Lee Kuan Yew & Warren Buffett: 5 Glaring Similarities That Explain Their Success

The Jubilee Weekend is finally here and since this is still by and large a personal finance/investment blog, there’s no better time to take a look at the lives of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the world’s most famous and astute investor Warren Buffett. #15HWWLogic

But seriously, I can’t believe few have written about the glaring similarities in their lives and careers, considering that Singapore is celebrating its 50th birthday in two days’ time and Berkshire Hathaway commemorated its 50th anniversary just three months before. What a coincidence.

A man who brought Singapore from Third World to First World and a man who turned a failing textile manufacturing company into the 5th largest public company in the world.

Yeah, I know Mr Buffett is a business and investment success while Mr Lee is a political one. But as the latter puts it “Singapore is entrepreneurship on a political stage on a national scale”. Therefore, my hypothesis is that their successes on the different platforms can be easily traced back to to a few common factors.

Here’s 5 of them:

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Leading By Example, Even At The Expense Of Family Members

When Singapore became independent, Mr Lee knew that a conscription army was absolutely necessary to safeguard the country’s interests. However, this was a fledgling nation with the bulk of the people having little attachment to Singapore. Moreover, besides being perceived as dangerous, traditionally, military careers were not seen as a prestigious career choice in Asian societies.

It was not an easy task to persuade parents to entrust their sons to the SAF in the late 1960s. I think he succeeded in the end because he led by example. His two sons did National Service just like every other Singaporean son. In fact, both of them signed up as regulars in the SAF.

Can you spot a young PM Lee in the picture?

I can’t resist having a dig here. But if the current leaders of Singapore really wants to convince the public that “every school is a good school” and that the public transport system is world-class, they need to lead by example. Talk is cheap but actions are priceless.

As for Warren Buffett, he never believed in giving handouts to people. He had seen many smart people fail from leverage and felt that they needed to experience the consequences to learn a lesson. Unfortunately, in the late 1980s, his elder sister, Doris, got caught up in some derivatives or “naked puts” and lost a lot of money. In fact, she became on the verge of bankruptcy.

What would you have done if you were Doris then?

Approaching your brother (who was already a multi-millionaire at that time) for help seems a rational choice.

Until you get coldly rejected.

Here’s a guy who believed in personal responsibility and acts that way even to family members. (He ‘s not heartless though and in the end relented and dispensed the money from the father’s will to tide her out. But technically, he still didn’t use his own money to help her out.)

Clear Vision From Young

In Mr Lee’s own words in September 1965 (for full speech, click here):

“But I say to you : Here we make the model multi-racial society. This is not a country that belongs to any single community: it belongs to all of us. You helped built it; your fathers, your grandfathers helped build this, There was no naval base here, and it is not the British who built it. It was your labour, your father’s labour which built that.. My (great) grandfather come here and built. Yes, he came here looking for his fortune, but he stayed — my grandfather was born here.

Over 100 years ago, this was a mud-flat, swamp. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear.”

And look at how Singapore has progressed since.

A charismatic Lee Kuan Yew in 1965

As an 11 year old kid in 1941, Warren Buffett announced to his friend that he would be a millionaire by the time he turned 35. That’s a million bucks by 1965 which is close to $5 million in today’s dollars.

A lofty goal for an 11 year old and let’s just say that even then, he exceeded expectations. He became a millionaire at age 30. His favourite book when he was 11?

“One Thousand Ways to Make $1,000”

Capable & Independent Advisors

For Mr Lee, it’s Goh Keng Swee.

Part of Mr Lee’s Eulogy to Dr Goh Keng Swee in 2010:

“Of all my Cabinet colleagues, it was Goh Keng Swee who made the greatest difference to the outcome for Singapore. He had a capacious mind and a strong character. When he held a contrary view, he would challenge my decisions and make me re-examine the premises on which they were made. As a result, we reached better decisions for Singapore. In the middle of a crisis, his analysis was always sharp, with an academic detachment and objectivity that reassured me.

Mr Lee and his team of cabinet Ministers

For Warren Buffett, read Charlie Munger.

In a 2014 letter to shareholders:

“If you’ve attended our annual meetings, you know Charlie has a wide-ranging brilliance, a prodigious memory, and some firm opinions. I’m not exactly wishy-washy myself, and we sometimes don’t agree. In 56 years, however, we’ve never had an argument. When we differ, Charlie usually ends the conversation by saying: Warren, think it over and you’ll agree with me because you’re smart and I’m right.

Longevity

Both spent 50 years stewarding their primary obsession and their achievements would most likely have been diluted if either had a short life. Good genes coupled with good habits?

Mr Lee over the years

It takes time to build an empire. To better illustrate the power of time (especially when you’re doing something right), if I could live till 150 and achieve annualised returns of 10%, our $300,000 now would compound to $72 billion.

Frugality

Mr Lee was a guy who washed his own underwear when he travelled abroad, mended his running shorts multiple times and used pails to shower.

