Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Could Narendra Modi learn from Lee Kuan Yew?
I was always an admirer of Harry Lee, as he was known in my younger days. His passing away, though at the ripe old age of 91on 23rd March made me sad still. There are a few people who see the makings of a Lee in our own Prime Minister, more in the form of authoritarianism. There are others, like me, who ask the question whether the 'Singapore strong man' would be a model for Narendra Modi as a visionary administrator. The following are my thoughts on the issue.
With the possible exception of Cuba under Fidel Castro, it's hard to think of another country where one leader left such a firm, almost indelible imprint. But see where both took their countries! One man stuck to an idiotic ideology which refused to produce results. The other had no ideological anchor. “If it works, let’s try it, "If it’s fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one", are words of a man seeking results that would take his people to prosperity and make the once poor malarial port into a prosperous island nation having a seat at the table of great nations!
His view that India was “ not a real country,” but “32 separate nations that happen to be arrayed along the British rail line,” and his scathing criticism of its leadership and bureaucracy that were in his words “feudal” made many see him as anti-India. To call India “a nation of unfulfilled greatness” he must have been very fond of India because we have everything Singapore didn’t have, not even the elementary ingredients of a nation: a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny, when he took it over.
Closest parallel India had with Singapore was when it could be said about IndiraG’s leadership also “a unique combination of charisma and fear” as was said about Harry Lee; but unfortunately she, like her father earlier was happy about the India she could rule by birthright, just repeating often the banal blather about her family's sacrifices!(in The brown sahib (revisited) Varindra Tarzie Vittachi, Sri Lankan writer says Nehru was found comfortable with the system he inherited from the British though he criticised it!) Lee, if a despot, was a benevolent one.
To remove the temptation for corruption, Lee linked the salaries of ministers, judges and top civil servants to those of leading professionals in the private sector, making them some of the highest-paid government officials in the world. That worked too!
“Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless” Lee said openly, confessing also that “I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honourable purpose.” He said he didn’t care about being politically correct; but was always correct. According to him freedom of the news media had to be subordinated to the overriding needs of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government. He was unapologetic about the repressive measures he used to impose order, and unapologetic about believing his prescriptions alone were the right ones. Being politically correct is the most important thing in India, not being correct! India is not a tiny Singapore and a “nanny state” at that, but a dysfunctional democracy of over a billion people and (Lee called India a “Soft State” once!) Modi cannot do anything much about a hostile media, except refusing to feed/fertilize them as he does!
A key strategy of Lee to give people a sense of belonging as stakeholders in society was to provide affordable homes and therefore today home- ownership stands at 90% of Singaporeans. “Citizenship is essentially a question of loyalty,” Lee believed. This is something Modi has to do. Ensure “roti, kapda, and makaan”, band-width too! But loyalty, the scorning of national pride, the decline of patriotism in the public space, multiculturalism and its ethnic separatism, divisive identity politics etc.are territories Lee never had to travel!