Lee Kuan Yew: Have a purpose driven life and finish well

July 21, 2010

Lee Kuan Yew On  Getting the Best out of Life.

“The human being needs a challenge, and my advice to every person in Singapore and elsewhere: Keep yourself interested, have a challenge. If you’re not interested in the world and the world is not interested in you, the biggest punishment a man can receive is total isolation in a dungeon, black and complete withdrawal of all stimuli, that’s real torture.”

MY CONCERN today is, what is it I can tell you which can add to your knowledge about ageing and what ageing societies can do. You know more about this subject than I do. A lot of it is out in the media, Internet and books. So I thought the best way would be to take a personal standpoint and tell you how I approach this question of ageing.

If I cast my mind back, I can see turning points in my physical and mental health. You know, when you’re young, I didn’t bother, assumed good health was God-given and would always be there.

When I was about 57 that was – I was about 34, we were competing in elections, and I was really fond of drinking beer and smoking.  And after the election campaign, in Victoria Memorial Hall – we had won the election, the City Council election – I couldn’t thank the voters because I had lost my voice. I’d been smoking furiously. I’d take a packet of 10 to deceive myself, but I’d run through the packet just sitting on the stage, watching the crowd, getting the feeling, the mood before I speak.

In other words, there were three speeches a night. Three speeches a night, 30 cigarettes, a lot of beer after that, and the voice was gone. I remember I had a case in Kuching, Sarawak . So I took the flight and Ifelt awful. I had to make up my mind whether I was going to be an effective campaigner and a lawyer, in which case I cannot destroy my voice, and I can’t go on. So I stopped smoking. It was a tremendous deprivation because I was addicted to it. And I used to wake up dreaming…the nightmare was I resumed smoking.

But I made a choice and said, if I continue this, I will not be able to do my job. I didn’t know anything about cancer of the throat, or oesophagus or the lungs, etc. But it turned out it had many other deleterious effects. Strangely enough after that, I became very allergic, hyper-allergic to smoking, so much so that I would plead with my Cabinet ministers not to smoke in the Cabinet room. You want to smoke, please go out, because I am allergic.

Then one day I was at the home of my colleague, Mr Rajaratnam, meeting foreign correspondents including some from the London Times and they took a picture of me and I had a big belly like that (puts his hands in front of his belly), a beer belly. I felt no, no, this will not do. So I started playing more golf, hit hundreds of balls on the practice tee. But this didn’t go down. There was only one way it could go down: consume less, burn up more.

Another turning point came when -this was 1976, after the general electionI was feeling tired. I was breathing deeply at the Istana, on the lawns.

My daughter, who at that time just graduating as a doctor, said: ‘What are you trying to do?’ I said: ‘I feel an effort to breathe in more oxygen.’ She said: ‘Don’t play golf. Run. Aerobics..’ So she gave me a book , quite a famous book and, then, very current in America on how you score aerobic points swimming, running, whatever it is, cycling.

I looked at it sceptically. I wasn’t very keen on running. I was keen on golf. So I said, ‘Let’s try’. So in-between golf shots while playing on my own, sometimes nine holes at the Istana, I would try and walk fast between shots. Then I began to run between shots. And I felt better. After a while, I said: ‘Okay, after my golf, I run.’ And after a few years, I said: ‘Golf takes so long. The running takes 15 minutes. Let’s cut out the golf and let’s run.’

I think the most important thing in ageing is you got to understand yourself. And the knowledge now is all there. When I was growing up, the knowledge wasn’t there. I had to get the knowledge from friends, from doctors.

But perhaps the most important bit of knowledge that the doctor gave me  was one day, when I said: ‘Look,   I’m feeling slower and sluggish.’ So he gave me a medical encyclopaedia and he turned the pages to ageing. I read it up and it was illuminating. A lot of it was difficult jargon but I just skimmed through to get the gist of it.

As you grow, you reach 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 and then, thereafter, you are on a gradual slope down physically. Mentally, you carry on and on and on until I don’t know what age, but mathematicians will tell you that they know their best output is when they’re in their 20s and 30s when your mental energy is powerful and you haven’t lost many neurons. That’s what they tell me.

So, as you acquire more knowledge, you then craft a programme for yourself to maximise what you have. It’s just common sense. I never planned to live till 85 or 84.! I just didn’t think about it. I said: ‘Well, my mother died when she was 74, she had a stroke.. My father died when he was 94.’

