Missing the Singapore Moments
The shattering impact of April 21, 2019 and May anti-Muslim Pogroms we discussed in Part 1has triggered the Sinhalese intelligentsia’s recurrent breast beating: why hasn’t Sri Lanka emulated (if not superseded) Singapore’s success? One writer lamented, “it is ironic that Lee Kwan Yu, in an early visit declared that Singapore should consider Ceylon as a role model. See where we stand now – the tables have turned!”
In fact Lee Kwan Yu had wisely abandoned that role model early on. During our visit to Singapore in 1972, he was repeatedly quoted exemplifying Ceylon as a case beyond redemption of how NOT to run a country. That, however, did not prevent the Sinhalese political class from conjuring up placebo effects of supposed Singapore Miracles.
We have often heard Lanka’s critical intellectuals moan that the country missed several of its “Singapore Moments”. The list varies with each analyst though the conclusion is same: where did Ceylon/Lanka go wrong?
Many have questioned the relevance of Singapore Island’s experience to other, especially larger societies. China’s late leader Deng Xiaoping, who admired Singapore, had reportedly said: “If I had only Shanghai, I too might be able to change Shanghai as quickly (as Singapore). But I have the whole of China.”
Nevertheless, according to Lee Kuan Yew, Deng Xiaoping duringa meeting with him had picked up a few tips from Singapore’s experience.So the island of Ceylon/Sri Lanka could not be an exception; and comparisons are worth exploring.
The passing of each Singapore Moment induced a transient lucidity. A group of twinkle toed Liberals discovered the wheel: “There is a growing and disturbing environment of mistrust and intolerance in our diverse communities”, after April 21. “Looking back at 71 years of independence”, reflected another, “it is evident that those who wielded the reins of power have not had the foresight, the qualities of leadership or the political commitment needed to ensure lasting peace”.
If so, whatever happened to the much-flaunted “vibrant democracy” that hapless Liberals fantasize they diligently learnt at the feet of their colonial master on those ever so infrequent occasions he took time off from looting and raping our land?
Does the current “Plunder Of Public Property By Rulers”merely proves that hyenas dominating the Era of the Common Man are, after a delicate decade-long interregnum following Independence, putting into practice the art of unbridled pillage they imbibed at the feet of the same colonial master?
Why did “the people”, who pride themselves about an educational system that ensured almost 100% literacy, choose virtually bankrupt leaderships election after election who are utterly incapable of creatively building upon the fortuitously advantageous remnants of colonial structures, as Singapore’s leaders have so impressively done?
Do Singaporean bureaucrats plod along futilely rewriting history by the cosmetic replacement of most Colonial street and place names with those of Chinese icons?
OR did the Lankan leaderships in fact have the “foresight” to nurture and entrench that which they perceived as in their own interests, both personal and class-wise? And did they have those “qualities of leadership” to bamboozle the people that most everything done was in their, public interest? We think so.
(a) Defending feudalist interests
An enduring myth in Sri Lanka is that the first Prime Minister, D.S.Senanayake (ethnically Sinhalese) had thought up the State-assisted land colonisation schemes, implemented under his 1935 Land Development Ordinance (LDO).
On the floor of the State Council in the 1940s, the budding Sinhalese political class boomed the distribution of State land under the Ordinance as a great patriotic venture to reclaim the fabled Tank Irrigation Civilisation, allegedly vitiated by foreigners (take your pick – Cholas/Portuguese/Dutch/British/all together).
But the colonial administration’s Government Agent C.V.Brayne in fact had dreamed up the idea much earlier, in1920. He envisaged a peasant proprietor system in which State land would be distributed to growing numbers of landless farmers under a form of inheritable but protected tenure, which disallowed sub-division as well as trading of alienated State land.
His twin aims were to arrest the process of proletarianisation that was (a) throwing up an expanding and potentially subversive agrarian working class and (b) destabilising the economy by disrupting paddy cultivation.
