The birth of Singapore

Singapore has a funny history. They are the only country in the world that got its independence when they didn’t want it. 

Singapore was a state of Malaysia. And was booted out of Malaysia and made independent because of racial tensions and unending riots.

And yet, a small island country with scarce resources modernized and became prosperous at a speed never seen before. It was all due to the iron hand of one person: Lee Kuan Yew.

In 1954, Lee Kuan Yew was 30 years old when he started legally defending students who were imprisoned after protesting non-violently against the British. He joined the Communist Party of Malaya, and later created the People’s Action Party with the help of communist leaders in Singapore. But Yew was not a communist himself.

The politics of Lee Kuan Yew

Yew was a realist. And he tolerated communist ideologies because he was a realist. He realized that 71% of the population of Singapore were Chinese. And they were treated as second class citizens. They were the labourers and the British had always looked down upon them. They were influenced by the communist ideology from Beijing. Yew understood that you had to win their support to get rid of the British. But you could not be an anti-communist if you wanted to win their support.

And so, Yew partnered with communist leaders like Lim Chin Siong so that he could strengthen his base. 

It was Yew who held secret meetings with Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Rahman and got him to propose the formation of the federation of Malaysia in the 1960s- which would include Malaya, Singapore, Borneo, Sabah, and other regions. The merger with Malaya and the creation of the new federated country would mean an end to the British rule!

It was a tough thing to pull off because Malaya were wary about the Chinese majority population of Singapore. After the merger, the Chinese would make up a total of 40% of the entire Malaysian population.

The proposition didn’t make the communist politicians in Singapore happy either. Because the Chinese population would now be a minority! And so, they tried to derail the merger.

The authoritative rule

In 1963, 6 months before the creation of Malaysia, the Malayan government made it clear that the merger would fall through if the communists and other left wing groups were not kept in check. At such a time, it was Yew who executed a brutal and unjust plan and imprisoned 113 politicians. Politicians including Lim Chin Siong who were once his allies were imprisoned in extremely poor conditions without a proper trial! 

The Malaysian federation didn’t last long for Singapore because of the racial tensions between the Malay and the Chinese population. And Yew was devastated when Singapore was expelled from Malaysia and became an independent nation on 9 August, 1965. But he quickly went and gathered international support for the new Republic of Singapore. And began modernizing it at a pace never seen before. 

Throughout the journey, Lee Kuan Yew never shied away from conflict. He went and did unsavory things and ruled authoritatively. He partnered with people he didn’t agree with in order to achieve his goals.

“First, we had to get rid of the British…. To do that, you had to mobilize support from the widest possible group and get as big a majority of the population as you could…. First, you’ve got to get power. Then, having got power, you say, “What’s the problem? Have I said these things? If so, let’s forget it.”

Shouldn’t we aim for harmony?

Most of us avoid conflict. We aim for harmony. We run away from fights. But sometimes, conflict is essential. 

During the American civil war, after facing humiliating defeat at the Battle of the Bull Run, Lincoln persuaded General McClellan to become the commander in chief of the Union army. McClellan seemed extremely capable and people called him “Young Napoleon.” In 9 months, he raised an army and built 48 forts and made Washington almost impregnable. He trained his soldiers well. And they respected him a lot.

But on the actual battlefield, McClellan hesitated. In 1862, he was poised near Richmond, Virginia – the capital of the Confederates. But he retreated after a few skirmishes with Robert Lee because he thought he was outnumbered. In actuality, the Confederates had three times fewer numbers than what McClellan thought they had!

Later that year, McClellan and Lee again fought at Maryland in one of the bloodiest battles of the civil war. And this time when Lee retreated, Lincoln asked McClellan to cross the Potomac river and give chase and bring an end to Lee’s army. The bigger Union army had the upper hand. But McClellan sat still and did nothing for over a month. And allowed Lee to regroup. When he finally decided to give chase, it was such a feeble attempt that McClellan took 9 days to cross the Potomac river. Lincoln realized that McClellan would never be able to defeat Lee.

While McClellan was an intelligent general and came up with sound strategies, he was wary of conflict. And because of that, he was always more cautious than the situation demanded. Historians estimate that McClellan’s blunder increased the civil war by 2 more years.

Building a tolerance for conflict

One of the unintuitive things about being a good leader is that you have to be willing to tolerate conflict.

Even a pacifist like Mahatma Gandhi didn’t shy away from conflicts. He raised a crowd to break unjust laws, even when he was repeatedly beaten and imprisoned. 

Tolerance for conflict does not mean looking for fights.

It means not avoiding difficult situations and difficult people. It means doing what you think is right. It means not getting frustrated when things are chaotic. It means not being afraid and standing for what you believe in even against insurmountable odds.

Find any poorly run organization and you’ll find a feeble leader: someone who shys away from conflicting situations. They’ll delay decisions to not make their colleagues unhappy. They’ll let things fester for longer. And make things worse.

So how do you build a tolerance for conflict?

  1. You have to realize your goal, your North star, your mission. You have to meditate on how things will be if your goal is not met.
  2. You have to build a thick skin. And disregard what people think about you. You have to love yourself because of your actions, and not because of people’s perception of you.

Action Summary:

  • Don’t run away from conflict. Don’t avoid difficult situations. 
  • Work on your mindset so you can deal with chaos and conflict to do what needs to be done.