Obituary: Small lessons from Lee’s Singapore

There are a few things that India can learn from Singapore, but plenty that it can learn from us like freedom of expression

Jasnea Sarma Singapore 

When former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew passed away on March 23, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi immediately hopped onto a plane to pay his respects. Considered the father of modern Singapore, the 91-year-old leader cast a long shadow for Indians enamoured of his successes in cleanliness, modernity, and law and order.

But, as suggested by the misguided Indian processions in Lee’s honour—where marchers mistakenly carried posters depicting current Singapore President Tony Tan—Indians are prone to misinterpreting Lee’s legacy.

Historically, his relations with India were dynamic, oscillating between admiration and revulsion. He insisted on a steady economic and defence partnership, even when we were not the best reciprocators. He was the first to rally for India’s close association with Southeast Asia, eventually culminating in the Look East framework. He shared an untitled anti-colonial stance and harboured deep admiration for the Nehruvian vision of India’s rightful place in the world.

Still, he knew better than anybody that India was special and her limitations were incomparable to his own national project in a historically young and war-torn Singapore. “We got lucky with Singapore,” he used to say, referring to the ease with which he had established English as the country’s working language (while Malay was the national language). India had suffered under British colonialism, but nowhere like Singapore had, and those collective memories of suffering and national weakness fuelled the need for more radical, restructured models of good governance.

However, nothing stopped Lee from being incredibly repulsed by our post-Independence rust, uninspired politics, chicanery, greed and national inefficiency. Characteristically, his comments on India were unapologetically straightforward.

In interviews and memoirs, Lee described India as several linguistically and culturally disparate mini-nations presenting themselves as an organic whole. Atop this difficult structure, post-Independence India laid a premise for a directionless and non-meritocratic society that was disproportionately advantageous to certain sections, linguistic groups or regions.

Surely, these assessments were painful for Indians to hear, but they showed something very important about the kind of person Lee was. He had ideas, but he knew that ideas weren’t enough. He wasn’t going to wait around for other people’s corruption, weakness or lethargy to absolve him of responsibility for achieving his visions. That explains a lot of his People’s Action Party’s policies. From campaigns like “National Courtesy” (state control of public language) to the “Stop-at-two” or “Graduate-mothers” policy (State influence on the family), he never shied away from intruding on personal liberties to get the job done.

It is, therefore, no wonder that Lee’s passing raised several questions on the role of a leader. Is democracy necessary or desirable when it becomes an impediment to security, efficiency and good governance? Or is democracy, warts and all, really the least worst form of government it is often characterised as?

In India, we ask several versions of the same questions, but with a twist. We ask, “Do we need our own Lee Kuan Yew?” “Could Lee Kuan Yew have turned Bihar into Singapore?” Or, more comically, “How long would it take Lalu Prasad Yadav to turn Singapore into Bihar?”

Unfortunately, these questions are reductionist if not  banal. Singapore’s democracy is far from ideal. The Singapore model worked in a very specific context and Lee’s particular policies, personal shadowing of the PAP and pride in his own gene pool are no national secrets. Researchers in Southeast Asia will tell you: Lee did not originate Singapore’s economic policy, but he inherited and drove it to success. He did not singlehandedly transform Singapore into the fastest growing economy in Southeast Asia. In fact, even before independence from the UK and Malaysia, Singapore, as a free port, was one of the fastest growing cities in Southeast Asia and also an intellectual and cultural hub for Malaysia. Some complain of him repressing and jailing communists or sullying a competitive electoral system with authoritarian elements.

Still, Singaporeans, though mostly aware of these shortcomings, will defend Lee to the core. “He did what he had to do at that time and now we’re where we are lah!” they say.

Singapore is a city-state and makes no pretences of its semi-authoritarian governance. Lee was a pragmatist, not an idealist, or so he would have liked us to believe. In reality, he did have an ideology but he did with it what the devil does to the world: convince everyone that it doesn’t exist.

His ideology was that of immediate action, centralised economic planning, educated and inspired leadership, meritocracy and, oftentimes, legal/ institutional curbing of political opposition. In other words, his ideology was that of action itself, for better or for worse.

At least some aspects of this are good things to learn, but only as micro adaptations. If we have to draw lessons for India, we need to think small, not large. We have lived far too long with freedom to accept curbs on it. Indians are not ready to trade even an incompetent democratic government for an efficient autocratic one—or even a semi-autocratic one. If only for sheer numbers and social stability, we cannot afford an all-out breakdown of its welfare and health system or encourage unmitigated transfer of inward foreign investments. India needs ad-hoc and doable inspirations from Lee’s Singapore.

Let’s take Singapore’s multi-ethnic culture, for example. Singapore has several ethnicities that have not always lived together harmoniously. It’s not hard to imagine an alternative history where a Han or a Malay nationalist party rose to power and demanded loyalty oaths from the other minorities. Instead, Singapore was explicitly and officially multi-cultural, like India. However, unlike India, they took legal steps to prevent the formation of politicised ethnic blocs. Lee and his team created Singapore essentially as a place where you don’t have to like each other to live together. The logic of Hindi as an official language for India is what the Chinese would have given for Singapore. Instead, they chose Malay. People were penalised heavily for being offensive towards another religion or ethnicity, and all of this was sealed by equal education and a meritocratic society. People were free to feel about each other however they wanted, but voicing those feelings in indecorous ways carried heavy penalties. 

There is a lot the Indian bureaucracy can learn from Singapore’s meritocracy. Its variable and large payscales even in the government sector mean that honest hard work is rewarded while low-quality work is appraised and penalised. The Singapore civil service, unlike the Indian UPSC, is not a one-way ticket to lifetime security. There is no room or reinforcement for corruption. Like the UPSC, Singapore has a valuable examinations system suited for different kinds of bureaucratic recruitments and appraisals.

It might be a little far-fetched to imagine India adopting intrusive population control policies like Singapore in the 1960s and ’70s. But it is not hard to imagine our “demographic capital” quickly turning into “demographic liabilities”. Singapore-style tax relief or incentivising fewer births (for the unorganised sector) in state or district legislatures can help.

The point is that India can’t really learn from Singapore. Maybe states like Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar can. Lessons from Singapore are all about the importance of good, clean, responsive local government.

Lee held on to his vision until a ripe old age. Now it’s time for future generations to adapt and loosen some amount of over-zealousness. At some point, a city must inspire freedom of artistic expression, street life and music. Perhaps on that score there are a few things the island state can learn from us.   

(With inputs from Amit Julka and Matthew Reinert)

The writer is an Asian Studies researcher at the National University of Singapore

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2015