The concept did not find many takers until D.S.Senanayake and his cohorts, steeped in feudalist values, laid their hands on it. They found Brayne’s idea fascinating for several reasons.
First,universal franchise introduced under the 1931 Donoughmore Constitution, almost overnight, essentially transformed subjects into citizens/voters. Brayne’s peasant proprietorship system offered mouth-watering scope to create electoral vote banks by alienating State land at no cost to the politicians and with virtual certainty to buy them votes.
Second,the economic crisis of the early 1930s (in wake of the 1929 Depression) pushed up unemployment. Senanayake’s administration characterized it as “landlessness”, which term prompted and justified distribution of State land as a quick fix and also to pre-empt agitation by the unemployed.
Third,State-subsidised land alienation could be manipulated to weaken the Left’s popular base by arresting the growth of landless rural workers. The proposed protected tenure would tie them down to land and restrict their out-migration that could swell the urban workforce, large sections of whom were seen to dangerously lean towards the Left – the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP).
A group of young leftists had cut their teeth in the 1933 Suriya-Mal Movement, tinged with anti-colonialism, and the 1934-35 malaria epidemic relief campaigns.One prominent Leftist who carried dry rations including Dhal (red lentils) was fondlycalled”Parippu Mahattaya”. The Leftists consolidated the popularity harvested by their selfless work among the poorby forming the LSSP in 1935; two of them won seats in the 1936 State Council elections.
The rapid growth of the Left’s strength and influence rattled D.S.Senanayake, his cohorts and their colonial masters. The situation must have appeared doubly threatening after LSSP established fraternal ties with India’s Congress Socialist Party (CSP).
Hobbling the Left, therefore, became their predominant concern if not obsession, which deepened after the 1926 Jaffna Youth Congress, raising more strident anti-Imperialist cries, sought alliances with the southern Sinhalese Left in the mid-1930s.
The landowning upper classes represented in the State Council and led by their 1936 Pan-Sinhalese Board of Ministers plotted to cut the Left off at its knees, by vitiating its mass base. So they eschewed broad based industrialization that would catalyze the growth of a radical working class; instead, they expanded peasant farming through LDO alienations under the pretext of relieving “land hunger” but in fact to fortify the conservative and reactionary class of small peasant proprietors ideologically most resistant to the Left.
They achieved considerable success but, in the process, condemned domestic agriculture to decades of stagnation that formed the fertile ground in which the Sinhalese JVP (Jathika Vimukthi Peramua) was to set roots and flourished.
In this way the State-level landed classes dragged the country away from industrial development and technological advancement; and they directed national resources towards so-called “Rural Development” to reinforce, and integrate with, the village-level landed notables, organized within RDSs (Rural Development Societies).
In other words, Sinhalese politicians did not choose to be chauvinists. It was their compulsion to fashion agrarian policies within the debilitating confines of their feudalist class interests under conditions of the 1930s economic crisis that impelled them towards actions that acquired anti-Tamil dimensions.
There were of course a few sane voices. A 1937 report drew attention to environmental degradation in peasant proprietor schemes.Later, the leader of the Communist Party (ethnically Sinhalese) cautioned the newly independent government that tank irrigated agriculture cannot be re-established in its ancient splendour since indispensable ecological preconditions have irretrievably been lost.
These concerns were brushed the aside since acceding to them impeded maneuvers to preserve the status quo.
In contrast, Lee Kuan Yew rapidly transformed his country’s status quo through the state-of-the-art industrialization of Singapore. The difference could not be more stark!
And so, Ceylon missed a Singapore Moment!
The shortsighted agricultural policies of Ceylon’s landed elites were in their vieweminently logical to defend their excruciatingly narrow interests and preserve their archaic social class.
Admittedly land settlement and hydro-power schemes benefited the first-generation colonists, initially boosted paddy cultivation and generated some needed electricity.
In the long run, however, they were to have a devastating impact on the country as a whole.
