Lessons from Lee Kuan Yew’s Reflections of Sri Lankan Political History

Dayan Jayatilleka, in Financial Times, February 2020where the title runs “Learning Lee Kuan Yew’s lessons for Lanka”

Unarguably, Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) is the most universally respected Asian statesman of our time. He is esteemed from Washington to Havana, from Moscow to Beijing; from East to West and North to South, both for the quality of his mind and his conspicuous practical success as a transformational leader.

LKY is also known as the one who encouraged and to a great extent inspired Deng Xiaoping’s economic revolution in a seminal conversation in 1978. Lee made 33 visits to China and was acquainted with five generations of Chinese leaders.

Evaluating Ceylon/Sri Lanka in his autobiography, LKY uses the defining terms “go to waste” and “unravelling”. If we respect his intellect and wisdom, then continuing along that trajectory will continue the “waste” and result in still more “unravelling”, or worse, in the tragic culmination of that “unravelling” which commenced with the Sinhala Only policy of 1956.

LKY’s main observations on Sri Lanka are available in four texts. His on-the-record views on our country traverse its position at independence, through the post-independence decades, right up to its post-war period. He was a man who never suffered fools or foolishness gladly and refused to waste his or other people’s time, so he was crystal clear and brutally frank in whatever he said—leaving no room for ambiguity or misinterpretation.

It is of considerable relevance that Lee’s identification of Sri Lanka’s tragic errors remained consistent over the decades, right up to his extended conversation in The Man and his Ideas’ (1998, 2015), his famous double-volume autobiography ‘From Third World to First: The Singapore Story’ published in 2000, his International Herald Tribune interview (2007), and his exposition in Prof Tom Plate’s book ‘Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew’ in the ‘Giants of Asia’ series (2011).

LKY’s diagnosis and doctrine

LKY’s globally lauded crystalline intelligence enabled an ‘MRI-scan’ of what lay at the very heart of Sri Lanka’s crisis. Though acknowledged universally as a mega-managerial success, Lee was no manager or technocrat turned politician. He was a brilliant, experienced party-politician starting in Malaya and growing into a great Asian statesman as the founder of Singapore and architect of its success.

On Ceylon/Sri Lanka, his wasn’t a superficial diagnosis of managerial, technocratic or disciplinary failures and prescription of counter-measures in these realms. He cut right through the conventional interpretations of almost any subject, and in the case of Sri Lanka, focused on what he termed in his autobiography, “a basic problem”.  

His critique as well as his recommendations were located in the domain of politics and his solution was precisely, explicitly, political (as will be evident from the quotes). As a political scientist I would only add that they could be classified under the classic political category of Social Contract Theory. Lee Kuan Yew was a Social Contractarian; the most successful produced by Asia.

LKY’s doctrine of nation-building and state-building is that a multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious, multicultural society must get the relationships between its constituent communities correct, structuring its basic building blocks and components in the most rational, optimal equation, and that this can be done only through a transparently and universally fair, enlightened, unifying vision. 

For LKY this lies at the very foundation of a state and a country. If you get your nation-building and state-building Social Contract wrong in a heterogeneous, pluralist context, it is delusional to believe you will get anything right other than in exceptional, ephemeral episodes, bubbles of growth and phases of prosperity. With a dysfunctional, unsustainable underlying equation, in the long run you will probably lose what you have as well.

LKY came to this conclusion watching a country which had everything going for it and a starting point far ahead of Singapore, dismantling through deliberate choices of policy, the very sources of its success and plunging into debilitating conflict and continuing crisis. That country was ours. He then consciously avoided those mistakes and charted a course which was the exact opposite of the one that we embarked on.

Two years before his massive two-volume autobiography, a biography of sorts had appeared as ‘The Man and his Idea’ (1998), a series of brilliant extended conversations, in the course of which Lee had summed up the tragic decline of Ceylon/Sri Lanka. Significantly, the book was reissued in 2015, mere months before LKY’s death.

“When I went to Colombo for the first time in 1956 it was a better city than Singapore because Singapore had three-and-a-half years of Japanese occupation and Colombo was the centre or HQ of Mountbatten’s Southeast Asia command. And they had sterling reserves. They had two Universities. Before the war, a thick layer of educated talent. So if you believe what American liberals or British liberals used to say, then it ought to have flourished. But it didn’t. One-man one-vote led to the domination of the Sinhalese majority over the minority Tamils who were the active and intelligent fellows who worked hard and got themselves penalised. And English was out. They were educated in English. Sinhalese was in. They got quotas in two universities and now they have become fanatical Tigers. And the country will never be put together again.”

LKY’s analysis of Sri Lanka is most authoritatively contained in his massive memoir,‘From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000’. Devoting six pages to tracking Sri Lanka’s decline, he sums up the tragedy thus:

“…He [Bandaranaike] had promised to make Sinhalese the National Language and Buddhism the National Religion…he had decided on nativism and converted to Buddhism, and had become a champion of the Sinhalese language. It was the start of the unravelling of Ceylon…Bandaranaike was elated at having obtained an election mandate from the Sinhalese majority to make Ceylon a more nativist society…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…”

“…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 two 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 eight million Sinhalese could always outvote the two 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.” (‘The Singapore Story’)

Contrary to the ‘spin’ that LKY opposed representative democracy because it ran counter to economic development, it is clear that he counted as one of Ceylon’s many advantages “experience in representative government starting with city council elections in the 1930s”. What Lee did condemn (and refuse to countenance in Singapore) was pandering to and enthroning a linguistic or religious majoritarian “nativist” (his term) agenda in and through the democratic process, as in 1956. In his interview given to the International Herald Tribune in 2007, Lee sums up the importance of Ceylon/Sri Lanka as a negative example which was formative for the design of Singapore:

