leaders’ circles of supporters, according to Malaysia’s former deputy finance minister Affifudin Omar.

Speaking at a forum on new Malaysian leaders, Affifudin said comparing the two countries was like comparing apples and oranges.

“Political, cultural and economic backgrounds are different. But since we are talking about leadership, when Singapore left Malaysia under Lee Kuan Yew’s PAP, he held on to Confucius’ principle of valuing knowledge. He surrounded himself with intellectuals, whereas Malaysian leaders surrounded themselves with people who supported them 120%.”

The only Malaysian leader on the same playing field as Lee was Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, who was the Prime Minister from 1970 to 1976, Affifudin said.

Affifudin said Dr Mahathir Mohamad – who was Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003 - did not surround himself with intellectuals, unlike Tun Abdul Razak, and the downward trend had continued since.

“Lee Kuan Yew and Tun Abdul Razak were the same in that they surrounded themselves with the smartest and the brightest.”

While Affifudin felt Lee “exploited the democratic process in ensuring a majority in parliament”, he said Lee was honest in what he was doing [as a leader].

“He was a straight talker regarding the development of Singapore. That’s the leadership difference.”

CEO and C-Suite Master Executive Coach of Centre for Executive Education, Professor Sattar Bawany, agrees surrounding yourself with the right people is one of the leadership lessons professionals can take from Lee’s tenure.

“While credit must be given to Lee for the unprecedented social and economic progress that Singapore made during that period, the same credit should also be shared by the old guard and his outstanding team of co-leaders, including luminaries like E.W. Barker, Hon Sui Sen, S. Rajaratnam, Toh Chin Chye and Goh Keng Swee, to name but a few.

“He selected intellectual equals as well as people with special expertise, whom he could tap on.”
These leaders were not lackeys, Professor Bawany said.

“Unlike the public perception of him, many of his closest colleagues have testified that Lee knew the value of diverse views within his cabinet. He expected robust exchanges. He debated with them rigorously over policies and ideas.”

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