Lee Kuan Yew: The Singapore leader had lessons for Modi, India

  • Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Mar 23, 2015 23:27 IST

Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away on Sunday night, had ceased to make public comments by the time Narendra Modi became Prime Minister. He would have approved: here was the type of Indian leader he had long argued the country needed.

Whenever asked how India could get its economy going, Lee would say: cut red tape, support the private sector, reform labour laws, build infrastructure and attract foreign capital. The endgame was to boost manufacturing.

Lee believed the service sector alone could not generate enough employment for India's millions. "The jobs will grow and the country will be transformed," Lee would argue. And transformation was his specialty: the man who single-handedly transformed a poor, malarial port into the richest nation in the Indo-Pacific.

Lee's formula sounds familiar to anyone who has been listening to Modi's speeches on the economy. This is no coincidence. Modi has been heavily influenced by the economic experiences of the Southeast Asian countries. Ex-Singapore prime minister Goh Chok Tong is the closest thing the Indian leader has to an international mentor.

The mistake is to assume Lee's prescription for Asian leaders was that they should be dyed in the wool capitalist. Lee experimented with socialism and five-year plans when he took over Singapore. It was the abject failure of such policies that led him to turn right. This is the real legacy he leaves for people like Modi: pragmatism. "If it works, let's try it," Lee once said. "If it's fine, let's continue it. If it doesn't work, toss it out, try another one."


People pay their respects at the tribute area at Singapore General Hospital following the death of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. (AFP Photo)

Lee's head-shaking about India was because of how long its leaders pursued failed policies, how New Delhi adhered to economic policies that consistently failed the country for decades. He recounts how in the early '80she urged Indira Gandhi to take a path away from socialism and populism. Lee says she told him "I cannot" because "this is the way India is." He largely gave up on India after that.

But if New Delhi's leadership believed Singapore's model was incompatible with India's conditions, Beijing's leadership did not. As many have written, it was Deng Xiaoping's experience of Singapore and Lee pointing out that this modern metropolis was the handiwork of the descendants of "illiterate Hokkien peasants" that led Deng to initiate the reforms that have made China the superpower it is today.

Any number of Indian leaders was to see a similar lesson in Singapore and the Asian tiger miracle as a whole - from VK Singh to Manmohan Singh. Yet they largely failed to find the political capacity to convert ideas into practice.

Why India's leaders were unable to carry out what they privately tell him was necessary was a source of regular speculation by Lee. It has also led to some of his most ridiculed statements regarding India. His favourite scapegoats were India's democratic polity, the caste system - partly because it meant that "the genetic pool" didn't get mixed enough, the mindset of Indian bureaucrats, India's heterogeneity, socialism in general and the country's unfathomable inability to build infrastructure. These comments do not seem to be the consequence of any deep analysis, just musings which he often contradicted. His real view on democracy was that it was irrelevant to correct economics; it "should not be made into an alibi for inertia."

Lee believed India was capable of "greatness". "India is a nation of unfulfilled greatness. Its potential has lain fallow, underused." He believed Indian businesses were superior to their Chinese counterparts, as were Indian judges and even the Indian elite as a whole.

"If all Indian ministers and top bureaucrats were like Narayan Murthy …India would be one of the fastest growing countries in the world and in one generation would be a first world country," Lee once declared.

While Lee's economic views - and more eccentric views about biology and sociology - catch the limelight, he had a strong sense of Asian geopolitics and the necessary role of a strong India.

In the 1950s Lee had asked New Delhi to take over the defence of Singapore. Jawaharlal Nehru rejected the proposal, though grumbling when Lee inevitably turned to the United States instead. But Lee always retained the idea of India as a major Asian military power.


A woman is comforted by a hospital staff member, right, as she cries at Singapore General Hospital where former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew passed away in Singapore. (AP Photo)

He saw this role in two ways.

One was a Singaporean belief that its future as a mercantile outpost was best guaranteed by having multiple centers of power in Asia. Under Lee the island-state is the ultimate balancer and if he could get India to join the ranks of China or the United States, the better it was for the continent as a whole.

The second role was Lee's long-term view that ultimately Asia's security was best left with Asians. The US or other Western powers had a role, but only because the larger Asian powers were unwilling to play or be accepted as policemen. He used to talk of his hope India would consider declaring a "Monroe doctrine" for Asia. In both cases, Lee saw India's role as crucial. As he once told Ratan Tata, "If India does not emerge, Asia will be submerged."

In the last decade or so, souring of Beijing's increasingly assertive and erratic foreign policy behaviour, Lee came to see India in an ever more favourable light.

"India can project power across its borders better and further than China can, yet there is no fear that India has aggressive intentions." Democracy was an asset in foreign policy. Why, Lee wondered, was India's rise not scaring anyone. His answer: Indian democracy had "numerous political forces" that were "constantly at work making for an internal system of checks and balances" - and this reassured others that more aggressive tendencies would held in check.

If Modi implements the Singapore-inspired reforms that his predecessors could not, Lee will be able to claim to have been pivotal to the transformation of the world's two largest countries by providing a tangible, viable model for both.

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