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Tamilnation > Tamilnation Library > Politics > From Third World to First : The Singapore Story: 1965-2000, Lee Kuan Yew
TAMIL NATION LIBRARY: Politics
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from the book description:
Few gave tiny Singapore much chance of survival when it was granted independence in 1965. How is it, then, that today the former British colonial trading post is a thriving Asian metropolis with not only the world's number one airline, best airport, and busiest port of trade, but also the world's fourth-highest per capita real income? The story of that transformation is told here by Singapore's charismatic, controversial founding father, Lee Kuan Yew...
Excerpts relating to Sri Lanka:
"....My first visit to Sri Lanka was in April 1956 on my way to London. That same year, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike won the election as leader of the new Sri Lanka Freedom Party and became Prime Minister. He had promised to make Sinhalese the national 1anguage and Buddhism the national religion. He was a brown "pukka sahib" English-educated and born a Christian; he had decided on nativism and converted to Buddhism, and had become a champion of the Sinhalese language. It was the start of the unraveling of Ceylon.
A dapper little man, well-dressed and articulate, Bandaranaike was elated at having obtained an election mandate from the Sinhalese majority to make Ceylon a more nativist society. It was a reaction against the "Brown Sahib" society - the political elite who on inheriting power had modeled themselves on the British, including their lifestyle. Sir John Kotelawala, the prime minister whom Bandaranaike succeeded, went horse riding every morning.
Bandaranaike did not seem troubled that the Jaffna Tamils and other minorities would be at a disadvantage now that Sinhalese was the national language, or by the unease of the Hindu Tamils, the Muslim Moors and the Christian Burghers (descendants of Dutch and natives) at the elevated status of Buddhism as the national religion. He had been president of the Oxford Union and spoke as if he was still in the Oxford Union debating society. I was surprised when, three years later, he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk. I thought it ironic that a Buddhist monk, dissatisfied with the country's slow rate of progress in making Buddhism the national religion, should have done it.
In the election that followed, his widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became prime minister on the sympathy vote. She proved to be a less voluble but much tougher leader. When I met her in Ceylon in August 1970, she was a determined woman who believed in the non-aligned ideology. Ceylon favoured the withdrawal of all US troops from South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and a Nuclear-Weapons Free Zone in the Indian Ocean, free of big power conflicts. As a younger man, I patiently explained my different foreign policy objectives, that Singapore would be gravely threatened if South Vietnam were to fall into the hands of the communists, threatening Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. The insurgency would spread into Malaysia, with serious consequences for Singapore. We could not subscribe to this high-minded ideology when it had serious consequences for our future. Other great powers in the region, China and Japan, would in time expand their naval build-up.
Ceylon was Britain's model Commonwealth country. It had been carefully prepared for independence. After the war, it was a good middle-size country with fewer than 10 million people. It had a relatively good standard of education, with 2 universities of high quality, a civil service largely of locals, and experience in representative government starting with city council elections in the 1930s. When Ceylon gained independence in 1948, it was the classic model of gradual evolution to independence.
Alas it did not work out. During my visits over the years, I watched a promising country go to waste. One-man-one-vote did not solve a basic problem. The majority of some 8 million Sinhalese could always outvote the 2 million Jaffna Tamils who had been disadvantaged by the switch from English to Sinhalese as the official language. From having no official religion, the Sinhalese made Buddhism their national religion. As Hindus, the Tamils felt dispossessed.
In October 1966, on my way back from a Prime Ministers' conference in London, I visited Colombo to meet Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake. He was a gentle if resigned and fatalistic elderly man. At dinner, a wise and sad-looking elderly Sinhalese explained that what had happened was inevitable with popular elections. The Sinhalese wanted to be the dominant race; they wanted to take over from the British as managers in the tea and coconut plantations, and from the Tamils who were the senior civil servants. They had to go through this tragedy of making Sinhalese the official language for which they had paid dearly, translating everything from English into Sinhalese and Tamil, a slow and unwieldy process.
The universities taught in three languages: Sinhalese to the majority, Tamil to the Jaffna Tamils, and English to the Burghers. At the university in Kandy I had asked the vice-chancellor how three different engineers educated in three languages collaborated in building one bridge. He was Burgher, and wore a Cambridge university tie so that I would recognise he had a proper PhD.
He replied, "That, sir, is a political question for the ministers to answer!" I asked about the books. He replied that basic textbooks were translated from English into Sinhalese and Tamil, always three to four editions late by the time they were printed.
