Open Essay


Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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Lee Kuan Yew and the making of Singapore—and an Asian vision

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, who died recently aged 91, was the last of the Afro-Asian leaders who battled colonial rule. He was probably also the only one to lead his country to independence and live to fulfil its promise. In the words of Jagat Mehta, a former Indian foreign secretary, Singapore was “the only former colony to make a success of independence” and that was solely because of Lee.

The ultimate test of a leader’s effectiveness is what he is able to do for his own people. More than a billion Chinese gratefully acknowledge that while Mao Zedong taught them to stand up straight, Deng Xiaoping enabled them to overcome poverty. The American historian Robert Elegant had doubts even about Mao. As he put it bluntly, ‘Among those who lead fights for independence, only Lee Kuan Yew afterward ruled wisely … Others failed the transition from revolutionary to ruler: Mao Zedong in China, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in India, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, and Sukarno in Indonesia. Those great men left disorder—economic, political, and administrative, compounded by corruption.’

In the view of James Cameron, a distinguished British journalist and great friend of India, Nehru ‘made India and lost it’. Nehru ‘could have done with India anything he wished, but he let it wither…’ That was also Lee’s ultimate verdict on the man who was the inspiration of his youth. “Amongst the politically aware—what were our models?” he asked as we chatted in his study in Singapore’s Istana—the presidential palace—forty-seven years after his first visit to India in 1959, and answered his own question. “First, India and Indian nationalists, the Congress Party, and the writings of Nehru and people like Panikkar. (He meant Sardar KM Panikkar, the eminent diplomatist and historian.) We used to get all the books and pamphlets that came out.” Then came the damning verdict which echoed Elegant’s. “Alas, they didn’t deliver!” He did, and that is why he stands out in Asian and world history.

I was introduced early to the fashion of sneering at Lee. This was at a Commonwealth conference in London in 1968 or 1969 when I happened to mention to a senior member of Indira Gandhi’s suite that this young and still little known Chinese from a tiny South-east Asian city state blended wit with wisdom. “Undergraduate humour!” was the crushing reply. I was in Singapore about seven years later hoping to interview Lee for London’s The Observer newspaper. With me was the British correspondent of the The Times. When three days passed without an appointment, the The Times man flounced off with the sour comment that his Top People’s newspaper had no time for “Mayor Harry Lee of City Hall”. That was denigration through description. Harry was Lee’s childhood family nickname which he had stopped using and wanted dropped. City Hall was Singapore’s municipal headquarters. Mocking Lee as ‘Mayor of Singapore’ was an easy way of diminishing his prime ministerial dignity.

This dismissiveness was possible because Singapore was so tiny—only six hundred and forty square miles “at low ride” as Lee joked. ‘One of the asymmetries of history,’ wrote Henry Kissinger, ‘is the lack of correspondence between the abilities of some leaders and the power of their countries.’ Kissinger’s one time boss, Richard Nixon, was even more flattering. He speculated that if Lee had lived in another time and another place, he might have “attained the world stature” of a Churchill or a Disraeli. Nehru was eminent because of his personal vision but also because the geographic sprawl of India and the millions who inhabited it offered him a fair chance of being able to project his vision on the global stage. Lee’s only field was what a British politician called the “pestilential and immoral cesspool” of the Chinese-majority Malayan port with its bars and brothels, food vendors thronging the pavements, and the teeming transvestites of Bugis portrayed in Paul Theroux’s novel Saint Jack. He had to tame a tumultuous community of Chinese triads, Communist terrorists and Malay pirates. The operation called for knuckle-dusters, not kid gloves.

Tom Abraham, India’s first high commissioner to Singapore and a lifelong friend of Lee’s, summed it up with blistering honesty, “I am quite aware of the beatings and the tortures and all of what happened there. But the fact remains that on balance I think the PAP (the People’s Action Party which Lee founded and which continues to rule Singapore) has done a remarkable job. Remarkable job!” Kunwar Natwar Singh was another Indian diplomat to whom Lee acknowledged his debt of gratitude: as a member of the United Nations decolonisation committee in New York, Natwar smoothed Singapore’s path to independence via the brief misalliance with Malaysia.

Snobbish Indians affected to look down on Lee’s Singapore. New Delhi being a community of refugees and immigrants who have only lately made the grade chose to be extra censorious. Singapore has no past, they sneered. It was obsessed with money. Wealthy Delhi with its new acquisition of a smattering of smart European phrases applied the term ‘nouveau riche’ to Singapore. Lee took the bull by the horns at a meeting at the India International Centre. Yes, he agreed unapologetically, Singapore’s obsession with money marked the nouveau riche, and many Singaporeans were nouveau riche. “I would like to believe that in the next twenty-thirty years as we become ‘old rich’, we will acquire the graciousness that comes with a cultivated society.” People who owned two-million dollar homes were naturally obsessed with their wealth because twenty years earlier they lived in hovels with a hole in the ground for a toilet.

