Friday, 22 March 2013

How Incompetent Leaders Can Screw a Promising Country

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”.

Here are Lee Kwan Yew’s views of Sri-Lanka:

Sri-Lanka has failed because it has had weak or wrong leaders

To begin with, Singapore did not have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors, a homogenous population, common language, common culture and common destiny.

The basis of a nation just was not there. But the advantage we had was that we became independent late. In 1965, we had 20 years of examples of failed states. So, we knew what to avoid — racial conflict, linguistic strife, religious conflict. We saw Ceylon.

When I went to Colombo for the first time in 1956 it was a better city than Singapore because Singapore had three and a half years of Japanese occupation and Colombo was the centre or HQ of Mountbatten's Southeast Asia command.

Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike’s promise to make Sinhalese the national language and Buddhism the national religion was the start of the unravelling of Ceylon.

“I was surprised when, three years later, he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk. I thought it ironic that a Buddhist monk, dissatisfied with the country's slow rate of progress in making Buddhism the national religion, should have done it.”

One-man-one-vote did not solve a basic problem. The majority of some 8 million Sinhalese could always outvote the 2 million Jaffna Tamils who had been disadvantaged by the switch from English to Sinhalese as the official language. From having no official religion, the Sinhalese made Buddhism their national religion. As Hindus, the Tamils felt dispossessed. 

In 1972, Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike had already changed the country's name, Ceylon, to Sri-Lanka, and made it a republic. The changes did not improve the fortunes of the country. Its tea is still sold as "Ceylon" tea.

I did not visit Ceylon for many years, not until I had met their newly elected prime minister, Junius Richard Jayewardene, in 1978 at a CHOGRM (British Commonwealth Conference) in Sydney.

Like Solomon Bandaranaike, Jayewardene was born a Christian, converted to Buddhism and embraced nativism to identify himself with the people. He wanted to start an airline because he believed it was a symbol of progress.

I advised him that an airline should not be his priority because it required too many talented and good administrators to get an airline off the ground when he needed them for irrigation, agriculture, housing, industrial promotion and development, and so many other projects. An airline was a glamour project, not of great value for developing Sri Lanka. But he insisted. So we helped him launch it in six months.

But there was no sound top management. When the pilot, now chairman of the new airline, decided to buy two second-hand aircraft against advice, we decided to withdraw. Faced with a five-fold expansion of capacity, negative cash flow, lack of trained staff, unreliable services and insufficient passengers, it was bound to fail. And it did.

The greatest mistake Jayewardene made was over the distribution of reclaimed land in the dry zone. With foreign aid, he revived an ancient irrigation scheme based on "tanks" (reservoirs), which could store water from the wet side of the mountains. Unfortunately, he gave the claimed land to the Sinhalese, not the Tamils who had historically been the farmers of this dry zone. Dispossessed and squeezed, they launched the Tamil Tigers. Jayewardene's private secretary, a Jaffna Tamil loyal to him told me this was a crucial mistake.

Jayewardene retired in 1988, a tired man. He had run out of solutions.

Ranasinghe Premadasa, who succeeded him, was a Sinhalese chauvinist. He wanted the Indian troops out of the country, which was not sensible.

I met him on several occasions in Singapore after he became president and tried to convince him that this conflict could not be solved by force of arms. A political solution was the only way, one considered fair by the Jaffna Tamils and the rest of the world; then the Tamil United Liberation Front, the moderate constitutional wing of the Tamil home rule movement, could not reject it. I argued that his objective must be to deprive the extremists of popular support by offering the Tamils autonomy to govern them through the ballot box. He was convinced he could destroy them.

Referring to the current Sri-Lankan president, he said: "I have read his speeches and I knew he was a Sinhala extremist. I cannot change his mind."

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 is 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.

I do not 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.

During my visits over the years, I watched a promising country go to waste.

It is sad that the country whose ancient name Serendip has given the English language the word "serendipity" is now the epitome of conflict, pain, sorrow and hopelessness.

Sources: From Third World To First - The Singapore Story: 1965-2000
              Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew: Citizen Singapore: How to Build a Nation

The difference between Singapore’s impressive achievements against all the odds and Sri-Lanka’s miserable failure can be seen by comparing the GDP per person of the two countries:

GDP per Person (PPP) according to World Bank:

Singapore US $ 60,000 

Sri-Lanka US $ 5,600

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