Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Review: Wisdom of the East

There is no other living leader, it can be comfortably asserted, who has played a greater role in shaping his country's destiny as has Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore is, with its abundance of good, a little bad, and traces of the ugly, LKY's vision translated into reality. Whatever title he may hold, prime minister, senior minister or minister mentor, LKY has greater influence on this "tiny dot" in the Indian Ocean than any other elected or nominated official in the country. During an interaction once with university presidents, LKY disclosed that he had a simple objective for his country once it separated from Malaysia in 1965: to convert it into a first world oasis in a third world desert. And he did succeed. LKY also held a vision for India and for the bilateral relationship. In this, however, success was achieved after nearly 40 years of frustration, disillusionment and even anger. Sunanda K. Datta-Ray's Lee Kuan Yew's Mission India is a masterly chronicle of the India-Singapore relationship built on the grand old man's vision and persistence. The USP of the book is clearly the eight conversations that Ray was able to have with LKY himself.
Why did LKY believe in India long before Indians began to believe in themselves? He always believed that Southeast Asia needs India to deal with China. In the 1960s, the focus was on India militarily balancing China, but today the focus is on economic cooperation. ASEAN, he believes, cannot alone "contend with China's growing might" but the ASEAN plus India "commands impressive weightage". But as Ray points out, "Like Manmohan Singh, however, Lee believes that Asian stability demands competition and cooperation, not confrontation, between the two giants… leading to an arc of advantage and prosperity across Asia and an Asian economic community." In a conversation with JRD Tata in 1974, he had warned that if India did not emerge, Asia would be submerged. In his geostrategic thinking, Lee was greatly influenced by the great Indian historian, K.M. Panikkar, who coined the term Southeast Asia for what had been known until then as Farther India.
For many years, Lee was rebuffed by India and Indians. In the '60s, he had called for a military partnership. Indeed "within moments of proclaiming" Singapore's independence, he wrote to Indian prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri "seeking military assistance". India, predictably, ignored the appeal. Singaporean fishing vessels were routinely arrested for straying into Indian territory; the request to use the Nicobar Islands for training was rejected. LKY saw India's descent into socialist autarchy and corrupt governance with dismay. His prescription called for "clean politics, secular egalitarianism, a unifying language… economic opportunities, and an honest, efficient and impartial administration". For decades, this never happened. And LKY began fearing that an enfeebled India shackled by a Hindu rate of growth and wracked by caste and communal conflict would never match the grandeur of his dreams. It was only after the Narasimha Rao Manmohan Singh combine brought back the region into focus that Singapore became New Delhi's first stop on the road to America. Today, India and Singapore share one of the closest bilateral economic, military and societal relationships. And in many ways, this is a deserving tribute to LKY, and Ray's fine book brings this out with great finesse.

(Source: India Today)

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