The tea plantations were in a deplorable condition. The locals who had been promoted were not as good supervisors as their British predecessors. Without strict discipline, the tea pluckers were picking not only young shoots but also full-grown leaves which would not brew good tea. Their coconut plantations had also suffered. It was, said the old Sinhalese, the price people had to pay to learn how to run the country.
I did not visit Ceylon for many years, not until I had met their newly elected prime minister, Junius Richard Jayewardene, in 1978 at a CHOGM (British Commonwealth Conference) in Sydney. In 1972 Prime Minister Mrs.Bandaranaike had already changed the country's name, Ceylon, to Sri Lanka, and made it a republic. The changes did not improve the fortunes of the country. Its tea is still sold as "Ceylon" tea.
Like Solomon Bandaranaike, Jayewardene was born a Christian, converted to Buddhism and embraced nativism to identify himself with the people. In his 70-odd years, he had been through the ups and downs of politics, more downs than ups, and become philosophical in his acceptance of lowered targets. He wanted to move away from Sri Lanka's socialist policies that had bankrupted it.
After meeting me in Sydney, he came to Singapore, he said, to involve us in its development. I was impressed by his practical approach and was persuaded to visit Sri Lanka in April1978. He said he would offer autonomy to the Tamils in Jaffna. I did not realise that he could not give way on the supremacy of the Sinhalese over the Tamils, which was to lead to civil war in 1983 and destroy any hope of a prosperous Sri Lanka for many years, if not generations.
He had some weaknesses. He wanted to start an airline because he believed it was a symbol of progress. Singapore Airlines (voted as the Best Airline Year 2000 in the Fortune Magazine's recent issue) employed a good Sri Lankan captain. Would I release him? Of course, but how could an airline pilot run an airline? He wanted Singapore Airlines to help. We did. I advised him that an airline should not be his priority because it required too many talented and good administrators to get an airline off the ground when he needed them for irrigation, agriculture, housing, industrial promotion and development, and so many other projects.
An airline was a glamour project, not of great value for developing Sri Lanka. But he insisted. So we helped him launch it in six months, seconding 80 of Singapore Airlines' staff for periods from three months to two years, helping them through our worldwide sales representation, setting overseas offices, training staff, developing training centres and so on. But there was no sound top management. When the pilot, now chairman of the new airline, decided to buy two second-hand aircraft against advice, we decided to withdraw. Faced with a five-fold expansion of capacity, negative cash flow, lack of trained staff, unreliable services and insufficient passengers, it was bound to fail. And it did.
It was flattering to have Sri Lanka model their country after Singapore. They started a housing programme in 1982 based on ours, but there was no adequate financing. They set up a free trade zone only slightly smaller area than the area of Singapore which might have taken off but for the Tamil Tigers whose terrorist tactics scared investors away.
The greatest mistake Jayewardene made was over the distribution of reclaimed land in the dry zone. With foreign aid, he revived an ancient irrigation scheme based on "tanks" (reservoirs), which could store water from the wet side of the mountains.
Unfortunately, he gave the re-claimed land to the Sinhalese, not the Tamils who had historically been the farmers of this dry zone. Dispossessed and squeezed, they launched the Tamil Tigers. Jayewardene's private secretary, a Jaffna Tamil loyal to him told me this was a crucial mistake. The war that followed caused 50,000 deaths and even more casualties, with many leaders assassinated. After more than 15 years, it shows no sign of abating.
Jayewardene retired in 1988, a tired man. He had run out of solutions. Ranasinghe Premadasa, who succeeded him, was a Sinhalese chauvinist. He wanted the Indian troops out of the country, which was not sensible. They were doing a nasty job for Sri Lanka. When the Indian troops left, he was in a worse position. He tried to negotiate with the Tamil Tigers and failed. He was not willing to give enough away.
I met him on several occasions in Singapore after he became president and tried to convince him that this conflict could not be solved by force of arms.
A political solution was the only way, one considered fair by the Jaffna Tamils and the rest of the world; then the Tamil United Liberation Front, the moderate constitutional wing of the Tamil home rule movement, could not reject it. I argued that his objective must be to deprive the terrorists of popular support by offering the Tamils autonomy to govern them through the ballot box.
He was convinced he could destroy them. In 1991 and 1992 he sent the Sri Lankan army to fight major battles against the Tamil Tigers. They did not succeed. In 1993, at a May Day Parade, a suicide bomber approached him in a street procession. He and many others died.
His successor, Mrs. Bandaranaike's daughter, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, tried negotiation and war. She recaptured the Jaffna peninsula but did not destroy the Tamil Tigers. The fighting goes on.
It is sad that the country whose ancient name Serendip has given the English language the word "serendipity" is now the epitome of conflict, pain, sorrow and hopelessness..."