As the world mourns the death of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who was not only a statesman but the philosopher of modern Asia, it would be instructive to consider his thoughts on India, a country he was deeply connected with and interested in. As a friendly but objective party, his insights on India are especially valuable. Many Indians, such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi have expressed admiration of Lee, describing him as “a far-sighted statesman and a lion among leaders.”
Lee Kuan Yew knew every prime minister of independent India and admired many Indian leaders personally, more so for their personality traits than their policies. Lee admired both Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi during their tenures as prime ministers. He saw Nehru as a “demagogue who chose not to become a dictator.” Of Indira Gandhi, he said that “there was that steel in her that would match any Kremlin leader.” Reflecting on her years later, Lee also said that “Indira Gandhi was the toughest woman prime minister I have met. She was feminine but there was nothing soft about her. She was a more determined and ruthless political leader than Margaret Thatcher, Bandaranaike, or Benazir Bhutto.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
“On my early visits in 1959 and 1962, when Nehru was in charge, I thought India showed promise of becoming a thriving society and a great power. By the late 1970s, I thought it would become a big military power because of its size but not an economically thriving one because of its stifling bureaucracy. It was sad to see the gradual rundown of the country, visible even in the Rashtrapti Bhavan [President’s Palace.] The crockery and cutlery were dreadful – at dinner one knife literally snapped in my hand and nearly bounced into my face.”
Lee watched India squander its potential over the course of several decades, leading him to call India “a nation of unfulfilled greatness.”
Lee also complained that “India has so many outstanding people in all fields of scholarship, but for a number of reasons it has allowed the high standards the British left them to be lowered. There is less insistence now on meritocracy by examinations for entrance into top schools and universities, the professions, and the Indian Civil Service.”
However, Lee’s greatest feelings of disappointment toward India was due to its lack of economic progress, “because it went the wrong way, the socialist way.” Lee believed that many Indian bureaucrats did not have the right mindset for facilitating economic development, arguing that it was necessary for them to abandon the idea that foreigners were “out to exploit India and should be hindered.” Lee’s thoughts on the matter of economic growth for third world countries deserve to be quoted at length here:
“Like Nehru, I had been influenced by the ideas of the British Fabian society. But I soon realized that before distributing the pie I had first to bake it. So I departed from welfarism because it sapped a people’s self-reliance and their desire to excel and succeed. I also abandoned the model of industrialization through import substitution. When most of the Third World was deeply suspicious of exploitation by western MNCs (multinational corporations), Singapore invited them in. They helped us grow, brought in technology and know-how, and raised productivity levels faster than any alternative strategy could.”
While Lee was disappointed with the direction India took and understood the roots of its underdevelopment, he also grew to be cautiously optimistic about India, especially after its 1991 liberalizing reforms and subsequent growth (though faulting) for two decades. Speaking in 2005 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial lecture in New Delhi, he said that “India must make up for much time lost. There is in fact already a strong political consensus between India’s two major parties that India needs to liberalize its economy and engage with the dynamic economies of the world…The time has come for India’s next tryst with destiny.” The major reason for this shift, Lee believed, is the change in mentality Indians have undergone in the last 20 years: “There is now no stigma in acquiring wealth. Indians have seen what market orientated policies have done for China and they do not want to be left behind.”
Lee saw India’s future as positive, firmly embedded in the story of a rising Asia. Lee said that “if there are no mishaps by 2050 the U.S., China, India, and Japan will be economic heavyweights.” India, seen as a great civilization with an important destiny by both Lee and Nehru, will be an “intrinsic part of this unfolding new world order.” Coming from a man as perceptive as Lee Kuan Yew, this makes the future of India something to look forward to.