The wisdom of LKY. ‘Not even my worst enemy has ever accused me of being afraid to speak my mind.’

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The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) has a strong opinion of many things. He once said, “I have been accused of many things in my life, but not even my worst enemy has ever accused me of being afraid to speak my mind.”

Nobody owes us a living 

I say to the world: nobody owes me a living; nobody owes my countrymen a living. But we intend to bail ourselves out. We are not looking for anybody to bail us out. (1965)

More like a durian

Some people think that just because we are a small place, they can put the screws on us. It is not so easy. 

If they could have just squeezed  us like an orange and squeezed the juice out, I think the juice would have been squeezed out of us, and all the goodness would have been sucked away. But it was a bit harder, wasn’t it? It was more like the durian. (1965)

‘One person, one vote’ and democracy

One person, one vote is a most difficult form of government. From time to time, the results can be erratic. People are sometimes fickle. They get bored with stable, steady improvements in life, and in a reckless moment, they vote for a change for change’s sake. (1984)

In new countries, democracy has worked and produced results only when there is an honest and effective government, which means a people smart enough to elect such a government. Elected governments are only as good as the people who choose them.

Contrary to what American political commentators say, I do not believe that democracy necessarily leads to development. I believe that what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy. The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development. The ultimate test of the value of a political system is whether it helps that society to establish conditions which improve the standard of living for the majority of its people, plus enabling the maximum of personal freedoms compatible with the freedoms of others in society.

Priorities and democracy

If we had got our priorities wrong, if we had placed emphasis on democratic forms instead of economic substance, we would never have reached this present stage of our development. 

Because we had our priorities right, we now have a fair measures of both democratic forms and economic substance. (1984)


If there is no integrity, everything is a hambug.

If it is self-interest, then it will go down in corruption, decadence and disarray. 

When they tried to bribe him

The Americans should know the character of the men they are dealing with in Singapore and not get themselves further dragged into calumny. They are not dealing with Ngo Dinh Diem or Syngman Rhee. You do not buy and sell this Government. (1965)


Incorruption and  high standards

The moment key leaders are less than incorruptible, less than stern in demanding high standards, from that moment the structure of the administrative integrity will weaken, and eventually crumble. (1979)

Keep your hands clean

We never gave hostages to fortune. Keep your hands clean, gentlemen. If we allow you to put your hand in anybody’s till, then we are all dead politically. This is the first lesson. (1977)

Extraordinary performance

When you’re Singapore’s leader and your existence depends on performance – extraordinary performance, better than your competitors – when that performance disappears because the system on which it’s been based  becomes eroded, then you’ve lost everything. 

I try to tell the younger generation that and they say the old man is playing the same record, we’ve heard it all before. 

I happen to know how we got here and I know how we can unscramble it.  

Good government

If you want good government, you need good leaders. You don’t get good government by just a system of good government. That is a fallacy. Even in the best of systems, if the leaders in charge are bad, the government will be bad. When the best has not gone into politics, the system has always worked poorly. (1994)

If you leave it to others less honest or able or sincere, you will get frustrated watching them make a mess of Singapore and your future. (1974)

Memories are short

Memories are short. People rarely compare what they have with what they had. They compare what they have with what they think they should have. (1971)

What popular government means

Popular government does not mean you do popular things all the time. We do not want to be unpopular or to do unpopular things. But when they are necessary, they will be done. 

Popular representative government means that within each five-year period, your policies have demonstrably worked and won popular support. This is what it means. And if we flinch from the unpopular, we are in deep trouble. (1977)

No double standards

You cannot have double standards. If you expect good government, efficient government, honest government, and you expect that of the PAP MPs, you must put the same yardstick against the opposition, or you are inviting trouble, or you are putting it on the PAP to keep on exposing and debunking. (1988)

Character and leadership

It is this unmeasurable quality called ‘character’ which, plus your mental capacity or knowledge or discipline, makes for leadership

Popularity polls

I have never been over concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader. 

On knowledge of history

If you do not know history, you think short term. If you know history, you think medium and long term. 

On banning chewing gum

If you can’t think because you can’t chew, try a banana. 

On fashion

I’m not interested in changing either my suit or my car or whatever with every change in fashion. That’s irrelevant. I don’t judge myself or my friends by their fashions. Of course I don’t approve of people who are sloppy or unnecessarily shabby or dishevelled …. But I’m not impressed by a $5000 or $10,000 Armani suit. 