“In 1965, we had 20 years of examples of failed states. So, we knew what to avoid – racial conflict, linguistic strife, religious conflict. We saw Ceylon. Thereafter, we knew that if we embarked on any of these romantic ideas, to revive a mythical past of greatness and culture, we’d be damned. So, there’s no return to nativism…Had we chosen Chinese, which was our majority language, we would have perished, economically and politically. Riots – we’ve seen Sri Lanka, when they switched from English to Sinhalese and disenfranchised the Tamils and so strife ever after.” (IHT interview 29 August 2007)

The LKY solution 

LKY did not believe simplistically that mere economic development was the answer or even the precondition. Without ethnic sensitivity, even the best intentioned of programs would be perceived as oppressive. In his massive autobiography he writes critically of the distribution side of the Mahaweli project.

“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 west 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…”

It is clear as to what LKY thought was the solution: “…I was impressed by his [Junius Richard Jayewardene’s] practical approach and was persuaded to visit Sri Lanka in April 1978. 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…” (‘The Singapore Story’)

“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 [Premadasa’s] objective must be to deprive the terrorists of popular support by offering the Tamils autonomy to govern themselves through the ballot box.” (Ibid pp. 460-466)

Substitute “secessionists” for “terrorists” and there you have the abidingly relevant formula of the great Asian statesman and sage, hardly a Western liberal. For LKY, the creator of the great economic developmental miracle of Singapore, the solution to Sri Lanka’s problem was not primarily, basically, economic-developmental still less managerial-technocratic; it was precisely and principally political. 

Far from a “political solution” being a “delusion”, an economic-developmental solution was considered the delusion (as proven by the failure of the ‘practical’ JR Jayewardene). LKY’s bottom-line solution was nothing but “a political solution” negotiated with the moderate constitutional Tamil political leadership, granting “autonomy” i.e. a measure of “self-government” or “home rule”—not mere decentralisation. It was political power-sharing with the Tamil majority periphery.

For those who may argue that the decisive military defeat of the LTTE proves LKY wrong, it must be pointed out that he re-emphasised his diagnosis and prescription even AFTER the war because the war did not alter his main point about the basic problem. The war was a result and manifestation, rather than the cause of that basic problem which still remained once the guns fell silent. That problem was the fault line, the fissure, which kept widening.

Consider his remarks made in 2009 to Prof. Tom Plate in ‘Citizen Singapore: How to Build a Nation’, Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew, a volume in the series ‘Giants of Asia’:

“[Sri Lanka] is not a happy, united country. Yes, they have beaten the Tamil Tigers this time… They [the Sinhalese] were squeezing them [the Tamils] out. That’s why the Tamils rebelled… The Jaffna Tamils have been in Sri Lanka as long as the Sinhalese. I don’t think they [the Tamils] are going to be submissive or go away. The present President of Sri Lanka believes he has settled the problem; Tamil Tigers are killed and that is that.” (p 55)

Contrary to those who see the Singaporean/Lee Kuan Yew leadership model as one of harsh, tight control, Lee’s main point was that the Sri Lankan system should “loosen up”, NOT tighten even more at the risk (still less the intention) of “dispossessing” or “squeezing out” the Tamils.

“Somebody should have told them – change the system, loosen up, or break off. And looking back, I think the Tunku was wise. (The reference is to Tunku Abdul Rahman the Malaysian Prime Minister under whose rule Singapore separated from Malaysia). I offered a loosening up of the system. He said: ‘Clean cut, go your way.’ Had we stayed in, and I look at Colombo and Ceylon, I mean changing names, sometimes maybe you deceive the gods, but I don’t think you are deceiving the people who live in them. It makes no great difference to the tragedy that is being enacted. They failed because they had weak or wrong leaders.” (‘The Man and His Idea’)

For LKY the problem was the perspective and project of “Sinhalese supremacy over the Tamils” and the unwillingness or inability of Sinhala leaders to provide the strong leadership necessary to transcend it (‘The Singapore Story’). That was what was “weak” and “wrong” about them, not their reluctance to use deadly force. The only viable alternative to “cutting clean” was “loosening up”, not blocking or reducing political space for the Tamils at both centre and periphery. For him, “loosening up” did not cause the “unravelling” of Ceylon/Sri Lanka; excessive tightening up did and would, while “loosening up” would reverse or forestall the final “unravelling”.

‘Much softer, consensual and intelligent’

Prof. Tom Plate underscores the contrast between the real LKY and the Sinhalese elite’s misinterpretation of Lee Kuan Yew, recording Lee’s revealing reflexive response.

‘Plate: “See, that’s really a fascinating point, because to the extent that we have any sense of who you are at all, we think of you as this hard-boiled force first guy. But in fact, your system of government is much softer, consensual and intelligent, whereas what the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka are doing is a caricature of an LKY who never existed.” Lee fights a cringe as if fighting off a bad memory or my bad analogy…” …’ (Ibid)

So, LKY’s system of government is “much softer, consensual and intelligent” than the political discourse and project of “the Sinhalese [extremists]”. We certainly cannot reject out of hand Lee’s overall argument and advice on the assumption that we are more intelligent, more knowledgeable, more discerning, more far-sighted, more realist, and more sagacious than the legendary LKY, renowned statesman and Asian giant.

Evaluating Ceylon/Sri Lanka in his autobiography, LKY uses the defining terms “go to waste” and “unravelling”. If we respect his intellect and wisdom, then continuing along that trajectory will continue the “waste” and result in still more “unravelling”, or worse, in the tragic culmination of that “unravelling” which commenced with the Sinhala Only policy of 1956.

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