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9 lessons from Lee Kuan Yew on transformational change

Angela Lecomber
March 24, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, died this week. He transformed an old colonial outpost to a country that has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, a thriving economic hub and an education system that is the envy of Asia.

Are there lessons in project management and transformational change that we can learn from him? Yes, and I experienced this firsthand. I was Lee Kuan Yew’s baby, in the sense that I was born in Singapore, and since 1965, when his policies were endorsed, I have felt every change.

I was in the first year of primary school at the time and my experience was markedly different to those children born in previous years. For example, whereas in the year before me the girls learnt French and embroidery, I was packed off in buses to learn technical drawing, woodwork and metalwork. I also had to learn economics as a compulsory subject. Without this early grounding, I would not have taken to structure, delivery and meticulous implementation of project management.

Here are the lessons in transformational change Lee Kuan Yew taught me. These can be applied to projects and programs today:

1. Clarity of vision

Lee communicated what was expected of us as Singaporeans: what would need to be achieved to convert a cholera- and flood-prone country in the 1960s to a modern city state.

2. People first

Lee focused on people. He knew that this was the only resource that Singapore had. Singapore was self-sufficient in nothing (it even imported its water from Malaya). So Lee focused on skills. He first undertook an extensive exercise to test and grade all students. There was an expectation that we were all to perform at our varying abilities. Failure was not in our thinking. It was about what we could do for the strategic objectives—the country.

3. Communicate a better future

The Singapore pledge was said each day in class and we sang the anthem in Malay which started with the words ‘Sama sama maju ka hadapan, pandai chari pelajaran’ (Let us all together unite and progress our country and apply ourselves to our learning).

4. Lead the change

Walk the talk; Lee led the change. His salary and that of his ministers was publicly available. They wore humble attire (simple short sleeve shirts, no suits) among many signs of solidarity with the people.

5. Courage in leadership

Lee was not afraid of making mistakes. He expected us to follow suit and make it work. He stepped out and we stepped up.

6. Clear accountability for projects and programs

Lee made sure that there were accountable heads at every tier of government and in each of their massive programs, such as the Housing Development Board program where a new apartment was built every 25 minutes in the 1970s.

7. Benefits were framed in terms of ‘the collective good’

Every program and project had clear benefits articulated. Everyone knew why they were doing what they did. For example, the ‘no chewing gum’ policy meant understanding that liberal attitudes did not work in a country with high density of population of 3,000 people per square kilometre. Personal liberty is subsumed by the collective good. We all accepted this and understood the WIFM ‘What is in it for me?’

8. Active risk management

Risks become issues if they are not managed. Lee focused on risks from the onset. It was public knowledge and it was actively tracked. How else would monumental projects such as the reclamation land project (some of the land on which top hotels now stand were on reclaimed land) and the Central Provident Fund (superannuation) project, which enabled every Singaporean to own a property and have a nest egg, have worked?

9. Lessons learnt

Lee was a stickler for this. If there was a mistake. It was not going to happen again. If it did, you lost your job! There were countless stories of this. This may appear somewhat harsh, but the principle of not re-inventing the wheel and improvements were embedded in all of us.

Indeed, the Singapore story is my story too. He was focused on the end game regardless of whether the players were men or women. He respected women’s contribution providing tax-free allowances for maids to assist with children and married a woman (Mrs Lee) who had higher marks than he had at Cambridge. His adage was, ‘If you cannot beat them, join them’. Without Lee Kuan Yew’s investment in education, people and women, we ‘Lee Kuan Yew babies’, would not be here today.

Singapore undertook a massive transformational change in one generation. This has marked each one of us under his leadership and is something we can learn when we embark on changes in our projects and programs to implement change in our organisations here in Australia.

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Angela Lecomber
Angela Lecomber, CPPD, is the principal of See Differently, a consultancy specialising in transformational change. She has almost two decades of project management experience in seven sectors and four countries, and has extensive experience in shaping capability through empowering, training and coaching project teams.
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