Remembering Mr. Lee Kuan Yew

flag at half mast

Our nation grieves. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, founding father of Singapore, has passed on.

Amid the deep sadness, I also fondly recall the work I did as a young civil servant. Even though I never met Mr. Lee in person or reported to him directly, I feel privileged to have played tiny parts towards building the Singapore he envisioned.

My first job was in MND, where I spent some time working on greenery policies such as streetscape greenery and sky-rise greenery. Word has it that those policies were part of the vision that Mr. Lee had laid out back in the ‘70s. That we were still implementing pieces of his vision more than 30 years on is not a reflection of slow implementation but of his far-sighted vision.

Mr. Lee took Singapore on the green path long before sustainability became important. Based on the conventional wisdom then, the cost-benefit analysis would not have made sense. Perhaps that’s why few cities pursued it seriously. Furthermore, we were a young nation then and there were many other pressing issues to invest our few resources on. But Mr. Lee had the foresight and courage to go against the conventional wisdom, and in doing so, create a new wisdom. It says a lot about his brand of leadership that was ready to make bold decisions when very little was clear or obvious.

My second job was in MEWR, where I worked on water issues. A key project at the time was the construction of the barrage and Marina Reservoir. The work was tough and we were kept very busy. But the reality was that much of the work had been done decades earlier. The barrage and reservoir would not have been possible if not for earlier efforts such as the cleaning of the Singapore River in the 70’s, and the harnessing of membrane technology for NEWater in the 80’s and 90’s – all of which were pieces of Mr. Lee’s vision.

Singapore’s achievements in water sufficiency and greenery highlight the power when a clear vision is sustained over time. Just like money that compounds at a steady interest over many years. Today, we seem to favor more frequent changes. We justify it by claiming to live in a highly complex and uncertain world. Was the world less complex and uncertain during Mr. Lee’s time? I don’t think so. Perhaps it takes a certain talent to be able to find the constancy in uncertainty, and to see order in chaos. It’s a rare talent, and we are blessed to have a leader in Mr. Lee who possessed so much of it.

As I reflect on Mr. Lee’s legacy, two sayings related to my (past) work in water and greenery strike me.

One is the Chinese saying, 饮水思源, which translates to, “when you drink water, think about where it comes from”. We owe many thanks to the pioneer generation and to visionary leaders like Mr. Lee. It is a gratitude we can never hope to repay, but can only hope to pay forward.

The other is a Greek proverb, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in”. Even when old age and illness took its toll on Mr. Lee’s health, he continued to plant more trees for future generations. It is such selfless contribution to the larger good that makes our world a better place.

Thank you Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. We will always remember you.

Photo credit:

Ministry of Communications and Information


Why are transitions always so messy?

A friend of mine is being transferred to another organization. Such changes are not uncommon; in fact in this day and age they seem to be taking place more frequently.

Many of us would also be familiar with the mess that happens when people move. Although my friend is pretty a hardworking and detailed person, the transition still felt chaotic. She felt bad leaving a mess behind, and more so, she felt guilty that she was “abandoning” her team.

Why are transitions so messy, and must they always be so? Why can’t the transition be orderly?

I am not an expert, but I suspect the notion of an orderly transition is an idealistic myth of a highly systemized world. It is a world that believes that systems are the be-all and end-all of organizations. It is a highly rational world that believes that with the right knowledge management systems, procedures and protocols, and detailed handing-taking over task lists, any transition can be managed. It may also add, “no one is indispensable”.

In the real world, things are not so idealized or simple. William Bridges, a famous change consultant, popularized the idea that transitions involve emotional and psychological processes. Particularly when someone is a key member of a team or a respected leader, the loss can be deep and letting go can be hard. People may go through a range of emotions, such as denial (“It can’t be happening!”), anger (“How can you do this?”), depression (“We have been abandoned…”). Eventually, most people come to terms with the change (“Life has to go on. We will get by.). These are similar to the range of emotions when one grieves the death of a loved one (although the severity may be different).

sad dog

During a transition, emphasis is often placed on the transfer of knowledge and duties. This is well intentioned, since organizations must continue to function. At the same time, as much as we try to transfer the knowledge, often not a lot goes through! A grieving heart is not good at registering logic. When there too many things weighing on one’s mind, one does not pay attention to all the logical details. And so, no matter how much and how well we brief others, little goes through and often things still get messy and chaotic.

Does this mean that planning and preparing are not useful? Not true either. Planning and preparing can be helpful before a loss hits (e.g. if a succession is planned and made known well ahead of time), or after people have overcome their emotions and accepted the loss. But not when they are still struggling with the loss.

When the heart grieves, the mind closes. In my view, the best transition is to support people emotionally. In fact, I would suggest placing more emphasis on the heart than the mind. It may be painful, it may be drawn out, but it is important. People need to grieve, seek support in one another, and find closure. The sooner they are helped to get over the loss, the better frame of mind they will be in to direct their energies to the tasks at hand.

