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Jakarta Post

NEW DELHI: Lee Kuan Yew's role in shaping India

  • Salman Haider

    The Jakarta Post

New Delhi   /   Wed, April 1, 2015   /  09:11 am

The passing away of the eponymous patriarch of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, has brought an outpouring of tributes for this towering figure.

More than anyone else he shaped modern Singapore and made it one of the most successful societies of its time, prosperous, orderly, quick to see how events were shaping and to find its specific opportunity amidst the competing giants around it.

A combination of circumstances meant that at the start Singapore was more or less left to fend for itself; unmoored from the Malaysia Federation, without natural resources and with only a tiny population, it had few of the attributes of a normal sovereign state; indeed, as Lee himself said, with no real right to exist.

But it came through all the challenges in triumph and became a model for the entire region, an Asian tiger and leader of that continent'€™s economic transformation.

Such sweeping change would scarcely have been possible without Lee.

Under his management Singapore became successful and prosperous, and even before that it made itself secure.

At the time, China was emerging from isolation, an uncertain entity in an unsettled neighbourhood; Singapore led the way in fashioning a collective response by the smaller countries to China'€™s south to maintain their independence and develop cooperation with the formidable neighbour.

Asean took shape and became an important element in binding the region through regular consultation, enhanced trade and collective prosperity.

Lee Kuan Yew was highly influential in shaping the regional organisation as an inclusive body that tried to persuade laggards and dissenters into a shared collective vision on divisive issues instead of using the stick of sanctions against the recalcitrant.

Thus Myanmar was patiently admonished against the human rights violations it practised, but never excluded from the regular gatherings or otherwise subjected to ostracism.

Lee'€™s Singapore had a rather mixed experience in its dealings with India.

Post-colonial India was the pace-setter in economic development for developing countries and many of the early strategies adopted by newly emerged countries were derived from India'€™s experience, drawing on the rich store of ideas developed by Indian statesmen and thinkers, with Nehru in the lead.

Lee Kuan Yew and his economics minister Goh Kend Swee, who was regarded as the chief architect of Singapore'€™s economic strategy, were very familiar with Nehru'€™s thinking and with his development strategies, and initially they took guidance from them.

But then they took a more critical look and came to the conclusion that India'€™s approach was not working, and if they were to advance in the manner they desired they had to reverse India'€™s experience, de-emphasise socialist impulses, play down the role of the public sector, and in other ways move away from the path India had chosen.

Nor did Lee conceal his conviction that India had chosen a wrong path and needed to change its approach if it were to prosper and thrive like other countries.

Though their economic paths diverged, the two countries remained friendly, with the Commonwealth playing its part in cementing the many values they shared.

Lee was a confident, outspoken leader who could be very direct in expressing his views.

Indira Gandhi was no less forthright and their exchanges at the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) could be testy, but that is how the Commonwealth works, for it encourages frank talk in its private conclaves.

Neither could persuade the other but they seemed to have developed a healthy mutual regard as a result of their frequent meetings and conversations.

This endured throughout their respective terms of office and offset some of their differences of belief and practice.

Lee Kuan Yew eventually laid down the PM'€™s office in 1990 after some 25 years as leader but even then he did not walk away from the public stage.

He became '€˜Senior Minister'€™, a non-executive but prestigious post fashioned especially for him in consideration of his unique and overwhelming prestige as the father of his country.

He was succeeded by Goh Chok Tong, who had the unenviable task of stepping into the shoes of his legendary predecessor.

But Goh measured up very well. He had to put his own stamp on events, not merely follow in the footsteps of Lee, and one of the strategies he devised was to give higher priority to India in his foreign policy.

Maybe he had to overcome some initial skepticism from his own side, for at that time India seemed mired in its desultory ways, showing little inclination to change and catch up, nobody'€™s partner of choice in economic affairs.

But Goh decided that, in its own interest, Singapore needed closer ties with India, and he did something about it.

Where Lee Kuan Yew had been unconvinced, Goh Chok Tong pushed for a new sort of partnership, with Singapore drawing India closer into the ever-advancing world of Southeast Asia. He made it possible for India to become a '€˜dialogue partner'€™ of Asean, without similar treatment for Pakistan, and envisaged a series of collaborations to exploit the complementarities between the two countries.

Not all of these materialised, but they show the great potential advantage to each of them that can be obtained through carefully directed collaboration, and the process of pursuing such collaboration continues.

With the passing away of Lee, a new era has started for Singapore.

There is none of the uncertainty that can affect a comparable transition elsewhere, for the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew is secure and is likely to be enduring.

For all the accusations of disregard for democratic niceties, he gave his country the society and governance they were comfortable with, with rising prosperity and international prestige.

Already there have been two successors to Lee since he demitted office who have slotted in comfortably and shown that the system is sturdy and reliable.

That the patriarch should have left such a legacy is a tribute to him and to the people he led.

The funeral was planned on a vast scale, a unique tribute to one of the few persons of this era who truly made a difference.

Many prominent individuals from across the world were present to offer recognition and respect on behalf of their countries.

Among the throng was India'€™s prime minister whose presence showed how important this burgeoning city-state has become to India and how significant a part it plays as a gateway to the Asia-Pacific region.

What the two countries share in common has steadily increased since the early days when Lee Kuan Yew embarked on his and Singapore'€™s success story, and there is every reason to believe that what was started in his time will continue to develop and prosper. (***)


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