As an Indian, I wish Lee Kuan Yew had lived to be at least 97. He may then, in 2020, have taken a more positive view of India before finally signing off. In 2007, he endeared himself to Indians when he wrote admiringly about “India’s Peaceful Rise” in a column in Forbes. By 2012 he was writing India off as a “nation of unfulfilled greatness.”
Regrettably, those were his last recorded views on India before ill health slowed him down. He told Robert Blackwill, former United States Ambassador to India and the co-editor of a volume on Mr. Lee’s view of the world, ( Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World by Graham Allison, Robert D. Blackwill and Ali Wyne, 2013): “Look at the construction industries in India and China, and you will know the difference between one that gets things done and another that does not get things done, but talks about things…” — words that many believe still ring true about India.
Hot and cold on India Mr. Lee seems to have come to the conclusion that India, a great civilisation, would never be able to equal China as a modern nation. China was determined to regain its status as the world’s number one power. India, Mr. Lee felt, would do well if it managed to somehow get to number two. But, Mr. Lee wished India well because, as he wrote in Forbes , “Singapore and Southeast Asia, sandwiched between these two behemoths, need China and India to achieve a balanced relationship, one that allows both to grow and prosper, pulling up the rest of Asia-East, Southeast and South with them.”
>Mr. Lee always blew hot and cold about India . India was the country he first reached out to, in the mid-1960s, as he set about liberating Singapore and creating an island Republic. In his own country he was fighting the communists, so he couldn’t reach out to Mao’s China for help. Breaking off from Muslim majority Malaysia, and in an awkward relationship with most of his other neighbours, Mr. Lee saw India as his nation’s natural partner. He even retained the island’s Sanskrit origin name — Simhapura that became Singapore — and actively sought India’s diplomatic recognition and military assistance.
In his salad years, as the leader of a new nation, he admired Indira Gandhi’s tough personality. He went out of his way to make Mrs. Gandhi’s first official visit to Singapore a great success. He entered into a defence cooperation agreement with India that has only become stronger with time. But India’s self-important political and diplomatic leadership, while initially helping him, ended up spurning his entreaties and even his suggestion that India become a founding member of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Caught in the web of its own Cold War and post-colonial rhetoric, India seemed unable to see the wood for the trees in rising Asia. Rebuffed by an imperious India, Mr. Lee became its critic and shunned it, till Prime Minister Narasimha Rao launched his post-Cold war “Look East” Policy. It was left to Mr. Lee’s successor, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, to revive the relationship with India. Where Mr. Lee and Mrs. Gandhi failed, Mr. Goh and Mr. Rao succeeded, and the credit for the new India-Singapore relationship ought to go to them.
Rebuilding Singapore Mr. Lee was unique. Alone among the developing, post-colonial nations, Mr. Lee made bold to define his nation’s destiny as that of moving, within one generation, from being a Third World country to becoming a First World country. He achieved it.
Mr. Lee’s critics will draw attention to his dictatorial tactics and the stifling of dissent and the media. His admirers, however, view him a benign dictator who, in fact, actively sought democratic legitimacy and ensured that he secured it by running a welfare state, in which he sought to instil hope in the future for every citizen.
It is not just phenomenal economic growth and modernisation that marks Mr. Lee’s Singapore out. What truly set him apart was his obsessive social engineering. He rebuilt Singapore virtually brick by brick, tearing down the old, changing social behaviour and creating an ‘air-conditioned’ metropolis in the middle of a green, manicured garden island. As Singapore modernised, it also invested in the arts and in culture, always emphasising the diversity of its cultural roots.
Mr. Lee had strong views about how society ought to be organised and how governments ought to function. He had the opportunity and the space to put his thoughts into action and used social engineering to create a plural nation with four official languages and a housing policy that ensured the intermingling of races.
Minister Mentor Having completed his work in Singapore, >Mr. Lee straddled Asia and tried to shape China. His advice was not ignored. Inspired by Singapore’s economic success, China’s Great Moderniser, Deng Xiao Peng, invited Mr. Lee to help build a new China. Deng turned Shanghai into a “Manhattan of the East,” learning from Singapore.
After he handed power to a new generation and appointed himself as Minister Mentor, Mr. Lee sought to become a teacher of sorts. He educated himself about world history and travelled its length and breadth educating world leaders. The only institution in Singapore that he willingly lent his name to was the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, underscoring the point that he saw good and active public policy as the key to progress and prosperity.
His intimate knowledge of China and its leadership made him an important link between a still opaque China and an increasingly curious world. Both Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became his willing disciples in their own effort to understand and deal with China. Each time Mr. Lee visited New Delhi during Dr. Singh’s first term, the two would meet over lunch, where the Minister Mentor would tutor his pupil on how to deal with China’s leadership.
Because Singapore’s success has become so closely identified with his personality and politics, even its failures are now attributed to him. Rising income inequality has created an angry under class, and even a frustrated middle class unable to afford the temptations of a prosperous economy. This anger is now reflected in increasing resentment of expatriates and minorities.
The political party Mr. Lee and his compatriots created is losing ground and his critics are finding a new voice. Perhaps, this was the best time for him to leave his paradise on Earth.
Given that Singapore was one of the Asian countries that extended its hospitality to Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he was still Chief Minister of Gujarat, and also given the special relationship between the two countries, it would be a fine gesture on Mr. Modi’s part if he were to attend Mr. Lee’s funeral later this week.
(Sanjaya Baru was Visiting Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, and is presently Honorary Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)