Today we are struggling to cope with their monumental costs, ranging from stunted industrialization, underdeveloped entrepreneurial class, debilitating ethnic conflicts, acute deforestation to chronic kidney decease.
Fourthly, a damaging social consequence was the intensification of ethnic antagonisms. The landed elites were trapped between the rising demands for employment from the growing populations on the one hand and the Left straining at the leash on the other.
Senanayake and his cohorts, intent on restricting the spread of industrial workers, were therefore compelled to appease the Sinhalese electoral constituency by unimaginatively resorting to the preferential distribution of LDO land to Sinhalese farmers.
Tamil political leaders cried foul, claiming discrimination against Tamils. There is some truth in their allegations; after all, who is without prejudice of any kind? And we recollect only too well inter-ethnic frictions within the 1919 Ceylon National Congress.
However, being part of the landed class, undermining the Left was in the Tamil leaders’ own immediate interest too. So when they balked at discriminatory land allocation, Senanayake suavely unveiled the Communist goni billaand Tamil leaders’ enthusiasm for fair play is said to have shriveled!
Before the lopsided land alienation gathered momentum,jockeying by the different ethnic leaderships in the Ceylon National Congress and later within the State Council had been essentially a game of musical chairs within Colombo 7 and Colombo 3, loaded in favour of Sinhalese.
However, soon the iniquitous land alienation intravenously fed the poison of Lebensraum: that economic prosperity of the majority of Sinhalese farmers directly depends on how far they are able to extend their living space – land – by marginalizing, if not eliminating, their Tamil and Muslim counterparts’ access to land.
The yearning to re-establish the historic Tank Irrigation Civilisation cannot be faulted. But when it combined with undertones of Nazi ideology, it had an uncanny resemblance to fascist Benito Mussolini’s obsession to re-live the glory of ancient Rome.
Thus D.S. Senanayake inaugurated the Padaviya colonization scheme with a stirring oration, reportedly stating without hesitation his administration’s aim: “Today you are brought here and given a plot of land. You are men and women who will carry the destiny of this island on your shoulders. One day very soon they will look up to you as the last bastion of the Sinhala.”
No surprise, then, that Tamils faced their first Pogrom in 1956 in the Gal Oya colonisation scheme.
In the late 1800s Max Muller had identified Sinhala, and German, as part of the Indo-Aryan group of languages; Anagarika Dharmapala deduced the Sinhalese are, therefore, Aryan by race.It logically follows that the Nazi’s Lebensraum(Living Space) ideology influenced D.S.Senanayake and his cohorts.
In fact, sociologistKumari Jayewardena [ethnically Sinhalese] “cites a letter in [A.E.] Goonesinha’s journal Viraya (17.4.1936), which called for a leader of the Sinhalese like Hitler, whose policies were said to be saving the Aryan race from degeneration.” At a public meeting, Jayawardene reported,D.S. Senanayake thundered, “We are a chosen people (CDN 17.4.1939).”Inspired by Bandaranaike’s chest-thumping rhetoric, “a Mrs. Srimathie Abeygunawardena [ethnically Sinhalese] ‘likened Mr. Bandaranaike to Hitler and appealed to the Sinhalese community to give him every possible assistance to reach the goal of freedom.’”
This brings to mind an academic seminar held many moons ago in Colombo, during which we listened as the reputed Indian Prof Romila Thapar utterly trashed the “Aryan theory”. A Sinhalese lecturer from a Lankan university visibly disturbed and embarrassingly rubbing his charcoal-black arm disagreed and asserted Sinhalese speak an Aryan language and believe they belong to the Aryan race. Prof Thapar shot back: “You and I are speaking in English, does that make us Anglo-Saxon by race?” She explained, languages spread beyond the boundaries of their original culture due to trade, wars, conquests and so on; they cannot be evidence of race in most cases. However, logic rarely trumps prejudice!
