Saturday, March 28, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew – Pragmatist of the 20th Century

Photo taken on Nov. 23, 2004. Tara Sosrowardoyo (National Museum of Singapore Collection)
On September 20, 2014, at the Singapore Summit, the Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made an interesting observation. When he was asked whether the Singapore Model is replicable in a larger scale, he categorically said no.

“I think it is not replicable not only because of scale but also because of history and circumstance,” the Prime Minister said. He went on to say that “we had certain formative experiences in the anti-colonial period, fighting for independence, fighting against the communists, going into Malaysia, running into new problems in Malaysia, coming out from Malaysia suddenly and the shock of that sudden independence, galvanizing a generation of Singaporeans and their children to do something exceptional together. Those are unique circumstances in a unique environment where it may not have resulted in success but fortunately for us, it did.”

In these few sentences, Lee Hsien Loong captured the post World War II history of a people. The man who is credited with the success the Prime Minister described was none other than his father, Lee Kuan Yew. Universally known as the father of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew led the small nation to what it is today.

“To understand Singapore and why it is what it is, you’ve got to start off with the fact that it’s not supposed to exist and cannot exist,” he said in a 2007 interview with New York Times. “To begin with, we don’t have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors: a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny.”
"Moment of anguish"

Perhaps this is why he described the separation from Malaysia as a “moment of anguish.” His voice choked with emotion and he virtually broke down at the press conference which announced this separation on August 9, 1965. It was unthinkable that a tough man like Lee would break down in public in that manner.


Perhaps his biggest failure in politics was being unable to stay in Malaysia. However, after this, he came out stronger and with a will to succeed. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in Washington Post that Lee Kuan Yew “asserted that a city located on a sandbar with nary an economic resource to draw upon, and whose major industry as a colonial naval base had disappeared, could nevertheless thrive and achieve international stature by building on its principal asset: the intelligence, industry and dedication of its people.”

He attempted to encourage the ‘never fear’ attitude in Singaporeans. The Straits Time editor Warren Fernandez recalls a speech delivered by Lee Kuan Yew in September 1965. “This country belongs to all of us,” he had said. “We made this country from nothing, from mud-flats... Over 100 years ago, this was a mud-flat, swamp. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear!”

After the shock of separation from Malaysia, Lee started consolidating Singapore as a state from what he had. His “Singapore model” included centralized power, clean government and economic liberalism. However it also incorporated suppressing political opposition, imposing strict limits on free speech and public assembly, and creating a climate of caution and self-censorship.

The motto says it all (Straits Times)
Security was one of his major concerns, both for local and regional reasons. The threat of communism was not too unreal. After the fall of Singapore to Japan in 1942 and the three and a half years of Japanese occupation, he had seen what foreign forces could do to a country. Perhaps with all these in mind, he set up the Ministry of Interior and Defence in 1965.

At independence, Singapore had only two infantry battalions of 50 officers and about 1,000 men and two ships. There was no air force. Today, Singapore’s military expenditure as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is higher than that of China, Japan and the U.K., according to World Bank data. Meanwhile, conscription of male youths has enabled the country to build up a defense force with fewer burdens to the national economy than it could have been. Singapore is termed “Israel of the East” for obvious reasons.

Lee started building up the financial capital of the country. The Development Bank of Singapore was incorporated in 1968. Today, DBS Group Holdings Ltd. is Southeast Asia’s biggest bank.

Singapore Airlines was established in 1972, when Malaysia-Singapore Airlines separated. Meanwhile, Singapore's Changi Airport got its first terminal in 1981. It now has three and two more are on the way. Meanwhile, it was just named the world's best airport again.

In 1974 Temasek Holdings was incorporated under the Singapore Companies Act to hold the assets and manage the investments previously held by the Singapore government. These were investments made in the first decade of nation building since independence in 1965. The government had already bought stakes in private companies and owned a number of companies as well.
Changi Airport Control Tower (Wikimedia Commons)


Lee focused on building a meritocracy in multi-racial Singapore and strove for equality to harness talent that was the city-state’s only resource. Lee said Malaysians saw Malaysia as a “Malay country” and was critical of how the Bumiputeras dominated Malaysia.