Warren Buffett doesn’t enjoy fine dining, preferring burgers, steaks, fries and an ice-cream sundae anytime. His beverage of choice? A Cherry Coke.

And amazingly, both have lived in the same house for more than the past 50 years. Even though they could easily afford better.

A peak into Mr Lee’s home

My humble view is that when you’re a frugal person and less beholden to money and materialism, you are in a better position to fulfil the vision and mission you set for yourself. 

Both Mr Lee and Warren Buffett exemplifies the statement above and this is also the main reason why frugality is so heavily emphasized in this blog.

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Hopefully, you can take note of these values and apply it to achieve success in your life.  🙂

P.S. Dear Warren, if you ever happen to be reading this, I have to apologise for casting you as a supporting actor. There’s no picture of you in the post and I almost always mention you only after Mr Lee. I hope you understand because as a Singaporean, there’s no doubting who has made a bigger impact on my life

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    13 thoughts on “Lee Kuan Yew & Warren Buffett: 5 Glaring Similarities That Explain Their Success

    1. B

      Hi 15hww

      Strikingly similar attributes there, in fact I would also want to add that there are other big successes for people with the same attribute as theirs you have pointed out.

      I think we can consider ourselves really lucky, in our lifetime, they have been a major key personnel in their very own respective areas, and something that we can look up to in proudness.

      Happy Jubilee weekend to you and the Mrs, and happy birthday Singapore.

      1. My 15 HWW Post author

        Hi B,

        We definitely have a lot to learn from them.

        Happy Jubilee weekend to you, your Mrs and Oscar too! Hope you had a magical time at Gardens By The Bay!

      1. My 15 HWW Post author

        Hi GiraffeValue,

        Thanks for your kind comments. Spent quite a bit of time with the research. You definitely can understand, especially looking at your recent posts on the 55 blogs and the write-up on Carousell.

        Those were great posts too!

    2. Singaporemm

      Great post!

      I idolize Buffett and am ambivalent towards LKY at best, but this comparison made me realize that yes, both of them have similar qualities. Although I would say Buffett is much more compassionate and less prone to dubious methods to achieve his goals. But maybe I should learn to be a bit more grateful to Singapore as well 🙂

      1. My 15 HWW Post author

        Hi Singaporemm,

        Actually, my view is that people who are too compassionate can rarely succeed. Definitely not trying to paint them as angels as even Buffett has shown his ruthless streak at times too.

        No doubt LKY has made a positive impact for most Singaporeans’ life and this is a period for us to further reflect and practice a little more gratefulness.

        And lastly, thanks for your effusive praise of the post. Hope you’re enjoying both your travel and your new haircut. :p

    3. Frugal Daddy

      Hi 15hww

      Good read to celebrate SG50. I wonder will Longevity work towards or against majority of us.

      Hope you are enjoying your experiments with your Mrs.

      *Fireworks*

      1. My 15 HWW Post author

        Hi Frugal Daddy,

        I sure do hope I am as healthy as Warren at his age!

        Hope you are enjoying the long weekend too!

    4. Budget Babe

      Hi 15hww, I was just thinking along this theme for national day, but you beat me to it, and one so articulately expressed as well! Can I have your permission to republish this, with credit of course?

      1. My 15 HWW Post author

        Hi Budget Babe,

        Apologies for beating you to it!

        And of course, if you find it useful for your readers, you’re free to republish it on your site. =)

    5. bb

      What a lovely post on a special day in a special year for us Singaporeans! Love it, so thank you!

      What’s gonna follow next might sound like a gushing love letter for a man deceased, but I’ll soldier on ahead anyway, ya?

      I’ve always loved and admired LKY, for all that he’s done for the nation. I truly believe that had it not been for his steely determination, incredible foresight and a very ‘world’s view’ kind of wisdom, Singapore would be nowhere near where we are now. Just have a look at our neighbouring countries, and those are countries with more natural resources, bigger land size and bigger population (read= market) than us. So it’s really no easy feat to bring the nation from there to where we are now in our short history.

      Anyway, like Budget Babe (ohhhh! she and I have the same initials BB, hehe!), can I please repost this piece too?

      1. My 15 HWW Post author

        Hi Happiebb,

        I have not always loved him, although the respect was always there. But there’s no denying that I have benefited from his many astute policies when I was growing up as a child and even now as an adult. Therefore, this post.

        Think more people in this world know more about Buffett than LKY which really shouldn’t be the case, hence this post.

        And of course you can repost this piece. I am actually quite honored that both of you like it so much. 🙂

        1. bb

          Hey, thanks! But I’ve changed my mind about reposting your entire piece. I was blogging my thoughts to accompany the repost, but it sorta evolved into a rambling rant that touches a teeny weeny bit on GE and stuff. Decided not to ‘drag’ your lovely piece into my meandering post, hehe!

          Instead, I’ve inserted your FB post and also woven in the article link into my blogpost. Anyway, thanks for penning this piece! Really enjoyed it much ^^