Having pitted the two communities against each other, D.S.Senanayake and his cohorts self-aggrandized as defenders of the Sinhalese from Tamils (and later, Muslims); that strategy attracted votes and won elections. Thereafter the Sinhalese constituencies assessed leadership qualities of their politicians primarily by the Duttugemunu yardstick, by how far they could keep Tamils (and later, Muslims) in check.
The Divide and Rule strategy came of age.
This is the tragic template upon which first the Sinhalese and later Sinhala-Buddhist politics have been built since Independence, in February 1948.
In contrast, Lee Kuan Yew vigorously put down ethnicised politics and systematically built up a common Singaporean identity based on mutual respect and fair play.
And so, Ceylon missed another Singapore Moment!
Many decades later, UNP President JR Jayewardene (ethnically Sinhalese) generously fleshed out his mentor, D.S.Senanayake’s myopic tactic. A few weeks before the 1983 Holocaust,as the anti-Tamil tsunami gathered strength, Lanka’s President unblushingly explained to a British newspaper: “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now… Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us…The more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhalese people will be here… really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.”
(b) Scapegoating “Minorities”
In the first flush after Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965,some nationalist elements campaigned for Mandarin, the tongue of Chinese majority, to be made the official language of the island.
However, Lee Kuan Yew stood firm that the island of Singapore and Singaporeans, staggering out of the colonial backwaters, must enter the mainstream of global economic flows and intellectual discourse. Therefore, he insisted English language should be the language of administration, business and higher education. It follows that proficiency in English was promoted and valued despite the unquestionable antiquity of, and reverence for, the proud Chinese language and culture.
Lee Kuan Yew did not succumb to opportunism. Rather than ride the Chinese nationalist wave to power, he deliberately chose the more arduous statesmanship. It was in this context that he had pointed to Ceylon as an example of how NOT to run a country!
On 17 March 2009 Lee Kuan Yew re-affirmed his vision at a public meeting in Singapore, about two months before Sinhalese celebrated LTTE’s demise by lighting crackers/dancing in the streets/clinking glasses in the cocktail circuit. He said, “Singapore’s multi-racial peoples will never be united if we had used Mandarin as our common language. All non-Chinese, 25% of Singaporeans, will be disadvantaged. The result will be endless strife, as in Sri Lanka, where Singhalese was made the national language and the Tamil-speaking were marginalised. We made the right decision to use English as our common language. We also retained the teaching of mother tongues.”
His second non-negotiable stand is that the national anthem is sung in the National Language, Malay, although Malays are less that 6 per cent of the population. Lee Kuan Yew argued Singapore is situated within the Bahasa Melayu lingua franca region of south-east Asiaand must accommodate that linguistic reality in order to economically advance.
In short he opened Singapore up to the region and the world. The dazzling results are there to see.
Lee Kuan Yew’s third cast iron principle is secularism.The former Minister for CultureS. Rajaratnam (ethnically Tamil) expressed the policy in a nutshell: “In Singapore, we start with the irrefutable proposition that the alternative to multi-racialism… is genocide in varying degrees.”
Explained a Singaporean (ethnically Tamil), “the Government keeps religion separate from politics. Parliamentarians, ministers and government agents do not invoke their faith to support their argument.” Representatives of different faiths “are not allowed to interfere with the Government’s functions.”
SWRD Bandaranaike had the option to rise as a statesman to promote universal English literacy and build broad based industrialisation (rather than the populist import-substitution production). But they are long-term structural reforms that do not deliver short-term electoral dividends that he sought. So he took the path of least resistance and functioned within the constraints of D.S.Senanayake’s political template of first and always being the defender of the Sinhalese people.
Inevitably he remained a politician without a national vision, intent on survival and occasionally grandstanding in the Non-Aligned Movement.
His SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) set out to supposedly “unite” the different nationalities by imposing Sinhala as the sole official language, widely called “Sinhala Only” policy. Almost overnight, it “disadvantaged” the 30% non-Sinhalese and sowed disunity.