But I saw him, and he lived a long life, well, maybe it was his DNA. But more than that, he swam every day and he kept himself busy.. He was working for the Shell company. He was in charge, he was a superintendent of an oil depot.

When he retired, he started becoming a salesman. So people used to tell me: ‘Your father is selling watches at BP de Silva.’ My father was then living with me. But it kept him busy. He had that routine: He meets people, he sells watches, he buys and sells all kinds of semi-precious stones, he circulates coins. And he keeps going. But at 87, 88, he fell, going down the steps from his room to the dining room, broke his arm, three months incapacitated.

Thereafter, he couldn’t go back to swimming. Then he became wheelchair-bound. Then it became a problem because my house was constructed that way. So my brother – who’s a doctor and had a flat (one-level) house – took him in. And he lived on till 94. But towards the end, he had gradual loss of mental powers.

So my calculations, I’m somewhere between 74 and 94. And I’ve reached the halfway point now. But have I? Well, 1996 when I was 73, I was cycling and I felt tightening on the neck. Oh, I must retire today. So I stopped. Next day, I returned to the bicycle. After five minutes it became worse. So I said, no, no, this is something serious, it’s got to do with the blood vessels. Rung up my doctor, who said, ‘Come tomorrow’. Went tomorrow, he checked me, and said: ‘Come back tomorrow for an angiogram.’

I said: ‘What’s that ?’ He said: ‘We’ll pump something in and we’ll see whether the coronary arteries are cleared or blocked.’ I was going to go home. But an MP who was a cardiologist happened to be around, so he came in and said: ‘What are you doing here?’ I said: ‘I’ve got this.’ He said: ‘Don’t go home. You stay here tonight. I’ve sent patients home and they never came back. Just stay here. They’ll put you on the monitor. They’ll watch your heart. And if anything, an emergency arises, they will take you straight to the theatre. You go home. You’ve got no such monitor. You may never come back.’

So I stayed there. Pumped in the dye, yes it was blocked, the left circumflex, not the critical, lead one. So that’s lucky for me. Two weeks later, I was walking around, I felt it’s coming back. Yes it has come back, it had occluded. So this time they said: ‘We’ll put in a stent.’

I’m one of the first few in Singapore to have the stent, so it was a brand new operation. Fortunately, the man who invented the stent was out here selling his stent. He was from San Jose, La Jolla something or the other. So my doctor got hold of him and he supervised the operation.  He said put the stent in. My doctor did the operation, he just watched it all and then that’s that. That was before all this problem about lining the stent to make sure that it doesn’t occlude and create a disturbance.

So at each stage, I learnt something more about myself and I stored that. I said: ‘Oh, this is now a danger point.’ So all right, cut out fats, change diet, went to see a specialist in Boston , Massachusetts General Hospital . He said: ‘Take statins.’ I said: ‘What’s that?’ He said: ‘(They) help to reduce your cholesterol.’ My doctors were concerned. They said: ‘You don’t need it. Your cholesterol levels are okay.’ Two years later, more medical evidence came out. So the doctors said: ‘Take statins.’

Had there been no angioplasty, had I not known that something was up and I cycled on, I might have gone at 74 like my mother. So I missed that decline. So next deadline: my father’s fall at 87.

I’m very careful now because sometimes when I turn around too fast, I feel as if I’m going to get off balance. So my daughter, a neurologist, she took me to the NNI, there’s this nerve conduction test, put electrodes here and there.

The transmission of the messages between the feet and the brain has slowed down. So all the exercise, everything, effort put in, I’m fit, I swim, I cycle. But I can’t prevent this losing of conductivity of the nerves and this transmission. So just go slow.

So when I climb up the steps, I have no problem. When I go down the steps, I need to be sure that I’ve got something I can hang on to, just in case. So it’s a constant process of adjustment. But I think the most important single lesson I learnt in life was that if you isolate yourself, you’re done for. The human being is a social animal – he needs stimuli, he needs to meet people, to catch up with the world.

I don’t much like travel but I travel very frequently despite the jetlag, because I get to meet people of great interest to me, who will help me in my work as chairman of our GIC. So I know, I’m on several boards  of banks, international advisory boards of banks, of oil companies and so on. And I meet them and I get to understand what’s happening in the world, what has changed since I was here one month ago, one year ago. I go to India , I go to China .

