Learning from India

Learning from India
Mr and Mrs Lee calling on then-Indian president R. Venkataraman and his wife

When India's current foreign secretary ("perm sec" in Singapore jargon) called on Mr Lee Kuan Yew after presenting his credentials to President S.R. Nathan as the new Indian high commissioner in 2007, Minister Mentor (as Mr Lee was then) looked at him and murmured, "Subrahmanyam Jaishankar... Tamil Brahmin!"

Mr Jaishankar rightly read the greeting as proof of Mr Lee's deep interest in and knowledge of India and Indians.

Mr Lee himself boasted when I was writing Looking East To Look West: Lee Kuan Yew's Mission India that Indian representation in Singapore's Cabinet far exceeded the demographic percentage.

What gave him greatest pride was that this wasn't affirmative action as with India's disadvantaged communities. They were there "on merit, on their ability to get things done".

The distinguished Indian scholar Amitabh Mattoo said in his flattering review of my book that Mr Lee believed in India long before Indians began to believe in themselves.

Yet, another Indian academic who had spent some years in Singapore took Mr Mattoo to task for not mentioning in the review that Mr Lee was a racist. The Singaporean diplomat Ong Keng Yong had an explanation for the dichotomy.

A Western newspaperman once told Mr Ong that Mr Lee was "a very good racialist". Baffled, Mr Ong asked if he meant racist. No, replied the journalist.

Racialist meant Mr Lee understood the differences between different races; he wasn't a racist because he wasn't swayed by them.

The distinction may have been lost on people who suffered his sometimes abrasive comments. Just as his Singapore had no time for unrewarding allies or unproductive foreign policies, he had no time for people who did not live up to his exacting standard.

The initial refusal to make schoolgoing compulsory highlighted Mr Lee's reliance on native intelligence making the most of the benefits (affordable schools within easy reach and a society where education was the sine qua non of advancement) the system provided.

India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was among his heroes. He admired another Indian statesman, Sardar K.M. Panikkar, who coined the term South-east Asia for a region that was previously known as Further India.

Shridath (Sonny) Ramphal, the Guyanese Indian Commonwealth secretary-general, was a close friend. He thought civil servant J.Y. (Joe) Pillay the "equal of the best brains in America".

The compliments he showered on his one-time personal assistant, Ayyavier Sankaran, convincingly demonstrated his ability to ignore externalities and recognise intrinsic merit.

Perhaps that can also be termed elitism. When I asked where in the global hierarchy of talent he would place Indians, he replied without hesitation: "I would say in your upper class, equal to any in the

world." His patience ran out with people who were not in the intellectual top drawer. And it stood to reason that out of more than a billion and a half Indians in India and the diaspora, millions did not.

But as Mr Ong said, Mr Lee was "not the kind of guy who says these people are like that because they are non-Chinese or these people are better because they are Chinese".

That was confirmed when Mr S. Dhanabalan contradicted the widely-circulated story that Mr Lee had disqualified him as his successor on grounds of race.

What Mr Lee actually said was that Singapore was not yet ready for an Indian prime minister. In the next breath he ruled out another Cabinet member, Mr Ong Teong Cheong, for being too Chinese.

I sometimes felt during our eight conversations I had with him in 2005 at the Istana when I was writing Looking East that Mr Lee's true vocation was that of social anthropologist.

He asked me about Bengalis and rattled off the names of several eminent Bengalis. He warned against the perils of hasty modernisation by citing the example of a Sikh who rejected the symbols of his faith and tried to break "away from his past too fast and too quickly" and found himself "betwixt and between".

Latterly, he was concerned at the cultural gulf between Indian Singaporeans and Indian expats.

He believed Singapore had to move faster than the rest of the world merely to survive. It had to transcend geography and make the world its market. Only then would the little red dot make up for the drawbacks of size, location and lack of natural resources.

India was an essential partner in that journey. "I was learning from India," he told an Indian politician, Jaswant Singh, about his 18 or 19 visits. "You had so much talent... you had so much to teach me. Your officers taught me so much. I would take them out to golf and talking to them was a great help for me."

New Delhi was a natural stop after Rangoon or en route to London, but Mr Lee also found himself there when returning from Cairo and on his way to Lusaka. India's capital was the new Rome to which all roads led. The mystery was he didn't talk to Singaporeans about these trips.

An Indian Singaporean friend suggested a reason for the reticence on the sidelines of a meeting at the Indian Association that Mr K. Kesavapany organised to promote Looking East.

She wondered if Mr Lee feared the scepticism of hard-headed Singaporeans riding the crest of prosperity who spoke of a European dignitary wondering if he had taken the wrong flight and landed in India when he was received by President Devan Nair and introduced to Foreign Minister Dhanabalan.

If so, the man who took the Singapore Story from the Third World to the First was even braver than his multitude of admirers thought. Mr Jaishankar reciprocated his faith by recalling at his 2008 Republic Day reception that in India the little red dot is a token of lifelong commitment.

tabla@sph.com.sg


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