Ceylon buried its head in the Sinhala-Only sand, so to speak.
The vitriolic discourse over Bandaranaike’s “Sinhala Only in 24 hours” is well known and requires no repetition. However, it was not without its lighter moments. At an election rally in the run up to the 1956 parliamentary elections, we watched as Bandaranaike sliced the air: “foreigners coming to our country must first learn Sinhala to do business”.
The gullible mass went delirious!
Our concern here is to explore what drove Bandaranaike to enact Sinhala as the sole official language.
The popular fiction, that he was a Sinhalese nationalist, may be safely discarded. Bandaranaike crafted the “nationalistic” bombast in his 1935 Sinhala Maha Sabha notagainst the British colonial master, but primarily to challenge anglicised DS Senanayake’s hegemony. The Sinhala-Only Bandaranaike promoted in 1952 through his SLFP was finely calibrated to undermine Senanayake’s son, Dudley’s UNP (United National Party) government by discrediting its leaders as “suited-booted”, “tie-pie” lackeys of the West.
Nevertheless, like the Senanayakes, Bandaranaike too was an unrepentant Anglophile down to his fingertips; he could neither read nor write Sinhala with any degree of competence. His “Sinhalese nationalism” was barely skin deep, a political horse to ride to power. When a parliamentary (Sinhalese) colleague chided Bandaranaike for “playing to the gallery”, he reportedly shot back: “I’ll make Arabic the official language if that’ll get me into Parliament.”
At the cabinet meeting after Sinhala was enacted as official language in 1956, an obsequious secretary had hesitantly probed whether minutes ought be recorded in Sinhala; Bandaranaike retorted: “English!”.
Together Senanayake and Bandaranaike earned accolades for Ceylon as “the model colony” from their colonial masters.
However subsequent Sinhalese generations uncritically internalised their specious rhetoric, and were to become fervent nationalists and venerate both as pioneers of Sinhala nationalism.
Bandaranaike had discovered the utility of an official language as a political springboard, ironically thanks to D.S.Senanayake. Following the 1936 State Council elections, the Senanayake-led Uncle-Nephew clan shunted him off to head that apparently inconsequential Executive Committee for Local Government; that turned out to be an unexpected bonanza for Bandaranaike.
On his circuits as Minister in the rural areas on Local Government business, he sensed a large, unrepresented and voiceless rural population, socially dominated by the Pancha Maha Bala Végaya (Five-fold Great Force) and gnashing its teeth at the English-speaking urban landed classes and their collaborating rural elites.
The rural middle class yearned to wipe out the language apartheid. Bandaranaike’soffered to declare Sinhala as the sole official language, or “Sinhala-Only” policy.
It transmitted more forcefully, but also more widely, Senanayake’s message of lebensraum: that non-Sinhala speakers must be consigned at the very least to the social fringes to make way for the advancement and prosperity of Sinhala-speakers.
The second important reason, rarely acknowledged, was the continuing challenge from the working classes that had dogged D.S.Senanayake. The 1953 Hartalvirtually unseated his son, Dudley Senanayake’s UNP government and Bandaranaike, serving as the Leader of the Opposition and hailing from the same social class, evidently also felt the political heat.
So on assuming power in 1956, Bandaranaike rushed to placate the Sinhalese middle and working classes in order to stabilise his own decaying feudalist class. The implied promise of his Sinhala-Only, then, was Sinhalese First and what, if any, that’s left is for the “minorities”.
Progressive Sinhalese leaders quickly spotted the undercurrents of the Nazi ideology that had been evident earlier in D.S.Senanayake’s colonisation schemes.
While struggling in parliament to pre-empt the coming catastrophe, LSSP MP Dr NM Perera (ethnically Sinhalese) emphasised in October1955 that a law declaring Sinhala the sole official language is morally unjustified and drew chilling parallels to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. He predicted it would become necessary to send an “army of occupation” to north and east. He cautioned that could result in “rioting, bloodshed and civil war”.
