by A Special Correspondent
In a new book entitled ‘Citizen Singapore: How To Build A Nation - Conversations with Lee Kwan Yew’ by Prof Tom Plate, published by Marshall Cavendish, a subsidiary of Times Publishing Ltd, Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kwan Yew has expressed his opinion on Sri Lanka after the war.
Lee Kwan Yew is acknowledged as one of the architects of modern Asia and a pioneer of the Asian economic miracle, which has set in motion a historic power shift from the West to the East. Singapore was just rated as having the most competitive economy in the world and Lee Kwan Yew is regarded as the epitome of a successful and visionary leader. He is credited with being one of the first to predict the new rise of China. His views are highly regarded and influential in governing circles and among policy elites around the world.
Sri Lanka “is not a happy, united country” he says, and is not optimistic about its post-war direction. “The present president of Sri Lanka believes he has settled the problem; his Tamil Tigers are killed and that is that.” In what is probably the most controversial remark on the subject by a world famous political personality who has never fought shy of controversy, Lee Kwan Yew refers to the Sri Lankan President’s ideology: “ I’ve read his speeches and I knew he was a Sinhalese extremist. I cannot change his mind”.
Though wielding a well-deserved reputation as a ‘forceful’, ‘hardnosed’ and ‘tough-minded’ leader, Lee Kwan Yew had almost ‘cringed’ at any analogy with today’s Sri Lanka, leading interviewer-author Tom Plate to observe to Lee that his system of government was ‘much softer, consensual and intelligent’ than that in Sri Lanka.
Lee Kwan Yew’s views have been sought after by leaders the world over, with Henry Kissinger saying that two generations of US Presidents have benefited from his advice. He is known to have influenced the thinking of China’s leader Deng Hsiao Peng and India’s Prime Ministers leading to India’s ‘Look East policy’. Malaysia’s Dr Mahathir Mohammed writes that Lee Kwan Yew “will go down in history as a very remarkable intellectual and politician at the same time, which is not a very often thing”, while Prof Samuel Huntington says that he “has made Singapore absolutely unique in this part of the world, by making it as one of the least corrupt political systems in the world...Now that is a tremendous achievement”.
The full text of his remarks on Sri Lanka follow:
"Another example is Sri Lanka. It is not a happy, united country. Yes, they [the majority Sinhalese government] have beaten the Tamil Tigers this time, but the Sinhalese who are less capable are putting down a minority of Jaffna Tamils who are more capable. They were squeezing them out. That's why the Tamils rebelled. But I do not see them ethnic cleansing all two million-plus Jaffna Tamils. The Jaffna Tamils have been in Sri Lanka as long as the Sinhalese."
"So what Asia saw was ethnic cleansing?"
"They will come back, you think?"
"I don't think they 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."
I look up from my notes and with a sense that here we might be seeing a side of LKY that is under-reported, I say: "See, that's really 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. He starts to say something, then stops, then leaves it at referring to Sri Lanka's president: "I've read his speeches and I knew he was a Sinhalese extremist. I cannot change his mind."
Undertaking battles that cannot be won is not a particular trademark of LKY's pragmatic success formula. Neither is a religious obeisance to so-called pure democracy as the form of preferred government. He does not mention that Sri Lanka is a democracy, based on one-citizen, one-vote. He's not against democracies when they work. He's against defending them just because they are democracies. This position strikes me as more consistent than the U.S. relationship with other democracies: we support them only when we approve of them, denouncing them (or worse) when we don't.
He is also opposed to defending propositions that have little factual foundation simply because they are politically correct. He does think, by and large, Chinese people work harder than many other nationalities or ethnicities (though not, for example, more than the Japanese). In fact, he suspects the 21st century will be a Chinese or Asian one. He thinks the Tamils deserve more respect than the Sinhalese have given them. He doubts the average Malay will ever become a hard-charging workaholic, as are many Chinese ... as are (as we will see later) many Israelis ... and as are the Japanese. In fact, the Japanese are so driven that they serve to underscore the point that even an inefficient democratic system of government is not necessarily an impediment to economic growth." (pp. 55-56)
The book, the first in a series ‘Giants of Asia’, is a set of lengthy interviews conducted by Los Angeles based scholar-journalist Prof Tom Plate, a respected American commentator on Asia, whose Op-Ed column in the Los Angeles Times is the longest running column in the US press on Asia-America. A lecturer at the US Pacific Command (Hawaii), Tom Plate has been consistently and sharply critical of the Tamil Tigers in his writings.