And that stimuli brings me to the world of today. I’m not living in the world, when I was active, more active 20, 30 years ago. So I tell my wife. She woke up late today. I said: ‘Never mind, you come along by 12 o’clock. I go first.’

If you sit back – because part of the ending part of the encyclopaedia which I read was very depressing – as you get old, you withdraw from everything and then all you will have is your bedroom and the photographs and the furniture that you know, and that’s your world. So if you’ve got to go to hospital, the doctor advises you to bring some photographs so that you’ll know you’re not lost in a different world, that this is like your bedroom.

I’m determined that I will not, as long as I can, to be reduced, to have my horizons closed on me like that. It is the stimuli, it is the constant interaction with people across the world that keeps me aware and alive to what’s going on and what we can do to adjust to this different world.

In other words, you must have an interest in life. If you believe that at 55, you’re retiring, you’re going to read books, play golf and drink wine, then I think you’re done for. So statistically they will show you that all the people who retire and lead sedentary lives, the pensioners die off very quickly.

So we now have a social problem with medical sciences, new procedures, new drugs, many more people are going to live long lives.. If the mindset is that when I reach retirement age 62, I’m old, I can’t work anymore, I don’t have to work, I just sit back, now is the time I’ll enjoy life, I think you’re making the biggest mistake of your life. After one month, or after two months, even if you go travelling with nothing to do, with no purpose in life, you will just degrade, you’ll go to seed.

The human being needs a challenge, and my advice to every person in Singapore and elsewhere: Keep yourself interested, have a challenge. If you’re not interested in the world and the world is not interested in you, the biggest punishment a man can receive is total isolation in a dungeon, black and complete withdrawal of all stimuli, that’s real torture.

So when I read that people believe, Singaporeans say: ‘Oh, 62 I’m retiring.’ I say to them: ‘You really want to die quickly?’ If you want to see sunrise tomorrow or sunset, you must have a reason, you must have the stimuli to keep going..’

Have a purpose driven life and finish well, my friends.

30 thoughts on “Lee Kuan Yew: Have a purpose driven life and finish well

  1. So does this mean we have to postpone riding into the sunset on the back of the water buffalo, with tean in the tow and me perched on the buffalo’s ass?

  2. An interesting point of view and evidence,age isn’t an obstruction to achievement. Obviously,if you have big heart and great determination, there’s nothing could stop you to enjoy your life,except the fate that has been decided.

    Mr. Bean should be happy since he can “postpone riding into the sunset on the back of the water buffalo, with tean in the tow and me perched on the buffalo’s ass?”

  3. “The human being needs a challenge…” It is called living and living courageously without fear or favour.
    Well said, Kathy. Be positive about life and build personal resilience. Who ever said life is a bed roses without thorns!–Din Merican

  4. I fully agree with Lee Kuan Yew.

    Aging gracefully is about keeping ourselves interested in lives ie our loved ones and friends around us, giving back to society what we have received during our life’s journey, do social work, help others, stay positive and be happy.

    Exercise is very important too. Get the blood circulation going. For me, yoga is great….keeps my posture toned and nimble.

  5. You missed Din Merican who sees himself as riding the back of the water buffalo gracefully into the sunset. Tean and I are just fee paying passengers so Din Merican could pay for the rent of the buffalo from the Kedah Farmers’ Association.
    Bean, that is a business called a “Tour Ride into the Sunset”, which I am promoting. I am now working on the charge out rates. You and Tean will be my banggaus. I will also employ our sikh brothers from Jalan Langgar and Derga to take care of the Buffalo’s belakang!!–Din Merican

  6. To: Din Merican

    Discrimination comes not only along racial lines but also along gender, sex and age. You have been discriminated by your own when you reported recently that you were bypassed for being “too old” to be holding board positions on GLCs.

  7. They want us to take that ride into the sunset in the tradition of your old hero Gary Cooper, sooner than later. Fortunately for me, I am self employed and I have some control over the timing of that final ride into the sunset.

    Tean wants me to take that ride on the back of a water buffalo with you in the best of Kedah tradition. A thought that I have always cherished ever since. But with tean, there is always more. He thinks I should not do that on the back of a ‘kuda puteh’.