He often boasted of ruling “a parvenu society consisting mainly of migrants.” Lee was proud of the transition under his aegis: Singapore’s per capita income had soared from $400 to $40,000. He made the point even to Deng when he visited Singapore. The gist of Lee’s politely couched speech was that if the riff-raff who had fled China’s wars, floods and famines to build a thriving new home in Singapore could do it, so could the millions who had stayed back in China where they were heirs to a civilisational heritage that stretched back 4,000 years.

Seven or eight long conversations with Lee (the basis of my book Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India) left me with the impression that he respected and admired India’s similar past. One of his earliest public references to India I have come across was at an exhibition of Indian miniatures that the Indian commissioner (this was before Singapore became independent) organised in 1959. Comparing India’s influence in Asia with that of Greece and Rome in Europe, Lee said that “when future generations write the history of Malaya and Malayan culture, they will have a difficult task tracing the many fine threads that go to make its fabric. But we should have no difficulty in recognising one of these strands. It is not only the oldest of our cultural strands but also the longest, the most illustrious, that which leads to India.” He spoke fondly of a former secretary, Ayyavier Sankaran, as much because of the man’s devotion and competence as, I suspected, because of his dwija credentials. Sankaran’s father was a priest in the sanctum sanctorum of the Thendayuthapani Temple in Singapore’s Tank Road where only the most exalted Brahmins could officiate.

There was something endearingly childish about Lee’s belief that when he was staying at Rashtrapati Bhavan as a state guest, the bearers deferred to Sankaran only because they immediately recognised him as a ‘high-caste’ Brahmin. “He spoke as a Brahmin. I suddenly saw a different Sankaran,” Lee told me. It was like his other belief that the copy of that day’s Straits Times, Singapore’s national daily, that he found on his seat on the Jet Air flight from Bangalore to Delhi was not a conscious tribute to him but proof of the airline’s efficiency. Or the conviction that the Bharatiya Janata Party was against reforms until Atal Bihari Vajpayee went to China. He just wouldn’t listen when I tried to explain that the BJP was a free enterprise party long before the Congress and that Vajpayee’s reform programme was well under way before his prime ministerial visit to Beijing.

Yet, he wasn’t dogmatic. In spite of harping on the harm reservations have done to administrative efficiency, Lee was not at all put out when my son, who had been studying the foreign service for his book, The Making of Indian Diplomacy: A Critique of Eurocentrism, argued that some of the reserved category entrants scored the highest marks. “Naturally,” he at once agreed with Deep. “They are the ones who are highly motivated because they want to climb up, but it doesn’t mean they are the top performers.” The analogy he chose was of a cricket team, “Can you have quotas for a winning first eleven?” It was another of Nehru’s failures. Quotas might be politically expedient but were “an impediment to effective governance.” They were damaging India’s once-prized bureaucracy.

One example of bureaucratic failure (though from other causes) he cited was that it took 72 hours to move goods from Delhi to Bombay by containers and another 30 hours just to move the containers to the port railway line at Nava Sheva. “To realise India’s potential for exports, it must dismantle the myriad of regulatory hurdles,” he warned.

No foreign leader discusses a host country’s domestic systems so minutely. Lee could do so because he spoke “as a well-wisher”. He blamed India’s slow progress on self-reliance, preoccupation with fair distribution, economic populism and the public sector. It was ironical, he told Indians, that the economy was being strangled in the name of social justice and democracy when both would perish if the economy languished. Far from growth taking a toll of social or political development, growth alone could cure social and political ills. As for democracy, Lee reiterated that “political systems that yield inferior economic performance will ultimately be discarded for those that are more productive”.

He could be frank because of his abiding conviction that India alone can balance China. When Harold Wilson announced Britain’s withdrawal from Asia, Lee took the first plane to Delhi to plead with Mrs Gandhi to impose an Indian Monroe Doctrine on the region. He never ceased to reiterate over the years that if India didn’t ‘emerge’, Asia would be ‘submerged’. But he also recognised that the Indian elephant was not to be hurried: it would move at its own pace in its own time. PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh became his favourites because of the reforms they introduced in 1991 and he hailed Narasimha Rao three years later as India’s Deng Xiaoping. The 1996 General Election was a bitter disappointment. There were many ups and downs after that. But Lee never forgot the profound impression that Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech had made on him in 1947 when he heard it on his radio in his room in Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. He died waiting for India to keep that long promised Tryst.