What If Lee Kuan Yew Had Been Our First Prime Minister

When Lee Kuan Yew passed away last Monday, his tiny island Republic was grieved to its core. Yet, public life and affairs continued as usual and there was no outpouring of mass hysteria and fraudulent grief as we see in our shores, whenever some neta or a public figure is called to meet the maker. There was a dignified official press release that conveyed the sad news in prosaic language. More importantly, Singapore did not shut down even for a day, whereas we are unable to contain our sorrow on similar occasions in less than three to five days.

The contrast between Lee’s death and Nehru’s in 1964 could not be starker. In honour of our first PM, India shut down for a whole week. The entire affair culminated in a bizarre display of national mourning when Nehru’s ashes were taken in an Air Force plane and scattered over the countryside. It was left to the irrepressible Ram Manohar Lohia to observe that Nehru had left his cash for his daughter and his ashes for the nation, or similar words. The Congress acolytes went ballistic, but the doughty socialist stuck to his guns.

This provides the appropriate backdrop to study two completely different models of post-colonial development. The first one crafted by Nehru from 1947 onwards, was faithfully followed by all his successors, and defined our developmental process until mid-2014, when some effort started to design and implement a slightly different paradigm. The second model, from 1965 onwards, owed its origins and parameters uniquely to Lee and the institutions that he created, and which his successors are following till today.

Let us now look at the two development trajectories, one adopted by Lee’s Singapore and the other by Nehru’s India. The broad features of each are spelt out, so that we can compare them. The Singapore version went something like this. On the economic front, the tiny island nation that was a minor trading post with no natural resources, surrounded by much larger neighbours (basically hostile) and owing its strategic importance to a dwindling British naval base, took a long and hard look at its chances in the real world.

Lee and his People’s Action Party that had steered the country to independence decided that they would capitalise on their most important assets—the commitment, hard work and intrinsic intelligence of its people. They started making the country an attractive and viable place for international corporations to do business. The core ingredients for this were a squeaky-clean administration, a legal system that delivered justice and an infrastructure that helped industry and business to operate. The results were quick—many MNCs set up their manufacturing bases there, to cater to the entire region. Trading companies followed suit. The country’s savings rate was bolstered by a Provident Fund system that was transparent and completely above-board. It was also mandated to invest heavily in public housing, another important plank in Lee’s social policy. Soon, Singapore was labelled as “Switzerland on steroids”.

On the social front, Lee was adamant that the new nation would be bound together by common ethics and principles. The tiny country could not afford fissures on the basis of race, religion or language. While recognising the separate roots of the Chinese, Malays and Indians who had made Singapore their home, Lee ensured that an overarching “Singaporean” ethos and identity was soon forged. This was his crowning achievement, a proud new breed of South East Asians, an altogether different version from the decadent Homo Britannicus. And above all, there was zero tolerance of corruption in any form and by anyone.

In the area of defence, Lee took decisive steps to collaborate with the Israelis to build a military that could punch above its weight, with much bigger countries in the region. Military service was made compulsory, so that the country ensured that its youngsters bonded together in an ambience of discipline and commitment.

Our experience under Nehru was radically different. He pushed for a constitutional structure that had built-in provisions for disunity. He also designed an economic and business framework that ensured stagnation under the veneer of “socialism”, which was nothing but venal state capitalism. He turned a blind eye when corruption stared him in the face; worse, he allowed Menon to become a Cabinet minister despite his ignominious record. Finally, he decimated the country’s armed forces, by allowing Menon, Kaul and company to run riot, not to mention his own paranoia about our men in uniform. 

The comparative data is clear. Singapore’s per capita GDP is about US $50,000 in PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) terms, whereas ours is around US $5,500. We have performed dismally in all other areas. Yes, there will be alibis and excuses galore, but Lee emerges a clear winner.

To wind up on a touching note, when his beloved wife lay bedridden after a stroke, Lee would read her favourite books to her every evening. Here too, Nehru fares dismally.


The author is a corporate laws and business analyst, based in Delhi

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