Lee’s five powerful lessons for Lanka

By Ameen Izzadeen
All that man wants is freedom from fear and hunger. The entire gamut of human rights stems from these two basic freedoms which ensure man’s right to life, property and dignity. In a society where there is freedom from fear and hunger, there is little place for destructive politics.
This was the essence of the social contract Singapore’s founder and great statesman Lee Kuan Yew conceived and sustained. In this social contract, the State was honest and expected from its citizens discipline and reciprocal honesty. As Singapore, once a run-down port city, bloomed as a developed nation just three decades after its independence in 1965, John F. Kennedy’s famous quote “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” resonated in public life. His critics accused Lee of ruling the country with an iron fist and a virtual one-party democracy, but most of them later agreed that Lee was right. After all, who cares about politics when your next meal is assured, your welfare is taken care of, you are financially stable and your tax money is truly accounted for?
In Sri Lanka, Lee will be largely remembered for his statement that he wanted to make Singapore a Sri Lanka. Decades later, Sri Lanka was trying to become like Singapore with slogans such as making Sri Lanka an NIC — a Newly Industrialised country – by 2000 or turning Sri Lanka into a Miracle of Asia. But apart from the civil war, large-scale or mind-boggling corruption, especially during the previous regime, deprived the country of the opportunity to become another Singapore.
But as the great statesman begins his final journey, Sri Lanka should learn a few lessons from his legacy — his model for success — especially at a time when good governance has become the hot topic.
It was largely good governance that helped Singapore to become the financial giant it is today. Sri Lankan leaders need to stop paying lip service to good governance and look at how Lee’s Singapore practised it.
In Singapore, good governance operates on five principles – meritocracy, ethnic harmony, clean government, the rule of law and social equity.
Singapore was run like a private company with the prime minister being the CEO. The right person got the right job. To achieve the maximum benefit of meritocracy, Lee realised the need for an educated society and worked towards it. In this educated society, people are judged by their performance — not on their family background, caste, class, ethnic group or political ideology. Can this happen in Sri Lanka? Can we dream of a time when appointments will be made not on one’s closeness to the leader but on the basis of one’s ability and qualifications?
Take the second principle: Ethnic harmony. Both Singapore and Sri Lanka have laws that promote religious and racial harmony. But where Singapore succeeds and Sri Lanka totters is in the implementation of the law. During the previous regime we saw how the law was observed in the breach when religious groups advocating racial hatred got state patronage that led to violence in the Aluthgama-Beruwala area. Unlike Sri Lanka where there is constitutional ambiguity over whether the State is secular or not, Singapore is secular but tolerates no attempt to insult a religion or race.
Singapore’s language policy is also worth emulating. Learning a lesson from Sri Lanka, Lee struck the golden mean where English, which is not an official language, became the working language while the official languages — Mandarin, Malay and Tamil — are encouraged in schools to maintain the country’s cultural identity and Asianness.
Lee told the International Herald Tribune in 2007: “We’ve seen Sri Lanka, when they switched from English to Sinhala and disenfranchised the Tamils and so strife ever after. We chose — we didn’t say it was our national language — we said it was our working language, that everybody learns English whatever language medium school you go to. Which means nobody needs interpretation to read English.”
It is interesting to note that Lee’s Singapore saw no issue in adopting the crescent and the stars as the symbols in the national flag, notwithstanding the fact that they gave an Islamic flavour to the flag as seen in the flags of Muslim countries such as Turkey, Tunisia and Malaysia.
Clean government was Lee’s third principle. One of the first acts of Prime Minister Lee soon after independence was to increase the public servants’ salaries by manyfold. Many questioned the move because a new and poor country could barely afford a huge public servant salary bill. But Lee stood by his decision because it helped reduce bribery and corruption in the public service. Lee realised that if the head was corrupt, then down the line, the public servants in particular, and the people in general would be corrupt. Lee proved that the leader’s commitment to cleaning up corruption must be absolute. There were no deals within deals or cover ups on the basis of kinship or friendship. The end result was prosperity to all.
The Rule of Law was Lee’s fourth principle. There was general consensus that the Rule of Law was what provided the necessary impetus for Singapore’s economy to grow rapidly from a per capita income of US$ 500 in the late 1960s to a per capita income of US$ 55,000 today. Foreign investors flocked to Singapore as they did not have to bribe officials and had confidence in the country’s commitment to uphold the rule of law.
The fifth principle is social equity where the state steps in not only to close the gap in income disparity but also to ensure that everyone has access to quality education, health care and public transportation. Singapore will not call itself a welfare state but many a welfare state can learn valuable lessons from this laissez-faire state where the state provides a workfare payment to those whose income is far below the national average.
“If an economy prospers but the median income is low and the disparity of wealth is large, the society will not be cohesive and social harmony will be threatened. The philosophy of inclusive growth is therefore important. We need to build social equity into our growth strategy,” Prof. Tommy Koh, head of the Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore told a 2009 lecture.
For Sri Lankans, especially the new government leaders who talk about good governance, there is certainly a lesson a lesson to be learned from Lee’s Singapore. Instead of importing a central bank governor from Singapore and messing things up, the Government should have imported Lee’s vision. It is never too late.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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