Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Mr Lee Kuan Yew: A forceful role model, even for dissenters in India

At a South Asian diaspora convention in Singapore in 2011, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew was asked if he could replicate Singapore's success in India, he laughed out loud, but his answer was clear: No.

"No single person can change India," he responded. "If you compare with China, 90 per cent speak one language. It is a much easier country to lead than India. India consists of many different nation groups and dialects."

He had many observations about India, some flattering and several not so flattering.

He called India a "nation of unfulfilled greatness" with its potential "lain fallow, under-used".

India's complex caste system was an "enemy of meritocracy", he said. The potential of the country was bogged down by a bureaucracy "wrapped in a colonial mindset".

In one interview, he said India was "not a real country" but "32 separate nations".

Yet, even for Indians who did not agree with many of his views on India, he represented how a strong leader could make a difference to a nation.

Said Dr Sanjaya Baru, who served as media adviser to former Indian premier Manmohan Singh and later taught at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy: "I think most middle-class Indians who visited Singapore would envy Singapore's success and would wish India had a leader like him.

"The fact is that, in the past, Lee Kuan Yew did have a high regard for India and did reach out to India. I think, towards the end, he had become quite critical.

"I think all of us admired the kind of energy that he sustained in leadership and created something unique. But you can't do it anywhere else except Singapore. In that sense, it is unique."

Strategic affairs analyst C. Uday Bhaskar, who as a young naval officer visited Singapore often in the 1970s, said he was struck by the transformation he saw in the nation under Mr Lee.

"He will be remembered as the great architect of Singapore. It is very impressive what he has done, though he has been accused of ruling with an iron fist. But he was able to infuse an identity of Singapore in spite of a very complex ethnic diversity," said Mr Bhaskar.

He feels that the way Mr Lee navigated through complex relationships with neighbours such as Malaysia and other countries in Asean also holds a lesson for India.

India operates in a difficult neighbourhood, and it has gone to war thrice with Pakistan and once with China.

"There is a certain amount of pragmatism and how to maximise fairly difficult geopolitical and geostrategic circumstances," said Mr Bhaskar.

Mr Lee knew India quite well. He first visited the country in 1959 for a conference of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). As Prime Minister of independent Singapore, he visited six times. He returned in 2005 to deliver the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture in New Delhi and for later visits.

As early as in 1966, he suggested during a visit that India should take a leadership role in South-east Asia. He even proposed that India and Japan should start a regional economic cooperation accord. He knew many Indian leaders personally and most of its prime ministers, from India's first Premier Jawaharlal Nehru to Dr Manmohan Singh.

In later years, Mr Lee also became somewhat of a mentor to various Indian leaders.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Nehru's great-grandson, spent a week in Singapore at Mr Lee's invitation and had meetings with him.

Dr Baru revealed that, at one meeting between Mr Lee and Dr Singh, the latter sought advice on how to handle the Chinese leadership.

Many saw Mr Lee's contribution in recognising early that India could play a role in South-east Asia and as a counterweight to China.

Some even liked his plain speaking about India, seeing that as a desire for India to do better.

"Lee Kuan Yew was candid about India in his own characteristic way, and hoped we would rise to our real potential. Some of his views regarding our nationhood might be disagreed with but, overall, his heart was in India, and he genuinely wanted us to achieve our real potential," said Mr Tarun Vijay, an MP of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

India's current Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, who will attend Mr Lee's funeral on Sunday, is known to be an admirer of Mr Lee and Singapore's model of development.

In the past year, Mr Modi has focused on areas such as cleanliness, promoting manufacturing and reducing red tape - issues that Mr Lee had highlighted over the years.

gnirmala@sph.com.sg