On the need to protect the reserves

The danger is that there is nothing to prevent a future government from running through these reserves. If there is a freak election and a coalition forms the government, all the reserves are available, the larder is wide open, you can raid it. Twenty-five years of work, savings, you can go on a spending spree for five years and then we are another broken-back country.

Therefore we are working out a blocking mechanism, whereby the president can block the spending of any reserves which the government in office has not itself accumulated.

I must admit that the protection is not fool proof. A silver-tongued leader can persuade the people to part with their hard-earned savings. For, he can persuade people to vote to cancel the blocking mechanism in the amended constitution. Then we shall all be broke. Nevertheless, people would have been warned of what is to happen. And they can check the raiding of reserves by voting not to change the blocking mechanism in the constitution. (1984)

Receiving the Freedom of the City of London award

I feel like a conductor at a concert bowing to applause, but unable to turn around and invite the accomplished musicians in his orchestra to rise and receive the ovation for the music they have played.

For running a government is not unlike running an orchestra, and no Prime Minister ever achieves much without an able team of players. (1982)

On Dr Lee Siew Choh, leader of Barisan Socialis

For my last official visit to China in 1990, I invited him to accompany me. He and his wife were part of my party for the two-week visit. There was no personal animosity between us. 

On conservation and heritage

We made our share of mistakes in Singapore. For example, in our rush to rebuild Singapore, we knocked down many old and quaint Singapore buildings. Then we realised we were destroying a valuable part of our cultural heritage. 

We halted the demolition. Instead, we undertook extensive conservation and restoration. The value of these areas in architectural, cultural and tourism terms cannot be quantified only in dollars and cents. 

Strongest deterrent against corruption

The strongest deterrent is in a public opinion which censures and condemns corrupt persons, in other words, in attitudes which make corruption so unacceptable that the stigma of corruption cannot be washed away by serving a prison sentence. (1987)

Laws against corruption

The laws against corruption should be tightened to shift the onus of proof onto the person who possesses more assets than his income warrants. Two or three big fish brought to justice successfully will have a salutory effect on everyone. (1992)


Foreign Policy

Independence was thrust upon Singapore. The fundamentals of our foreign policy were forged during those vulnerable early years. They remain relevant because small countries have little power to alter the region, let alone the world

A small country must seek the maximum number of friends while maintaining the freedom to be itself as a sovereign and independent nation. Both parts of the equation – a maximum number of friends and freedom to be ourselves – are equally important and interrelated. 

government, people, country, Singapore, leads, work, change, corruption, democracy, know, block, build, freedom, popular, reserves, society, standard, system

Singapore’s survival

Singaporeans must be made aware of the dangers lurking ahead in an age of great changes and  uncertainties. We take the future for granted only at our own peril. We had survived because we are a realistic and practical people


We cannot measure our happiness just by our GDP growth. It is how our family and friends care for each other, how we look after our old and nurture our young. They are what make for a closely knit society, one we can be proud to belong to. (1997)

The Champion Grumbler

You know the Singaporean. He is a hardworking, industrious, rugged individual. Or we would not have made the grade. 

But let us also recognise that he is a champion grumbler. 

On free things and lunacy

You just read the utter, lunatic things the Opposition candidates say. If ever these people came into power, even God cannot save you from disaster. They are going to give you flats for free, medicines for free, everything you can ask or think of.. There is no need to pay. In fact there is no need to work. We can all go home and sit under the banana tree. (1972)

Home ownership

My primary occupation was to give every citizen a stake in the country and its future. I wanted a home-owning society

I have seen the contrast between the blocks of low-cost rental flats, badly misused and poorly maintained, and those of house-proud owners and was convinced that if every owned its home, the country would be more stable. 

A full country in a confined space

Hong Kong has crowded, tall buildings, you seldom get sunshine in the streets, no greenery..

Singapore must retain the sense of space. We’re going to build taller buildings but we can’t build them closely together. There must be a sense of playing fields, recreational areas for children and old people – a sense that this is a full country with all the facilities that you would expect of a large country but in a confined space.

Greenery of nature

I have always believed that a blighted urban landscape, a concrete jungle destroys the human spirit. We need the greenery of nature to lift our spirits. (1995)


What is fear is complacency. When things always become better, people tend to want more for less work. (1970)

Lee KY

Responsibility of Singaporeans

It is the business of your generation, and the generation that succeeds you to understand the vulnerability, the fragility of our society and keep it in cohesion, keep it united and keep it as it is today, tolerant of each other, accommodating each other. 

lee kuan yew
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