He disagreed with the way Malaysia managed its multi-cultural, Malay-majority society through affirmative action policies. “So the Sultans, the Chief Justice and judges, generals, police commissioner, the whole hierarchy is Malay. All the big contracts for Malays. Malay is the language of the schools although it does not get them into modern knowledge. So the Chinese build and find their own independent schools to teach Chinese, the Tamils create their own Tamil schools, which do not get them jobs. It’s a most unhappy situation,” he told New York Times in 2010.

“Our Malays are English-educated, they’re no longer like the Malays in Malaysia and you can see there are some still wearing headscarves but very modern looking,” he went on to say in the interview in 2010 with NYT.

Lee was accused of clamping down on opposition, with detention without trial and using libel suits to drive opponents bankrupt. Seth Mydans, writing in New York Times, calls it “a distinctive Singaporean mechanism of political control.” Opposition parties did not contest elections until 1981 when JB Jeyaretnam won a parliamentary seat. In 2011, opposition parties won an unprecedented six seats in parliament.

Journalist and science writer Nalaka Gunawardene stated that one major reason for his success was that the country was small. On one side, he could enforce a tight grip on the country because of this. Singapore is a small city, comparative to the size of a medium sized metropolis in the Indian subcontinent. One can never tell if Lee would have succeeded in a much bigger country, Gunewardene said.

However, he pointed out that even Malaysia was extremely successful with Dr. Mahathir Mohamad at the helm. But, in contrast to Lee, Dr. Mohamad could not contain corruption. Leaders who succeeded him were less competent in controlling corruption, especially in the peripheries. A leader like Sukarno in Indonesia fell due to a similar reason, Gunewardene recalled.


Gunewardene also pointed out an important fact in Lee, not having an ideology. Lee was never dogmatic. “We are ideology-free,” Lee said in an interview with The New York Times in 2007, stating what had become, in effect, Singapore’s ideology. “Does it work? If it works, let’s try it. If it’s fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one.”

As Gunewardene recalled, “Not having an ideology was his ideology.” He stated that Lee is perhaps the most pragmatic leader ever. He was pragmatic in his politics and economics. He could deal with the capitalist world as well as Chinese communists, while having a tight grip over the matters in Singapore.

Singapore Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat, who was former Principle Private Secretary of Lee Kuan Yew, wrote an obituary in The Straits Times and stated, “if you update him on something, he will invariably reply with "So?".” Furthermore, Heng said that this would inevitably follow with another sentence. “what does this mean for Singapore?”

He gave attention to even minute details. Heng wrote that he had a mental map of the world in which he knew the contours well. The center of his mental map was always Singapore, Heng recalled.

In 1990, Lee decided to step down as Prime Minister, but stayed on as Senior Minister. He supported the new Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong the best he could, Heng Swee Keat stated in his obituary.

After 2004, when his son became Prime Minister, Lee became a Minister Mentor. He resigned from all these positions in 2011.

“What really sets this complex man apart from Asia's other nation-builders is what he didn't do: he did not become corrupt, and he did not stay in power too long. Mao, Suharto, Marcos and Ne Win left their countries on the verge of ruin with no obvious successor. Lee left Singapore with a per capita GDP of $14,000, his reputation gilt-edged and an entire tier of second-generation leaders to take over when he stepped down in 1990” Time magazine said in 1991.

Where does it begin... or end? An aerial view from the 18th storey of Swissotel The Stamford at 9pm shows snaking queues as people try to make it into Parliament House to pay their last respects to Mr Lee Kuan Yew. - Straits Times PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Nevertheless, he was in the midst of action. He would never let anything go beyond control. He once said that “even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up.”

However, Nalaka Gunewardene said that he might not have to get up from his grave for the next two three decades at least. “His shadow is very long,” Gunewardene insisted. “He has institutionalized everything. Those who were trained while he was there will be around for a few decades to come. