'Our diplomats more interested in the West than in the East'

Those were momentous weeks in July 1991. Inheriting a virtual bankruptcy from the previous Chandra Sekhar regime, the then Congress prime minister P V Narasimha Rao and his finance minister, Dr Manmohan Singh ‘revolutionised’ national priorities. The deep financial crisis not only led to the launching of the economic reforms by the undaunted Dr Singh, but an equally pensive Rao meditated deeply on the need to rethink India’s foreign policy.

If India was to tide over the debt crisis, partly by getting closer to the IMF and the World Bank, Rao intuited that she had to first ‘Look East’ towards Singapore, which had made great strides under (former) premier Lee Kuan Yew, as part of a package, with the destination being the USA. Veteran journalist and author Sunanda K Datta-Ray, who has delightfully recounted how India and Singapore rediscovered each other, spoke to M R Venkatesh of Deccan Herald, after the recent release of his latest book, ‘Looking East to Look West — Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India’ in Chennai. Excerpts:

What is the context that has occasioned this book?
When I went to work in Singapore in the 1990s, all the Indians there said Lee was anti-India and anti-Indian. I had no reason to believe it. Then one day in the ‘Straits Times’ library (where Sunanda was then working), I came across a speech of Lee made in 1959 wherein he had said India is the only Asian country preparing for a modern future. Then I saw he had made lot of similar speeches all over the world in the 1960s (paying tributes to India’s plan efforts and so on).  Later I met him in Delhi in 2005 when Lee came to deliver the Nehru memorial lecture. I had left Singapore by then and he sent for me. I said, you were so upbeat about India (earlier) but what happened after that. The only persons to impress him were Nehru and K M Panikkar (Indian historian and diplomat) as beacons of light for Asia. But now India did not seem to be going on the path of economic progress, he felt then.

Later, when I got a fellowship to go to the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore in 2006-08, I researched on this book though it was still not written in that period. I had eight long recorded interviews with Lee, besides with lots of foreign service officers and locals there.

Was Lee’s fluctuating relations with India the floating raft for India’s new ‘Look East’ policy setting sail to the US in the 1990s?
Yes. But what I did not say was that Lee initially wanted a military alliance with India against China. On Aug 9, 1965, within minutes of becoming the first premier, he wrote to Lal Bahadur Shastri (then India’s PM), wanting India to build up Singapore’s army. Shastri ignored it. Years later, he (Lee) still wanted a close partnership with India, more economic, but still against China. There was then (in 2006) the ‘comprehensive economic cooperation agreement’ (CECA) with Singapore and under ‘CECA’ India had grand hopes about any third party country including US presence in Singapore. For under it, any company registered in Singapore was guaranteed the same privileges as Singapore companie‘Our diplomats more interested in the West than in the East’s, thus allowing them to invest in India. So there was so much hope that lots of FDI money will come. But it did not happen.

You have quoted Nehru as having said in 1946 that ‘Singapore can well become the place where Asian unity is forged’. What shaped that perception?
Nehru said it at a Chinese millionaires club in Singapore. He had great faith in China those days; there was no border dispute with China and Singapore was a melting pot where Indians and Chinese met. It was in that context. Nehru always wanted Asia for Asians. Ethnically and culturally, Indians and Chinese met in Singapore.

Did Singapore looking to Bangalore as an IT destination spur two-way trade and investments between the countries?
Yes. The IT Park in Bangalore is Singapore’s largest project. What should have been the ‘Madras corridor’ — a large industrial estate for export-oriented factories at Sholinganallur near Chennai (during an earlier Jayalalitha regime in Tamil Nadu in the early 1990s) did not take off for years and petered out. Then, they (Singapore) turned to Bangalore. They also had other big projects for Bangalore like Singapore Airlines-Tatas venture, redoing of the Bangalore airport. But the army had objected to the latter as it was near the cantonment. Now, Singapore wants to do smaller projects in south India, particularly Bangalore because of IT.

Do you feel the new ‘Look-East’ policy is sustainable as historically Pakistan dominates India’s foreign policy approach to her neighbours?
Pakistan cannot be ignored as it involves our national security. Other than that, our diplomats in the foreign office are far more interested in the West than in the East. But one hopes in the long-run, for economic and strategic interests, the ‘Look-East Policy’ can be sustained.

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