Lee was disappointed with India

This September 1, 1970 photo shows Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with Lee Kuan Yew in New Delhi. Photo: The Hindu Archives   | Photo Credit: UNKNOWN

Few if any world leaders could have claimed an understanding of as many Indian Prime Ministers as Lee Kuan Yew did. From his admiration of Jawaharlal Nehru, whom he saw as “demagogue who chose not to become a dictator”, to his controversial approval of Indira Gandhi’s imposition of the emergency, Mr. Lee (Minister Mentor Lee or MM Lee as Singaporeans called him reverentially) had very strong views on India’s leaders and where they should have taken India.

Journalist Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, who wrote the book ‘Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India’, based on interviews with him spoke of how Mr. Lee told him that he thought the Emergency imposed in 1975 was the right thing for Mrs. Gandhi to do in order to bring “discipline” to India.

“Lee and Indira Gandhi shared a brutal commitment to power, an almost brutal pragmatism and a fascination with mystic predictions of the future. Both dominated the scene around them. So much so that though lacking the alliterative resonance of the loyalist chant during the Emergency, Indira is India, India is Indira, it might be more accurate to recite Kuan Yew is Singapore, Singapore is Kuan Yew,” said journalist Sunanda K. Datta-Ray.

In later years, Mr. Lee met with nearly every Prime Minister, particularly Narasimha Rao, and Manmohan Singh, whom he met frequently in New Delhi and Singapore, as he pushed India for the need to “look east” more. But while Mr. Lee had an easy and often warm relationship with Indian leaders, he was caustic in his criticism of how India had developed post-Independence.

His view that India was “ not a real country,” but “32 separate nations that happen to be arrayed along the British rail line,” and his scathing criticism of its leadership and bureaucracy that were in his words “feudal” made many see him as anti-India.

On Indian bureaucrats

His views on the world, published in a book last year authored among others by the former U.S. Ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, included the following passage: “The average Indian civil servant still sees himself primarily as a regulator and not as a facilitator. The average Indian bureaucrat has not yet accepted that it is not a sin to make profits and become rich. The average Indian bureaucrat has little trust in India’s business community. They view Indian businesspeople as money-grabbing opportunists who do not have the welfare of the country at heart, and all the more so if they are foreign.” (Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (Belfer Center Studies in International Security) by Graham Allison, Robert D. Blackwill, Ali Wyne)

“Mr. Lee didn’t dislike India, but he was disappointed with India,” former Confederation of Indian Industry chief Tarun Das told The Hindu. “He had seen the potential of India and seen it go what he thought was the wrong way, the socialist way.”

Mr. Das was among the first group of industry leaders invited to Singapore after the economy was liberalised in 1993, by Mr. Lee’s successor Goh Chok Tong. “Even then Mr. Lee didn’t think India would make it.” It wasn’t until a decade later that Mr. Lee began to see India realise the potential he had predicted it would have in the 1950s. In 2005, Mr. Lee was invited to deliver the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial lecture in New Delhi. It was here that he finally acknowledged India was on the path to progress, albeit a “slow and faltering” one. “India must make up for much time lost,” Mr. Lee told the Indian audience, “There is in fact already a strong political consensus between India’s two major parties that India needs to liberalise its economy and engage with the dynamic economies of the world...The time has come for India’s next tryst with destiny.”

China’s rise

Mr. Lee chose a role in interpreting China’s rise for the world. While he dismissed all comparisons between India and China, he often said that the two economies would “reshape the world order before the end of the 21st century.”

He also dismissed Indian concerns of a conflict with China, and the “string of pearls theory” that China seeks to contain India, saying, “China will not go to war with India. It is prepared to take risks; for example, it is in the Niger Delta, risking Chinese lives with Chinese money, but it has decided that it is worth it. This is free-market competition. I do not see it as being, “If you agree to sell to India, I will beat you up, but rather as, ‘Whatever India offers you, I will offer you more.’ It [China] is going to play by the rules of the game and is quite convinced that it can win that way.”

Mr. Lee made his peace with India’s style of growth towards the end of his life, and his belief in the “centrality of entrepreneurship and private sector as a driver for economic development in close harness with the government” is perhaps most admired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who called him “a far-sighted statesman & a lion among leaders” adding that “Mr. Lee’s life teaches valuable lessons to everyone.”

In his own words several years ago, Mr. Lee called India “a nation of unfulfilled greatness.” “Indians will go at a tempo which is decided by their constitution, by their ethnic mix, by their voting patterns, and the resulting coalition governments, which makes for very difficult decision-making,” he conceded.


Lee Kuan Yew

Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, often described as the "shrewdest politician of the region," was the head of Singapore's Government since 1959. Here is a profile of Mr. Lee published in The Hindu on May 16, 1969.

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New employment law in Singapore

As Prime Minister, Mr. Lee brought in several reforms aimed at ending Singapore's dependence on Malayan trade and making the city state a manufacturing power house. Here is a report in The Hindu on June 25, 1960 on some of the earlier reforms.

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Stepping aside to corner more power?

On November 28, 1990 after 31 years at the helm of affairs, Mr. Lee handed in his resignation as the Prime Minister of Singapore. He was then the world’s longest-serving Prime Minister. Here is a report from The Hindu of December 2, 1990 analysing his decision to step down.
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  • Born in Singapore on September 16, 1923. Lee came from a middle-class Chinese Hakka family which had been established in Singapore since his great grandfather migrated to the island in the mid-19th century.
  • November 12, 1954: Together with a group of fellow English-educated middle-class men, Lee formed the ‘socialist’ People’s Action Party (PAP) in alliance with the pro-communist trade unionists.
  • May 30, 1959: National elections held, in which PAP won 43 of the 51 seats. Singapore gained self-government with autonomy in all matters except defence and foreign affairs.
  • June 3, 1959: Lee became the first Prime Minister of Singapore.
  • September 16, 1963: Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak merge and Malaysia was formed.
  • August 9, 1965: Singapore exits Federation of Malaysia, at Malaysia’s invitation, amid political and ethnic tensions. Parliament of Singapore passed the Republic of Singapore Independence Act, making itself a sovereign republic.
  • November 28, 1990: After leading the PAP to victory in seven elections, Lee stepped down on, handing over the prime ministership to Goh Chok Tong.

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Printable version | May 1, 2021 8:47:29 PM |

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