I have been a huge admirer of HM Queen Elizabeth II (QEII) ever since she visited my school when I was a small boy. Contrary to the feigned indifference of the student body, her charisma on entering the hall stunned us all into wild, spontaneous applause. An entrance, I might add, still to be beaten in my decades of working in Public Relations and with many a global leader who could well study QEII and consider lessons in humility and authenticity.
Against this backdrop, there are parallels between the lying in state of HM Queen Elizabeth II and the public farewell to modern Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew (LKY). The ceremonial guard of honour standing at each corner of the catafalque, endless but orderly queues of citizens paying their respects and vast crowds lining the streets as the hearse passed – in bright sunshine in the UK and torrential rain in Singapore. Palpable, was the sheer emotion, as two peoples bid farewell to leaders whose presence had been a constant throughout most of their lives.
The roles of the two figures in their lifetimes were starkly different. The Queen represented the continuity of royal traditions dating back a thousand years while LKY created modern Singapore through force of personality and extraordinary political skill. He was outspoken, never shying away from giving his opinion or instructions on issues of the day while the Queen, on the other hand, was constitutionally forbidden from involvement in politics. Although it is clear she spoke her mind in private to the Prime Minister of the day during their weekly audiences and hindsight throws a spotlight on many of her activities. Her unflagging support for, and views on, far-ranging topics demonstrated the depth and breadth of her interests.
From a brand perspective, both leaders had an unwavering devotion to duty. Queen Elizabeth reigned over massive changes in British society, from the aftermath of a victorious war that left the country in ruins, to the dismantling of Empire and unprecedented shifts in population and wealth. Her greatest achievement was to personify whatever her subjects perceived as the very best of British values and she did this throughout with authenticity and commitment. Her dedication to royal duties and charitable activities, avoidance of scandal and her great personal charm made her not only one of the most famous women in the world but also the most loved.
It was the ending of the British Empire that provided LKY with his springboard to achievement. His entire life was dedicated to the cause of independence, then survival, and eventually the flourishing of Singapore. Pragmatic to the end, he allowed no obstacle to stand in the way of his ambition for the nation and under his leadership, the Little Red Dot earned the respect and admiration of the great powers, from the US to China. After retiring from front-line politics, Mr Lee became as iconic a symbol of Singapore as Queen Elizabeth was of the United Kingdom.
The two met when the Queen visited Singapore in 1979. It would be fascinating to know what they said to each other; the Queen’s admiration for Singapore was well-known, and LKY who was educated at Cambridge University maintained a deep affection for Britain. Though each brought an entirely different personal style, both these long-serving leaders were intensely charismatic, needing only to enter a room for the atmosphere to become electric. Deeply conscious of their positions, and their symbolic meaning for their respective countries, they were both absolutely authentic, neither needing to pretend to be anything other than who they were.
The pomp and pageantry of the past few days is testament to the how every organisation can and should plan for the unexpected; without missing a beat, messages were cascaded in the ultimate unified national engagement strategy. Adhering to the mantra to get the bad news out all at once and fast, it doesn’t get much more focused than the first announcement tweeted from Buckingham Palace which read: “The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon”.
We mourn their loss, we cherish their memory, and we celebrate the fact that we were alive to see their achievements. Neither Queen Elizabeth nor Lee Kuan Yew will ever be forgotten, and we know that we will not see their like again.