Updated: March 9, 2010 15:34 IST

Insights into India-Singapore relations

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The book deals with one of the most outstanding statesmen of our times and his hopes and aspirations about India-Singapore relations. Lee Kuan Yew dominates the Singapore scene almost like a colossus, leaving his indelible imprint in all the spheres of the tiny Republic — its political system, resilient economy, diplomatic finesse and, above all, its transformation from a third world state to a developed country.

The author Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, former editor of Statesman, who served as consultant to the Straits Times, has provided some keen insights into what Lee Kuan Yew has meant to Singapore.

In the early years of his political career, Lee was profoundly influenced by Jawaharlal Nehru. His commitment to non-communal politics, and abiding faith in secularism and democratic socialism were inspired by the leader who was at the helm when India began its “tryst with destiny”. Nehru's policy towards Southeast Asia during 1947-1959 was based on the firm foundations of Sino-Indian friendship. Unfortunately when that friendship got frozen in the snows of the Himalayas, India could not play any meaningful role. Singapore leaders frequently highlight the positive aspects of development strategies of India and China.

Located in a tumultuous region and given its vulnerability as a small state and the need for pragmatism in policy formations, Singapore sees the presence of extra-regional powers not as a threat to security, but as an opportunity to enhance regional and global inter-dependence.

Twists and turns

The book analyses the twists and turns in India-Singapore relations — to quote the author, “the journey from the sunlit peaks of hope into valleys of dark despair and, now, towards the radiance of a new dawn.” Despite the differences in their diplomatic styles, the three leaders who have guided the destiny of Singapore — Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong, and Lee Hsien Loong — are one in believing that India can, and should, follow an activist policy towards Southeast Asia. Goh, the most persuasive of the three, created a mild “India fever” in Singapore.

However, it should be pointed out that Datta-Ray's interpretation of certain important events may not be shared by keen students of Southeast Asian politics. I will refer to just two events. The first relates to the proclamation of “ de facto” independence of Singapore on August 31, 1963. With the benefit of hindsight, the author mentions that it looked like “a constitutional sleight of hand or an attempt to pressure the Tengku …or a shrewd move that saved Singapore's future.”

Political backdrop

To understand the full implication, it is necessary to keep in mind the political backdrop. Tunku was very keen to blunt the opposition of Indonesia and the Philippines to the proposed federation and at the Manila summit, in August 1963, it was resolved to postpone the ‘Malaysia day,' pending U.N. survey of opinion in Borneo territories. In Manila, the three countries also subscribed to the idea of MAPHILINDO. Lee Kuan Yew spoke against the Manila declaration and characterised MAPHILINDO as a “racialist conspiracy against overseas Chinese.” The proclamation of de facto independence was a pressure tactic so that Tunku will not be swayed by the arguments of Indonesia and the Philippines. Equally important, election to the Singapore Legislative Assembly was on the anvil and Lee wanted to project himself as a “strong man,” who could stand up to the Federation leaders. He made some snide remarks about the manner in which the Federation of Malaya attained independence. One of the sad things about Malaysia, Lee said, was the “naïve approach” of some people to whom power was handed over “on a silver platter with red ribbons by British Royalty in uniform.” The international community knew that the whole exercise was a political gimmick and ignored it.

The author's perception of India-Singapore differences during the third Indo-China war may not be shared by Indian observers. The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the installation of the Heng Samrin government have to be viewed in the background of the growing Sino-Vietnamese differences and the consensus among China, the United States and ASEAN on “ostracising” Vietnam. When New Delhi recognised the Heng Samrin government, Devan Nair, then a close associate of Lee Kuan Yew, suggested that Singapore should snap its diplomatic relations with India. The demand sounded hollow, because during all these years Singapore was carrying on prosperous trade with Vietnam. Pol Pot, by himself, was just a nuisance, but backed by China, a threat to Vietnam's security and survival. In the Sino-Vietnamese dispute, Thailand and Singapore were not neutral; they were definitely on the side of China.

In his speech before CHOGM in September 1980, Lee mentioned two “momentous events” as danger to the security of Asia — the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea, December 1978, and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, December 1979. In the considered view of “non-aligned” Singapore, China's invasion of Vietnam did not take place at all!

These differences in interpretation apart, this lucidly written book, with its historical sweep, is indispensable source material for all students of international relations.

LOOKING EAST TO LOOK WEST — Lee Kuan Yew's Mission to India: Sunanda K. Datta-Ray; pub. by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, and Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 499.

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