The Sage of Singapore

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This is a three part write-up coinciding with the 48th Independence Day of Singapore. This draws heavily on my readings of the following books and some reference material :

1. Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew – Tom Plate

2. Hard Truths to keep Singapore going – Hang Fook Kwang and others

3. From Third World to First – Lee Kuan yew

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” Nobody owes Singapore a living” – No this is not what somebody inimical to Singapore has said. These very words have been uttered by the father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, who was also its first Prime Minister who has seen the country move from a third world stage to the first world stage.

But these words from the father are not to be expected, right ? But that is what the ever-pragmatic Mr.Lee is and has been. Always a person to anticipate and look for options towards self reliance and survival of the country, LKY- as he is commonly known- has been a no-nonsense person with one and all. Never to brook incompetence and lethargy, he ensured that Singapore became one of the most prosperous countries in the world with its per capita income among the highest in the world.

But how does it matter ? All developed countries have such income, might be a question here. All countries took more than at-least a century to become developed. And this feat was achieved in no less than twenty years by Singapore. Yes, the country is small – why small – even tiny, often ridiculed as ‘Red Dot’ by envious neighbors. Nevertheless the red dot has more money to buy out large portions of its not-so-friendly neighbors. And mind it, the red dot has no natural resource including water. It imports everything except air.

Its birth was a painful separation from big brother Malaysia. And the moment it was born, it started its marathon run. And the lead runner was LKY who was really faced with the very task of survival as a nation. The very idea of Singapore existing as a nation was always in doubt in those days ( 1965 ).

LKY still says that Singapores’ existence for so long and its wealth by themselves are major irritants to the two large neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia. But the ever pragmatic LKY also prophesies that Singapore would not be annexed by either Malaysia or Indonesia as neither one wants the other to enjoy the fruits of Singapore. Nevertheless Singapore under LKY and later under the eminent PMs has armed itself to its teeth with the latest fighter jets from the US in addition to having a protection treaty with them.

LKY can never be downed by flattery. The first prime minister of Singapore enacted the very first law after Independence – The Public Servants Integrity Act – that sought to abolish corruption. LKY had identified corruption as one of the main threats that can derail Singapore even in its infancy. This act was to hand out extremely severe punishments that included longer jail terms and heavy penalties on people who were found guilty. Due to this and its impartial implementation, Singapore is a bribe-free society to a very great extent. Transparency International rates Singapore as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. And the iron hand that accomplished this was that of LKY.

LKY realized early on that Singapore, if it had to survive as a nation, needed to modernize, have an unified official language and industrialize. With absolutely no natural resources and dependent on every country for its living, he realized that a very cash rich situation was the only alternative. But how to achieve that without natural resources ?  So he made the country an investment destination for MNCs and made them choose Singapore as a global hub and an entry point to South East Asia and beyond. For that massive infrastructure was needed. He, along with his chosen team of highly motivated ministers, toured the world in search of technology and partnership. He opened up to the US, asked the army of Britain to stay in Singapore even after independence until the mid 70s to ensure  that the acrimonious neighbors don’t invade.

LKY identified that Singapore needed to have the highest productivity and that was applicable for its government employees. But Singapore’s hot and humid tropical climate inhibited that which convinced LKY to air-condition all government offices. That was a master stroke as the employees spent more time in office than at home during the most crucial nation building years.

Early on, he realized that technology was to be the driving factor in development as well as military training. Hence went scouting for partners. While many ( including India ) refused so as not to antagonize the Muslim majority Malaysia, he went ahead and recognized Israel and offered them embassy space in Singapore. Thus began a long and time tested friendship between two countries much in their infancy. Recognizing Israel, I believe, was the master stroke of LKY and his Foreign Affairs Minister Rajaratnam. No wonder both Israel and Singapore are experts in water management. And probably because of this relationship did Singapore go in for compulsory military training for its male citizens for two years ( Israel has 4 years for both male and female).

LKY’s main concern was racial unity in Singapore. He came down hard on both communalists and communists as they sought to divide the society. This earned him many not-so-well-wishers in the world. Never one to care about what the media in general and the western media in particular wanted to say about him, he stuck to his views that the western media are free to operate from Singapore so long as they don’t play the role of critique and just behave as an observer. He needed the approval of his people to proceed rather than that of the western media.

Early on, he prophesied that China would need to be brought into the development stream and forged friendship with Deng Xiaopping and made him convert Shanghai into the Singapore model. He often played the guiding force to many American Presidents from Nixon to Ford to Clinton to Obama in their quest to deal with China. Not content with bringing China into market economics, he forged strong ties with India just to ensure that India acted as a counter weight in Asia if and when China exceeded limits.

He has been a great admirer of Kissinger and Nixon for their forethought in cozying up to China to down the Soviet Union. He often confabulates with Kissinger on world affairs even today.

His views on many things have been extremely direct and blunt. But they were always true. He never camouflaged his thoughts unlike many others whose views are often at variance with their hearts.

He remains to this day the reference point for any politician in the world in matters of public policy, strategy and development.

In the next part of this write-up let us see some views of LKY on different issues- domestic and international – and how those have come to define what Singapore is today.

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