  8. Aging is Dukkha or suffering, the First Noble Truth according to the Buddha. All of us are in this same boat heading the same direction.

    Why must tean the one towing the buffalo while Din and you enjoying on the buffalo’s ass? Why not Kakrubi?

  9. I wonder who goes first – LKY or Tun M.
    Both are about the same age and mentally and physically active.
    The duo reminds me of Johnny Walker – maybe Mr Bean’s beer of choice.
    You guys remember the Jonhnnie Walker neon ad at the end of then Batu Road (now Chow kit) where the guy is always walking and walking.
    I was about two years old then. But whenever I come home to KL, I really am thrilled of that neon ad.

  10. Ok tean, maybe we should adjust the mental image slightly. Now that Din Merican has added Jaswant and Karam from Jln Langgar and Derga, Aloq Setaq who have been given by him the unenviable task of shovelling the kerbau’s droppings. I assume that’s what he meant when he said ‘to take care of the buffalo’s belakang’. I could be wrong. It could be something more omnious!

  11. Sayang,

    The last time I checked Johnny Walker is Scotch Whiskey – and not beer. Scotch and soda is something Din’s bosses at Sime Darby, all anglophiles, are all too familiar with.

  12. If only all ex-Prime Ministers spend time dishing out wise words like Lee Kuan Yew rather than spending time trying to create racial tensions or getting his son to be a full minister and then maybe one day PM!

  13. LKY is getting a wee bit maudlin and maybe plagiarizing. Turning out to be a regular Rick Warren-ish evangelical, albeit in his own terms. At least he’s coming out with positive and encouraging words for the buffalo backriders.

    Aging with grace certainly does not mean stirring the shitpot of racism and fascism every now and then. Bitterness, meaness, hubris and rantings about the ‘Now’ as opposed to the ‘Before’ does not augur well for anyone with a foot at the door to Hades.

    Respect for our elders requires wisdom and discernment. They have an ability to perceive their own failings in life; and being of good cheer inspite of this – especially the ability to laugh at oneself, and not to take things too seriously. A truly sincere and secure person doesn’t seem bothered with respect, a ‘legacy’ nor clingy relationships. They are the ones who know themselves well. They glide through life with ease and exit it with grace, leaving the world much poorer for good and wise humour.

    No, aging is not suffering – it’s decay – the immutable 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. ‘Suffering’ is a very subjective term – it is the negative reaction to decay and chaos. Grace and charity is the positive reaction to this. For those who ask, seek and knock – the meanings will be revealed. ‘Theodicy’ is not for the faint hearted.

    It is not how well we live, it is how well we die.

  14. Mr Bean

    You are right. It’s Scotch Whiskey.
    The drink of choice of my dad and his anglophile pals which includes Dewars White Label and cognac a long,long time ago when life was beautiful.

  15. Between LKY and Mahathir, the former is deeply respected while the latter shall go down in infamy for all the destruction to Malaysia he has directly caused.

  16. samsaimon

    LKY was not your PM. If he was, you will be finding fault with him. As a Malay. there is such a thing called mengenang budi. Budi baik dikenang juga. Granted Tun M has his faults. But there are many good deeds of his in the 22 years he ruled that made us proud to be Malaysians.

    As a good Muslim, you do not PISS at people. That is God’s work. I still hold to my belief that Tun M was the greatest PM we ever had.
    Sayang Bangsa, you are entitled your opinion. Others have their views which are contrary to yours. Ibrahim wanted to piss on his grave, yet today, they are soulmates in their effort to save the Malays. In truth, only the Malays can save themselves from economic despair and moral degradation.–Din Merican

  17. Sayang Bangsa,
    Yes, I am a Malay and proud to be a Malaysian!
    Not an umno Malay.
    Just tell me what ‘ budi baik yang nak dikenang juga’ dari Kutty ?
    Selain dari dia gasak harta Negara memperkayakan anak-anak dan crony. Memusnahkan pentadbiran Negara dengan corruptions secara diktator. Dia lalaikan rakyat dengan kemegahan…ya rakyat bermegah dengan KLCC, Putrajaya, KLIA tapi siapa yang kaya. Anak perempuan dia yang tulis di THE STAR seminggu sekali pun jutawan.
    Apa sudah jadi dengan Pandang ke Timor? Penswastaan ?
    The only thing that I can remember him is ‘ he can hit people in a smile ‘ such a character.
    You are just too dumb, deaf and blind.

