By S. Sivathasan –
Selecting excerpts from Lee Kuan Yew is as difficult as selecting from Thirukkural. The whole work may need to be quoted. The difference with the former is that to understand in context, the whole requires to be read. Anyone wishing to be initiated in politics, particularly Tamils from Sri Lanka wherever they may reside have a compulsion to digest both volumes of his autobiography. I read them only a few months after publication and that too by borrowing because availability for purchase was difficult. I thought a few Sri Lankans would have read them. I now know that only a miniscule might have.
Volume I of about 700 pages deals principally with the politics of creating Singapore as a separate state, the emotional trauma Lee experienced in doing it, how adroitly he managed his mission and the way he gathered around him men of intellect, scholarship and character. Volume II of equal size is a textbook on political consolidation, economic growth and social integration of a small state. Unswerving and dedicated leadership launched a new state into the comity of advanced economies and of modernized societies. More significantly 2050 will see Singapore among the most advanced states, in multiple respects.
Without doubt one man’s initiative and persistent surveillance achieved it. Years back he said famously “Even when I am being lowered into the grave, if I see something going wrong in Singapore, I will get up”. His greatest emphasis is on character and he had the credentials to dwell on it. He has drawn much on Confucius. Tamils have Thiruvalluvar to benefit from. The story of Singapore has been an unqualified success. The world knows who the architect was. Some excerpts from his writing to provide the lure.
73. The foundations for our financial centre were the rule of Law, an independent judiciary, and a stable, competent and honest government that pursued sound macro-economic policies, with budget surpluses almost every year.
137. Nearly 80 percent of a person’s makeup is from nature, and about 20 percent the result of nurture
137. I believed intelligence was inherited and not the result of education, food and training.
160. Human ingenuity is infinite when translating power and discretion into personal gain.
163. It is easy to start off with high moral standards, strong convictions and determination to beat down corruption. But it is difficult to live up to these good intentions unless the leaders are strong and determined enough to deal with all transgressors and without exceptions.
164. A precondition for an honest government is that candidates must not need large sums of money to get elected, or it must trigger off the cycle of corruption.
348. A Confucian gentleman’s duty to family and friends presumes that he helps them from his personal and not official resources. Too often officials use public office to do favours for family and friends, undermining the integrity of government.
381. In April 1985, Thatcher paid us an official visit. At dinner, I congratulated her for trimming the excesses of the welfare state:
For nearly four decades since the war, successive British governments seemed to assume that the creation of wealth came about naturally, and that what needed government attention and ingenuity was the redistribution of wealth. So governments devised ingenious ways to transfer incomes from the successful to the less successful. In this climate, it requires a Prime Minister with very strong nerves to tell voters the truth, that creators of wealth are precious members of a society who deserve honour plus the right to keep a better part of their rewards… We have used to advantage what Britain left behind: the English language, the legal system, parliamentary government and impartial administration. However, we have studiously avoided the practices of the welfare state. We saw how a great people reduced themselves to mediocrity by levelling down.
491. Singapore depends on the strength and influence of the family to keep society orderly and maintain a culture of thrift, hard work, filial piety, and respect for elders and for scholarship and learning. These values make for a productive people and help economic growth.
491. Man needs a moral sense of right and wrong. There is such a thing as evil, and men are not evil just because they are victims of society. Many of the social problems in the United States were the result of the erosion of the moral underpinnings of society and the diminution of personal responsibility.
499. American friends kept reminding me that their foreign policy is often driven not by considerations of strategic national interest, but by their media.
526. The Japanese were focused on the future. They were not harking back to an idyllic Japan of sailing ships and samurais. Their agenda was energy conservation, alternatives to oil, and a strategy to overcome protectionism in steel, cars, and electronic products by moving to creative knowledge industries.
527. Japan’s advice in 1980 was, given Singapore’s geographic position and environment, to prepare for a possible role as a centre for knowledge and information, to complement Tokyo. To be such a knowledge and information centre, we redoubled our emphasis on the teaching of the sciences, mathematics and computers in all our schools. We computerized the whole government administration to set the pace for the private sector.
534. How had we tackled corruption? First, good intelligence; next, an impersonal, not a subjective approach third, solid backing from the top for anti-corruption investigation and prosecution.
535. Ordinary people could not follow the intricacies of an economic or a political problem, so they learned whom to trust. To win such trust, I never said anything which I did not believe in, and people slowly recognized that I was honest and sincere. This was my most powerful asset.
539. Hong Kong and Singapore, both Confucianist societies, had withstood the financial storm because both had British systems of law, business methods that were transparent, accounting practices of international standard, open tenders and binding contracts negotiated on level playing fields, and bank loans made at arm’s length.
544. In 1949 I did not understand the importance of talent, especially entrepreneurial talent and that trained talent is the yeast that transforms a society and makes it rise.
628. He (Deng Xiaoping) had lived through a revolution and recognized the early signs of one at Tiananmen. Gorbachev, unlike Deng, had only read about revolution and did not recognize the danger signals of the Soviet Union’s impending collapse.
640. The chairman of the Bundesbank was appointed by the Chancellor, but once appointed he had independence and the Chancellor could not order him to increase money supply or lower interest rates.
654. As China’s development nears the point when it has enough weight to elbow its way into the region, it will make a fateful decision-whether to be a hegemon, using its weight to create its sphere of influence in the region for its economic and security needs, or to continue as a good international citizen because it can achieve better growth by observing international rules.
664. Leadership is more than just ability. It is a combination of courage, determination, commitment, character, and ability that makes people willing to follow a leader.
686. I had the advantage of several ministers who read widely and were attracted to new ideas but not mesmerized by them-Keng Swee, Raja, Sui Sen. We passed interesting books and articles we had read to each other.
687. I learned to ignore criticism and advice from experts and quasi experts, especially academics in the social and political sciences. They have pet theories on how a society should develop to approximate their ideal, especially how poverty should be reduced and welfare extended. I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.
The para on page 527, is of great relevance to Sri Lanka. The writer had seen at first hand at Thiruvallur Collector’s Office in 2001, the vast strides made in computerization of government administration. Very impressive was the computerization of all data on land and the facility of ready retrieval. Even more remarkable was the use of Tamil in Computers and its use in internet and intra-net. Some three years of training had brought forth the initial talent pool. Achievements since then have earned the encomia of the central government for Tamil Nadu while drawing the attention of state governments. Praise apart is the toning up of administration in making it people oriented.
When the excerpts of Lee are read, one would recall Plato, “The state is the citizen writ large”. In Singapore the citizens understood and endorsed the leader.