Lee-way may not be our way, but we could learn

On Sunday, Singapore bid a final goodbye to its founder and much-admired leader Lee Kuan Yew. The prime minister broke with tradition and decided to attend the funeral. Usually the Indian vice-president attends state funerals, coronations and such events. India even declared a day’s mourning for the passing away of Lee Kuan Yew. In Singapore, PM Modi said, “Mr Lee Kuan Yew inspired not just South East Asia, but all of Asia, to believe in its own destiny.” Mr Modi has been deeply influenced by Lee Kuan Yew’s life and philosophy.


The last goodbye: Tens of thousands of mourners braved torrential rain, howitzers fired a 21-gun salute, and jet fighters screamed across the sky yesterday in Singapore for the funeral of founding leader Lee Kuan Yew. PIC/AFP

Young Indians probably wonder why India would remember a South East Asian leader with so much sentimentality. Not many have any recollection of emotionally charged visits by PM Lee to India, or any sepia-tinted pictures of PM Nehru and PM Lee bear-hugging each other. Somewhat like Nehru with Gamal Abdel Nasser and Josip Broz Tito.

But PM Lee had deep and sustained links with India. He visited India several times, had strong bonds with Jawaharlal Nehru and several Indian politicians. Almost every Indian who met Lee has been deeply impressed by his clarity of thought and purpose. He expected more of India than Indians themselves did. Hence, he was annoyed and exasperated at times with the slow pace of reforms, for India’s sluggishness, for not meeting up  to its potential. In 2000, he  wrote, “India is a nation of unfulfilled greatness. Its potential has lain fallow, underused.” Most Indians agreed.

Who wouldn’t? Countries east of us were striding ahead, riding the economic liberalisation wave and we were caught in coalition governments, communal unrest, secessionist movement in Kashmir and so forth. Lee studied India minutely as he did China’s growth. His advise to India was this: India and China should cooperate and compete with each other, spurring one another to greater heights.... India should benchmark itself not just against its own past, but against the best in Asia.”

Indians who visited Singapore in the eighties onwards always got that sharp twinge of regret: why can’t we be like this? The city-state is breathtaking. I first visited Singapore in 1989. It was my first impression, too. Of course, it was the impatience and ignorance of youth when you don’t so much care for answers as questions and impressions. And then, when you seek answers the burden of experience and reality weighs you down. Such is life.

The Internet is littered with Lee’s quotable quotes. For every hagiographic article on Lee, there is one that tells you about dictatorship that Singapore learned to live with. The western world grudgingly accepted the success of Lee’s model of governance. Singapore indeed proved that the western model of democracy might not be the only successful model of governance.

Lee has spoken extensively on how deeply influenced he was by Nehru and his ideas. But the Nehruvian model for India did not match his ideas of what he wanted for Singapore. The two leaders respected each other’s opinions and went on to build their nation states. Lee’s job was comparatively easier. A smaller country, fewer people, easier to manage. He turned a malaria-infested swamp into a shining meritocracy. He demanded, and got, honesty in governance, strict law enforcement, and opportunity without shackles.

Former Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, in his eulogy at the funeral, said “Lee Kuan Yew drove people hard because he had to toughen fledgling Singapore quickly.” Singapore watchers have noted how Lee and his successors did not spend time and effort to “wipe every tear from every eye” with comfort, care and love. Theirs was the ‘danda approach’. You did what was expected of you; shirkers and laggards were not ignored or allowed to live on...they were dragged along the path of progress till they agreed to run with all. There was no romanticising of poverty and deprivation. There was an obsession to provide a corruption-free political process and clean and safe living conditions.
Lee Kuan made life liveable for Singaporeans. Children walk or cycle to school without fear. Women can ride public transport anywhere, at any time. Families face pressures of plenty, of competition for better things in life, but not deprivation and want.

Lee’s way may not be everybody’s way. Political choice and dissent may be exceptionally important in some countries; freedoms very valuable. Chewing gum and spitting in public areas might be rights you don’t want to give up.

Countries and people governing them make choices. Singapore made its choice. It was the Lee way. And going by the outpouring of grief that one is seeing in Singapore, the country loved its founding father without any reservations. The next generation has to now write the sequel to Lee’s Singapore.

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on Twitter @smitaprakash

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