And so, I believe that transitions should always be managed carefully, and organizations should not be cavalier about them.

Quick comment on “dispensability”: I agree that no one is indispensable, however I would argue that there are always better, and also worse, ways to manage a transition. For example, planning to have multiple major transitions going on at the same time simply makes things a lot more unpredictable and potentially chaotic. So yes, no one is indispensable, but how you manage the change matters a great deal too. A successful transition is as much the responsibility of the people who hand over and take over, as it is the responsibility of the leadership that lets that happen. Leaders that happily believe that structures and systems alone will ensure smooth transition, or who believe that they can order any change since “no one is indispensable”, may be playing around with their fortunes of their organizations and the well being of their people.

Photo Credits:

Rich Renomeron via photopin cc

Looking for the right soldiers


Actual story this past week.

A manager was reviewing some interns’ resumes. One of them caught his eye. The intern had included among his highlights, achievement of commendable operational readiness (2A) in his army battalion’s proficiency test.

As a background, all young men in Singapore are conscripted at 18 years of age. Many are posted to an army battalion where they go through 2 years of training. This includes a proficiency test that the battalion goes through as an evaluation of its operational readiness.

The manager found it funny how the intern thought it was worth including the achievement. It’s not that the score of 2A was a bad one – 2A is a pretty good score. It’s that the intern wasn’t in any senior position like the operations head, or an officer. He was not even a sergeant. He was just a rank-and-file rifleman.

When I first heard the story, something felt odd, although I couldn’t put my finger on it. Was it the way in which the manager had laughed off the intern’s perceived embellishment or doubted the intern’s motives? I couldn’t quite tell. Maybe the manager didn’t even mean it.

And then it struck me: What if this is a ‘bricklayer’ who sees the bigger mission?

For those who are not familiar with the bricklayer story, this is how it goes:

“A man came across four bricklayers busy at work.

He asked the first bricklayer, “What are you doing?”

The bricklayer said, “I am laying bricks.”

The man asked the 2nd bricklayer the same question.

The second bricklayer said, “I am making a wall”.

The man went over to the 3rd bricklayer and asked the same question. 

The third bricklayer said, “I am building a great cathedral.””


The bricklayer story is quite well known. In organizations, we tell it to inspire and challenge people to look beyond their routine or mundane work, to see themselves as part of a larger effort, and the mission.

We believe in it, and we tell the story time and again.

Yet, when such a bricklayer comes along, we fail to spot him!

How often do our mental models about people and the world influence the way we see things? We believe and say one thing, yet subconsciously we may send conflicting messages or signals.

Sometimes, we try so hard looking for something, yet we may not recognize it when it is right in front of us!

Photo Credits:

Andrew Becraft via photopin cc

Leadership we remember


More than 10 years ago, a young officer in the army was about to attend a course on company tactics. For those who are not familiar, a company appointment is a junior command where you lead some 100 soldiers.

The young officer was then the project officer to a brigade commander, who was many times senior in rank and experience. Brigade commanders are very busy and important people who have far heavier responsibilities.

One day, the brigade commander asked for the young officer, gave him a good half-hour pep talk, and passed him a folder. It was a thick folder of tips, tactics and templates that the brigade commander had painstakingly gathered and refined years back when he was a battalion commander. It must have been a gem of a personal folder, for with the prized tactics his battalion had emerged as the best infantry battalion.

I was the young officer, and till today I feel very honored and privileged to have received the attention, guidance and blessings of someone so senior and yet with a heart for the junior ones. I learned that a rank or appointment is what one wears, but respect is what one earns.

I served this brigade commander for 1.5 years. In that time I learned many things from him – his humility, his service leadership, his belief and faith in his junior command, his empowerment of people and his inspiration to them. Years later, I would learn the key differences between a manager and a leader. There are many versions out there, and a simplified one is that a manager focuses on the successful completion of functional tasks, while a leader influences people to confront harsh realities and inspires and develops them to overcome them. In our lives, we are likely to find many more managers than leaders. And if we are ever blessed to meet an inspiring, we remember him or her for a long time.

Some years ago, this brigade commander collapsed at a race and passed away. It was a huge shock and brought profound sadness to his family and loved ones. In each of our grief, we found so many others who shared it. Eight years on this day, this brigade commander, his personality, his quotes, his deeds, his stories continue to be fondly remembered and shared. This is leadership – not defined by the extent or number of achievements one accomplishes, but by how many lives ones touches and transforms. For it is through inspiring and building a new generation that one builds people and their capacities to make the world a better place.

Singapore Army Tab

Although his was a life gone too soon, this brigade commander’s beliefs and values continue to live on in many of us, and through that he continues to influence and shape Singapore.


Photo credits:

Gramicidin via photopin cc