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10 Precious Lessons Every Runner Can Learn from Singapore’s Founding Father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew

by On Mar 24, 2015
10 Lessons Every Runner Can Learn from Singapore's Founding Father, Lee Kuan Yew

On 5 February 2015, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s beloved founding father, was hospitalised with severe pneumonia, but the living legend continued to fight, despite his age and ill health. Sadly, he passed away at dawn on 23 March. During his 91 years, he was the consummate example of a life well-lived because he always had a talent for turning adversity into positive outcomes, despite world wars, separatist movements and personal controversies. During the three decades Mr Lee held public office, he proved a formidable personality and powerful advocate for all Singaporeans. In many respects, there is no separating Mr Lee from Singapore and our nation is bereft at his passing. He shall be missed as a leader and as an inspiration to all, including runners who can learn many lessons from this great man’s life.

10 Lessons Every Runner Can Learn from Singapore's Founding Father, Lee Kuan Yew

Photo Credit: The New York Times

1. It’s important to go with the flow.

When marathon runners hit start lines, they have no way of knowing what may befall them on a circuit, so adapting to race conditions is critical to finishing. Whether the route changes, weather deteriorates, you cramp up or you’re injured, adaptation is the key to survival, a lesson learned by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and recounted in his memoirs: He had to sing four different national anthems in his lifetime to adapt to dramatic change. The two-year merger with Malaysia implemented in 1963 (followed by separation in 1965) is an excellent example of meteoric change that forced him to go with the flow, despite his personal feelings.

The future is what we make of it. We owe it to ourselves to give of our best to build the foundations of a harmonious and integrated nation, peaceful, prosperous and vigilant, a haven of tolerance, harmony and progress in the stormy seas of Southeast Asia. – Mr Lee Kuan Yew in his speech on National day at City Hall, 3rd June 1964

2. You must be versatile.

Every runner has a favourite event—ultras, 10ks, multi-day triathlons—but by overcoming one's reticence to try something new, hard and challenging, one grows as a person and as an athlete. Being versatile is critical to surviving public life, too. Mr Lee understood how important it can be to speak multiple languages if one wishes to be of use in so diverse a nation as Singapore. His ability to learn and converse in English, Chinese, Malay and regional tongues enabled him to exhibit a versatility not many heads of state can claim, making him an invaluable behind-the-scenes resource while charting Singapore's future.

We cannot go backwards in time, to the old trading port of Singapore. We have to move forward and upwards, diversify our economy, upgrade technology in factories and offices, and increase our knowledge and skills. – Mr Lee Kuan Yew in his National Day Message, 8 August 1982

3. Don't be intimidated by competitors.

Even if you’re positioned close to the runner who has grabbed all of the media’s attention, you should never allow that person to intimidate you. Your job is to run your race, not worry about how to outrace and outthink opponents. By focusing on your race and ignoring others, you are emulating Mr Lee Kuan Yew, whose history of battling all sorts of opposition parties is legendary and represents the kind of character that every Singaporean can look up to as a government leader.

"Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him. Or give it up. This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine. I've spent a whole lifetime building this and as long as I'm in charge, nobody is going to knock it down." – Mr Lee Kuan Yew in his speech at a rally in Raffles Place, Singapore in 1980

4. Sometimes, you can't run.

You awake on race day feeling sick despite having been fine the night before. You've invested a lot of time in your long-term preparation and training and you've paid your entry fees, but you're not sure you have the stamina to run your race. Imagine how Mr Lee Kuan Yew felt after Singapore's independence was declared in 1965 and he awoke feeling so ill, he wound up under medical care for six weeks while trying to play his part in the newly emancipated country. From his sickbed, he told heads of state and the media, "Do not worry about Singapore." His words proved to be prophetic.

5. Runners can effect social change.

Because the region's balance of power was precarious for so many centuries, Singapore didn't have the dominant, unique culture it now enjoys. Furthermore, the struggle to overcome racial and religious intolerance is one of the biggest obstacles Mr Lee Kuan Yew faced as a government official and Prime Minister. He wanted the nation to have a unique identity and was willing to do what it took to make that happen. Your role as a Singaporean runner isn’t so different if you care about equality and want to make sure that people of all faiths, ethnicities and philosophies come together under the common banner of sports camaraderie. Running, as you know, is an equal opportunity arena where social change can be effected every time a race is run.

