Pragmatic vision

It was the vision of Lee Kuan Yew that created a first world model in a third world environment. This he managed by relying on free market economy and promoting meritocracy. A pragmatic but pro-American foreign policy served Singapore’s interests well. By adopting English as the common language for the multi-lingual city, the racial tensions were kept at bay. His vision still shapes the official thinking.

Veteran journalist Sunanda K Datta-Ray chronicles Singapore’s engagement with India to create a new Asia in Looking East to Look West — Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India. He argues that it is a re-discovery as India’s imprint on South-east Asia is centuries old.

Singapore was administered from Calcutta for some years and during colonial period Indians had an upper hand over the majority Chinese though the equation changed after independence. The elder statesman always believed that an Indian presence in South-East Asia was essential for the region’s security and stability.

Despite his abiding interest in India and admiration for leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru the relationship was hampered by hesitation and mutual distrust. India ignored Lee’s plea for military aid soon after Singapore’s independence. But with liberalisation and look east policy-part of a strategy to move closer to the US — initiated by Narasimha Rao government India’s ties with Singapore have taken a quantum jump paving the way for closer links with ASEAN.

Based on eight long conversations with Lee and interactions with hosts of diplomats and academics, the book encapsulates the brilliance of Singapore’s first Prime Minister. His deep understanding of Indian affairs right from Cambridge days, praise for India’s planning process, his impressions on our leaders and their failures are succinctly brought out. He admired ICS and feels that good administration makes all the difference.

He blames the Indian bureaucracy standing in the way of its progress and cites Air India’s slump as a classic example. It is action that he admires not argument. Lee got on well with Indira Gandhi socially but their politics were far apart. He found Rajiv Gandhi a ‘political innocent who found himself in the middle of a minefield’.

Datta-Ray finds Lee as a man ahead of his time. He had voiced unease over China’s growing clout. “Unless India changes course China will become the dominant power of Asia”. On several occasions he has candidly said what ailed India. Terming India as a sleeping giant unaware of its own strength, Lee fervently hoped that India would open up to make trade and investment more attractive for Singapore.

Delivering the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial lecture in 2005, he warned against using democracy as an excuse for inertia. He is well aware of the paradox of latent xenophobia of the city state built by immigrants and the failure to get overseas Chinese, Indian migrants and the Malays to accept each other completely.

After living in Singapore and the West for many years, it is not surprising that Datta-Ray has become die-hard votary of free market opted by Lee. The limitation of the book is that Lee’s mission India is given mostly from a Singaporean angle. He had little access to archive material. The divergent perceptions on Indo-Singapore relations complicate matters. His adulation for the Mentor Minister doesn’t seem to be shared by Indians there. The author doesn’t go deep into why India was lukewarm to Singapore’s overtures. Cold war and strategic interests decided India’s foreign policy.

However, Datta-Ray contends that a ‘Russian mafia’ that controlled Indian foreign policy during the cold war came in the way. It is true that failure to forge closer ties with Asian neighbours remains a major lapse of India’s foreign policy. But it is mainly due to our policy makers ‘arrogance and indifference as well as our diplomats’ preference to postings in Western capitals.

All the glitter of Singapore cannot hide the fact that it is an authoritarian model that has ensured spectacular economic growth. The opposition there still struggles for survival and the tightly controlled media remain conformist. The comparison between a city state of four million people and the world’s largest democracy with a vibrant media seems out of place. The well-researched book offers a wealth of information which is normally unavailable to the general reader.

Some commentators tend to take liberties with names and details pertaining to the south. Datta-Ray uses ‘Karnataka’ instead of Kannada and ‘Malayali’ instead of Malayalam. While reeling out statistics on IT revolution shouldn’t he know what Karnataka’s official language is?

Looking East to Look West—Lee Kuan Yew’s
Mission India
Sunanda K Datta Ray
Penguin, 2009, 384 pp
499

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