Lee Kuan Yew with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in 2009.

Photographer: Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images

Lee Kuan Yew's Bad Prescription for India

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore who died this week at 91, had a lot to say about India. He never sugar-coated his remarks, nor did he resort to the many clichés used by thinkers both in the West and in India.

In 2000, Lee published "From Third World to First," an account of the rise of Singapore beginning in 1965. It contains a long section on India’s flaws, both as a civilization -- Lee believed the caste system was inimical to meritocracy, which is the foundation of economic development -- and as a new nation-state that he said couldn't transcend its native introversion and its (democratic) directionlessness.

Reading these pages is a bit like reading V.S. Naipaul on India, only from the viewpoint of a rigorously pragmatic, clear-sighted and technocratic statesman. Five Indian prime ministers across five decades -- Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai, Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao -- are one after the other allowed one or two kind sentences for their idealism, good intentions and unpromising circumstances. Then their personal frailties and flaws in economic management, leadership and foreign policy are ruthlessly, and very persuasively, dissected.

To Lee, it wasn't just the big picture of India that was badly diagnosed by those in power, leading inexorably to more poverty, more stasis and more population growth. For him, the devil is in the details. Why was the cutlery at the presidential dinner of such poor quality? Why did the diplomats who accompanied him to a reception at the Singapore Embassy in Delhi leave with a present of two bottles of foreign-made whisky? Why does the High Commission ask him to bring with him several boxes of golf balls to distribute as presents to Delhi’s elite? (The import of such frivolous luxuries was forbidden.)

When people achieve power in such a world, they seem to spend much of their time trying to stop others from climbing the pyramid. Lee’s conclusion could be mistaken as being hopeful: “India is a nation of unfulfilled greatness.”

One can agree substantially with Lee’s diagnosis of India’s failures without making the mistake, as some Indian writers and politicians did in their obituary notices this week, of believing that India needs its own Lee to realize its “unfulfilled greatness.” (Some partisans even had a name for this savior, and it was, unsurprisingly, Narendra Modi.)

Indian democracy has many problems, but the widely held idea that the country has “too much democracy,” and needs a little splash of authoritarianism to knock it into shape, is a mistake that many have made, notably during Indira Gandhi’s brief Emergency of 1975-77 (of which Lee approved).

Lee “didn’t allow democracy to turn into a mobocracy,” the BJP member of parliament Tarun Vijay wrote admiringly this week.

Hmm. Briefly, the political and miracle achieved with such determination by Lee had much to do with some very specific and interconnected circumstances. One was his own unchallenged political authority there -- a situation that India could replicate only at great risk to its own long-term stability. There was also the small size of his city-state, with a population about 1 percent of India’s, which enabled hands-on economic management and policy clarity.

Lee could see this more clearly than some of his admirers now do. In an interview in the journal Third World Quarterly in 1979, he was asked how Singapore had managed such a rapid transition from an agricultural to a prosperous industrial society. His answer is revealing:

The bigger the country, like China or India, the more difficult it becomes because the slighter is the impact on the total population of the major cities. We were fortunate in that because of our small size. The numbers that we sent abroad for training and the numbers of technicians and engineers and managers that came here to do the jobs enabled a very rapid diffusion of knowledge and acquisition of skills… One of the problems is to choose the right people to take advantage of this learning opportunity. You must choose those who are going to be your multipliers.

There are actually plenty of elements from Lee’s development model that India could replicate, from the willingness to open the economy to foreign capital, to making the best use of ports, to focusing on quality primary education as a way of durably levelling out hierarchies of class and power.

But, as Dhiraj Nayyar pointed out on this site, that’s as far as it goes. It’s ironic that many commentators who accuse the Indian state of being excessively paternalistic praise Singapore’s business-friendly set-up.

And although it may not show up in gross domestic product figures and other economic indicators yet, India’s “discordant democracy” has in just under seven decades wrought revolutions just as significant in the context of its own history as Singapore’s. It’s just that this is a cycle that might take 200 years to reach its mature period, and not three decades. Let’s not forget: despite Lee’s insistence on meritocracy in Singapore, his son is prime minister today. Meanwhile, last year, India comprehensively rejected the candidature of a fourth-generation dynast, Rahul Gandhi, for a man, Modi, whom some Indians love to liken to Lee. 

The paradoxes of Lee’s reputation tell the truth more than any argument can. He was a dictator whom even liberals came to love, the architect of a paternalistic state whom Henry Kissinger and many other liberty-loving Americans came to admire, a materialist whose vision of the good society many young Singaporeans came to rebel against, sometimes by voting with their feet

Yet Singapore’s rise disarmed most of his critics, who bought most of his arguments about the mutual interdependence of political centralization and development.

But to me, Lee’s career represents more a fortunate and fascinating conjuncture than a replicable political reality. Had it stemmed from a less competent administrator, Lee’s repression of dissent in Singapore would be judged much more harshly by the world as a deeply self-serving deployment of his theory of “Asian values,” a default setting that apparently always chooses order over freedom.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net