If there was one formula for success, it was that we were constantly studying how to make things work, or how to make them work better. I was never a prisoner of any theory. What guided me were reason and reality. The acid test I applied to every theory or scheme was, would it work? – Mr Lee Kuan Yew: From Third World to First, 2000

6. If you believe it, you can make it happen.

There's lots to be said about visualisation. Some sports psychologists believe that visualising one's presence at the finish line can go a long way to making sure that actually happens. See yourself as a winner and even if you're not the first to cross the finish line, you are a true victor. Mr Lee Kuan Yew had a vision for turning Singapore into a "Garden City" that would be admired by other governments around the globe and he never gave up on that vision, despite political unrest, economic fluctuation and urban sprawl. Today's "Garden City" is an homage to the undaunted Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his vision for a paradise on earth. Use his vision to power you forward next time you run!

"I am nobody’s stooge. I am not here to play somebody else's game. I have a few million people's lives to account for. And Singapore will survive, will trade with the whole world and will remain non-Communist." – Mr Lee Kuan Yew in a press conference at City Hall, 26 August 1965

7. Maintain your priorities.

Your commitment to running may require you to make sacrifices to maintain your competitive edge. Perhaps this has caused conflict because others in your circle don't realise how strong your need to run has become. You won't do yourself any favours if you bow to their will and stop doing what you love. This is a priority for you and it's not much different from one of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's biggest priorities: securing and maintaining clean water resources throughout Singapore. International tension arose over water importations from Malaysia, but there could be no compromise when it came to his people's needs, so Mr Lee stood his ground and today, Singapore's modern water system is proof of his refusal to abandon this priority.

10 Lessons Every Runner Can Learn from Singapore's Founding Father, Lee Kuan Yew

Photo Credit: The Straits Times

8. Set a good example.

Although Mr Lee Kuan Yew's first language was not Mandarin Chinese, he became extremely concerned about the decline in proficiency among young Chinese Singaporeans in 2005. This represented a potential linguistic disaster down the road, so Mr Lee not only jumpstarted an initiative to save Mandarin, but he set an example by using it more frequently to improve his own skill, thereby setting a good example. How often do you try to set an example--like becoming re-acquainted with a training routine, mentoring new runners or helping to keep your running club organised and functioning? If it's been a while, find a way to set a good example today.

I do not classify myself as a statesman. I put myself down as determined, consistent, persistent. I set out to do something, I keep on chasing it until it succeeds. That’s all. That’s how I perceive myself. Not a statesman. – Mr Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, 2011

9. Share your passion.

Telling other people about your passion for running not only reinforces the reason you prioritise this sport despite a hectic life, but you are sure to win converts and change other people's lives by helping them stay healthy, strong and happy. Mr Lee Kuan Yew was never shy about sharing his passion for the world condition, using his power and influence to speak out via speeches, books, editorial and even images of himself and his family to convey his dedication and love for Singapore and her people. His memoirs span a century and his opinions are legendary. Do you share your passion for running with as much fervour as Mr Lee Kuan Yew does for Singapore?

"I have no regrets. I have spent my life, so much of it, building up this country. There’s nothing more that I need to do. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore.

What have I given up? My life." – Mr Lee Kuan Yew

10. Prizes are nice; compassion is nicer.

If competition is a big part of your life, there's likely a place in your home dedicated to displaying accolades. Whether your library of kudos includes trophies, ribbons, medals and/or certificates, that doesn't mean you'll continue to collect them, so it's a good idea to keep in mind that every race is a new beginning and learn to take pleasure in other people's wins. It would be hard to imagine how much room Mr Lee Kuan Yew requires to display all of the honours, decorations, awards, prizes and degrees he has been given over nine decades, but if you look deeply into his personality, you might learn that working to make the lives of all Singaporeans better has been the only reward he ever coveted.

Also read:  Recapturing Singapore's 2013 Running Highlights

Not every world leader is as inspiring, nor have they been in office as long as Mr Lee, but one doesn't have to be a head of state to inspire others. At this time of national mourning, we invite all of our readers to think of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew and remember his devotion to Singapore. As a personal tribute, you are invited to leave your comments about how Mr Lee Kuan Yew has impacted you and how you believe you can continue to learn from and be inspired by him far into the future.

"Even as we mourn his passing, let us also honour his spirit. Let us dedicate ourselves as one people to build on his foundations, strive for his ideals, and keep Singapore exceptional and successful for many years to come," – PM Mr Lee Hsien Loong in his national address

10 Lessons Every Runner Can Learn from Singapore's Founding Father, Lee Kuan Yew

Members of the public can express their condolences and share their memories of the late Mr Lee at the official website.

Aidan is the Editor-in-chief of RunSociety. As a health improvement hacker and explorer, he oversees RunSociety’s Creativity Channel, spanning a wide range of inspirational and enriching topics daily to the running community. Get in touch with him if you have any fresh ideas!

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