For 50 years or so some Sri Lankan leaders fascinated by what Singapore had achieved as an independent nation hoped to emulate that city state. After all, they used to say, Sri Lanka had many more resources — natural and human, especially politicians. Not that the ‘architect’ of modern Singapore Lee Kuan Yew had much [...]


So where is that Singapore?


For 50 years or so some Sri Lankan leaders fascinated by what Singapore had achieved as an independent nation hoped to emulate that city state. After all, they used to say, Sri Lanka had many more resources — natural and human, especially politicians.

Not that the ‘architect’ of modern Singapore Lee Kuan Yew had much use for a plethora of politicians, particularly of the Sri Lankan breed, as he indicated to me during a conversation in Hong Kong where he was attending a major international conference and I was then working in the media.

Rather Mr Lee an astute, intelligent and a Cambridge and Harvard-Kennedy School-educated Singaporean lawyer had a certain admiration for Ceylon, a long time colony that the British tried to shape in its own fashion.

As Mr Lee would say, when Singapore parted from the alliance with Malaysia after the racial clashes in the early 1960 and Singapore wanted to be an independent state, Singapore’s leaders were in search of a model from which they could draw worthy parallels. The model Lee Kuan Yew picked was Ceylon.

That, of course, was then. By the mid-1960s Singapore was losing faith in Ceylon’s politics. When some of the South East Asian Nations were negotiating to establish ASEAN and Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman invited Premier Dudley Senanayake to join the grouping though Ceylon was outside the proposed  region, Singapore Foreign Minister Sinnathamby Rajaratnam of Ceylonese origin objected reportedly saying there were Communists in the Colombo government though at the time there weren’t any.

When I eventually asked the time-pressed Prime Minister Lee why Singapore forged ahead from a Third World to a First World country and Sri Lanka which was keen to emulate the city state was still dragging itself virtually on its belly, Mr Lee now on his feet, looked at me almost sadly and said “too much politics” and left.

With all the attributes Prime Minister Lee first saw in Ceylon and some of which he transplanted in his new nation to make it one of the richest in the world with one of the highest per capita incomes.

While corporate tax in Hong Kong was just 16 percent Singapore charged 24 percent yet it attracted as much business as Hong Kong which had the vast Chinese hinterland.

A highly educated leader Lee Kuan Yew laid much emphasis on education, especially science, helped Singapore develop as a hub for multinationals. Sri Lanka provided free education and produced an educated and literate society though not with the same emphasis on the sciences and scientific professions as the city state.

The constant visits by Sri Lankans to Singapore seeking medical treatment and advice is proof of the reliance they place on the medical professionalism and the facilities available there.

So where did Sri Lanka fail so badly and is still struggling to get to its feet in the way Singapore has?

Admittedly not everybody, including some sections of Singapore society were happy and content with the way Mr Lee ran his country dealing quite sternly with political opponents though they posed no threat to him and there were only a few that challenged his party, PAP.

Dissenting voices were hardly heard, especially in public. The media were constantly under observation by the State watchdogs and foreign media based in the city adhered to the straight and narrow declared by the State unless they wanted to deviate and risk opprobrium.

When I first met Mr Lee he showed early enough that he knew what I had written about him. Laughingly he showed I had called him an authoritarian ruler, a dictator, intolerant of dissent and ready to prosecute critics.

Some Sri Lankan rulers would applaud that kind of ruler and were they to emulate Singapore as Singapore did try to emulate some of our features , this is the kind of governance our leaders would embrace to their chest with alacrity.

While Singapore would borrow the best from others, Sri Lankans do not seem to know the best or are quarrelling among each other over the worst or bite off chunks to fatten themselves instead of developing the country. That is probably why our roles have been reversed with progression on the one hand and retrogression on the other.

What brought these flashbacks and evoked reminiscences was an interview not only by one of Singapore’s multifaceted scholars but also recognised as a distinguished world scholar, professor of philosophy, veteran diplomat, author and too much more to mention.

It was a video clip of an interview given by Kishore Mahbubani, for 14 years Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in which he explains Singapore’s rise to world class status.

Although he talks of Singapore’s phenomenal success it also answers the question why Sri Lanka and other developing nations are stuck in the mud at the bottom of the pit.

Prof Mahbubani’s lesson resting on three pillars would take too much space to regurgitate in full. Moreover it is not likely to convert the crooked and corrupt, the bad and ugly. But at least, if they can read they will understand who have pilfered their nations, who has robbed public assets and who have filled their family vaults by destroying the natural assets while preaching sermons on nationhood and nationalism as though just descended from the Himalayan heavens.

The first pillar is MERITOCRACY. Prof. Mahbubani says Singapore searches for the best people in the country to fill vacant positions. When it comes to selecting the country’s finance minister or economics minister, “Singapore will not give the posts to their brothers, cousins, uncles, relatives. They will give it to the best”.

This is not shouted from the rooftops to fool the citizens. This is practiced.

The second is PRAGMATISM. China’s Deng Xiaoping said it does not matter if the cat is black or the cat is white, if it catches rats it is the best. So to Singapore it matters not whether it is a capitalist principle or a socialist principle. What matters is whether if it works well.

Prof Mahbubani finds the third pillar the hardest to achieve. That is HONESTY. When Mr Lee became prime minister he wanted to clean up corruption — not so much at the bottom of the rung but at the top. On one occasion when a deputy minister and his family were on holiday with a businessman, the politician was arrested on his return. What wrong had he done to be arrested, he had asked somewhat perplexed.

He was told he went on holiday with a businessman who paid all your expenses. That is corruption and he was jailed. Such resolute action against your ministers and officials scarces people and drives them to conduct themselves cleanly.

One of the biggest issues particularly in the Third World countries is corruption which keeps poor countries even poorer as politicians and their families, relatives and cronies steal from the people. These three pillars conscientiously practiced and the guilty-especially those at the top punished, helps to cleanse society.

Some countries will punish the guilty but only if they are from the opposing side. If they are from your side of the political or family fence why then they are released, promoted or given salary hikes to go out and play hookey. And people want to know why we cannot be like Singapore. Of course we can — if nobody insists on MERITOCRACY and HONESTY. The trouble Prof Kishore Mahbubani is that we are extremely short of both — like turmeric, tamarind and truth.


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