Another progressive MP Leslie Goonewardene (ethnically Sinhalese) warned it could result in Tamils “deciding…to break away from the rest of the country”. The Communist Party’s Dr. SA Wickramasinghe (ethnically Sinhalese) condemned the language policy as “Hitlerism”.
After the Official Language Bill passed into law in 1956, Professor C Suntharalingam (ethnically Tamil) rejected the unilateral imposition of Sinhala with a prophetic warning: “we will learn to use firearms before we learn Sinhalese. Make no mistake on that score.”
Some MEP members in parliament are said to have found that amusing!
The Sinhalese intelligentsia by and large went along, swept up by the heady nationalism of welcoming a Sinhalese dawn. But, in fact, they invited a wholly avoidable civil war that was to eviscerate the country for more than three decades!
The series of Pogroms from 1956, the 1983 Tamil Holocaust and the mass slaughter during Eelam War IV were direct expressions of the seeping Nazi influence.
The Sinhalese-dominated government threw good money after bad by further entrenching the iniquitous system in 1972.
The immediate trigger was the 1971 JVP Insurrection by largely educated Sinhalese youth that almost captured power. The armed forces put down the uprising at the cost of an estimated 20,000 Sinhalese lives. The thoroughly shaken Sinhalese elite, in keeping with the tradition well established by Senanayake and Bandaranaike, threw Tamils under the bus, so to speak.
The SLFP-led Coalition Government desperately placated the Sinhalese, who suffered the brunt of military operations against the JVP, by introducing two major policy changes in 1972 Constitution: it elevated Buddhism to a “foremost place”, as a virtual State religion. In the same year it introduced “standardisation”, a supposed positive discrimination in favour of the Sinhalese youth in admissions to university.
If Sinhala-Only had privileged the Sinhalese as a whole, after 1972, the privileged segment was whittled down to Sinhalese-Buddhists, who thereafter became the privileged Bhoomi Putra(Sons of the Soil).
Sinhalese (and Tamil) Christians and Muslims were to be the next victims.
Once again, Sri Lanka missed a Singapore Moment!
The corollary of slicing the national cake ethnicity-wise was the rising hysteria to clear the deck, to make space by chasing away Tamils to India and Muslims to Arabia. Where Christians are expected to go is presumably to be specified in due course!
(c) Citizenship; from individual to ethnicity
The political developments outlined above incrementally, step by painful step, transformed the nature of Sri Lankan citizenship.
Lanka’s British model in which citizenship had been juridically linked to the individual has been gradually deformed into a system similar to the pre-WW2 Nazi German model of chaining citizenship to ethnicity, defined by language (German), religion (Catholicism) and race (Aryan); if not exactly in law, certainly in political practice.
This brings us to the second question posed by the Sinhalese Professor: “How do we find a way out?”A tantalising thought indeed! However, there are no U-turns in life; Karma will take its own course.
The good Professor could perhaps take the first step by trying to de-Nazify the Sinhala-Buddhist extreme right wing, which although small exercises decisive control over government policy and recently invited a political figure to “be a Hitler and build this country”.
Be that as it may, let’s explore a few more of the tributaries that brought us to this pass.
*To be continued…..
Cambridge: Centre for South Asian Studies. Mimeo.
—– “Sri Lankan Tamil Struggle – Chapter 20: Birth and Death of Jaffna Youth Congress (continued)”. Ilankai Taml Sangam, 15/jan/11.
Ian Ward, “Interview with J.R. Jayewardene”. London: Daily Telegraph, 11/jul/83.Cited in: Thambu Kanagasabai, “Dictatorial & Discriminatory Democracy of Sri Lanka”. Ilankai Taml Sangam, 28/nov/18, https://sangam.org/dictatorial-discriminatory-democracy-of-sri-lanka/