Tiny nation, wise and able leader | Inquirer Opinion

Tiny nation, wise and able leader

/ 04:07 AM March 23, 2020

Five years ago today, Singapore lost its Founding Father, Lee Kuan Yew. If you had the good fortune of watching Channel News Asia on your TV sets in those days, you would have seen how close to half-a-million Singaporeans paid their last respects by lining up, at times from eight to 10 hours, just for a glimpse of their beloved leader lying in state at Parliament House. Tributes poured in from all over the world. But none was more touching than the one from a young boy, perhaps of grade school age, who laid his card in front of Lee’s picture at one of the community centers of the city state. The card read: “Dear Mr. Lee, I am proud to be Singaporean. Thank you for everything.”

—————From 1973 to 1976, the years following the declaration of martial law, the Philippines was visited by a number of high-ranking dignitaries from the region. To name a few, we had Gough Whitlam of Australia, Michael Somare from Papua New Guinea, and Kukrit Pramoj of Thailand. We also had a few from more distant lands like Madame Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, and Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania. Perhaps, it was a well-orchestrated PR offensive designed to show the world how martial law was being carried out and implemented in the Philippines.


On those occasions, I was pulled out from my regular military duties and assigned as aide-de-camp to the visiting heads of government. This provided me with a ringside seat at most of the official functions that were organized for them. The assignment allowed me a close and unparalleled view on how some leaders conducted themselves, especially in their private moments away from the prying eyes of media.

In January 1974, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore made his first official visit to the Philippines. His Singapore Airlines flight was met by four PAF fighter jets as it entered Philippine airspace. There were no serious problems with Singapore, and the visit was more of the “getting to know you” variety. Perhaps, it was an opportunity to test the golfing skills of the two leaders who were both keen golfers. At the Mansion House in Baguio City, the prime minister was a bit early for the scheduled golf meet, and so we took a short walk around. I noticed his keen interest in the flowers and plants that made the surroundings explode in lovely colors and greenery. He asked if I had finished at the military academy nearby and if I had been to Singapore. I sensed that his main concern was the presence of threatening clouds hovering close by. I assured him that January was the best golfing month in Baguio. There was no doubt that you were in the presence of a leader. His steely eyes were focused on you as he spoke with clarity and a sense of authority. Among the leaders I have had the opportunity to meet, Lee Kuan Yew was the most impressive.


Tiny nation, wise and able leader. In 1994, an American teenager Michael Fay, was sentenced by a Singaporean court to six strokes of the cane for vandalism, spray-painting more than 20 cars one evening. In spite of pressure from US President Bill Clinton not to cane the boy, Singapore stood firm and proceeded with the caning although reducing the sentence from six strokes to four. It marked a low point in bilateral relations between the two countries. But Singapore’s courageous stand gained for the small city state enormous respect and admiration from the international community.

As we mark another milestone in the passing of one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, let us dwell on some of his thoughts and ideas, and hopefully benefit from them.

On the role of a leader. “It is the duty of leaders to instill confidence in the people so that they will stand up to be counted… Your job as a leader is to inspire and to galvanize, not to share your distraught thoughts. We cannot afford to passively let things drift. We have to take the lead in public thinking.

“A nation is great not by its size alone. It is the will, the cohesion, the stamina, the discipline of its people, and the quality of their leaders which ensures it an honorable place in history.”

On opinion 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. If you are concerned whether your rating will go up or down, then you are not a leader… Between being loved and feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I am meaningless. When I say something, I have to be taken very seriously.”

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