  18. samsaimon,

    U memang betul, Kutty itu memang orang hantu dan Sayang Bangsa aka Jaguh kampung memang DDB(dumb,deaf & blind)

  19. ahem..ahem….for the record…Johnnie Walker is whisky, not whiskey.

    A Scotsman will always maintain that the ‘eau de vie’ (water of life) which comes from Scotland is called ‘WHISKY’. Whiskey comes from elsewhere….Ireland, US…

    Sorry, Din, soon skullcap might issue fatwa on your blog for my ‘haram’ contribution.

  20. “In truth only the Malays can save themselves from economic despair and moral degradation”– Din Merican

    if only there were more Malays like Din, we would save ourselves faster,heck we would have at least a chance at it.

    You are most kind.There are many of my generation who feel the same way I do, but they prefer to stay on the sidelines. So some people in positions of power, especially from the immediate past, think that I am a nuisance factor. I love my country and have the right to express my views as long as I do not break the law. I also talk to people in position of power. That is why I want commentators on my blog to be careful and responsible for what they write.

    I try to present various points of view so that we can make our own judgments on contemporary issues that affect our lives, politics being just one of them. I also share with my friends and readers what it was like from a bygone era given that I was a child of the Second World War and was 18 when our country became independent. That means for 18 years of my life I was a British subject, and my education was essentially very British. I am pro-democracy.–Din Merican

  21. “I also talk to people in positions of power” Din Merican

    Thank you Din. Yes, I can imagine there are others, but you have made that difference to us who only have hope. It is because you have this special position of knowing both sides that you are vital as the agent of change for Malaysia. The Government , if they have wisdom, must surely see this, the people’s mood through you,the Connector. This is your purpose. I believe, with much wisdom and calmness on your part, it can be done.

    Of course also your thinking is obviously influenced by your background, you have the admiration of the non-Malays and the Malays alike and you are open to considering other points. This is the hope that we need for Malaysia.
    This is milk of human kindness. I love my country.–Din Merican

  22. It’s good to see our beloved Kathy now knows how to value Din as the man who has been there, done that and seen that.
    Din has seen the world when we were not even born or when Anwar is still in diapers. last time they calld it nappies.
    Gone are Kathy’s steadfast stand or confrontational stance on issues Malaysia..
    I have always liked Din’s blog because he allows differences of opinions and accepts it.
    And the best is he opens us to the world by posting matters of international interests.

  23. Sayang Bangsa,I do think that you are one persistent person with your point of view. Your persistence is admirable.

  24. Din was 18 when Malaya became independent. Wow Din became an adult the same year as Malaya gain its independence. Syabas Din. You’ve seen 6 PM’s and I’m sure you’d be fully qualified to judge who is the better PM for Malaysia. Where do you think Malaysia will be if by fate Malaysia had a different PM somewhere in between the 6 PM’s?
    Iffy question. It won’t help us, but as an optimist, I believe that there will be someone ( like Tun Razak or Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul Rahman) who will emerge from the present political mess and lead our country forward. Who will he be? Time will tell.

    Of the 6 Prime Ministers (leave Najib out since he is only in office for 1 year plus), Tun Razak is the best, but he was like a meteor across the Malaysian sky and gone too soon as Prime Minister (1970-1976). But he served as Deputy Prime Minister to Tunku (a de facto Prime Minister), who was the man in the thick of the action and worked tirelessly for the people. He took over at the time of Malaysia’s worst crisis (May 13, 1969).

    Tun Razak knew how to deal with civil servants as he was one of them. He empowered and encouraged them to operate as professionals whose advice he sought and valued. Most importantly, he was an institution builder. As a politician, he was brilliant. Semper fi, I leave you to tell me, who is the worst of the 6 minus Najib.–Din Merican

  25. You can only talk like this Man when you have increased the per capita income of your nation from $400.00 in 1966 to $40,000.00 today.

  26. You are one of those enlightened Blogger I wish to follow. I appreciate you giving us a line for meaningful living as I am one who take challengers as life goes on. Today I am over 64 and still taking up a challeging job building a factory with a great product. carry on with such meaningful news. Tqvm.

  27. Sir,
    Gd evening
    I agree totally…that a human needs to have a stimuli in life to carry him/her throughtout the life..
    Thank you.

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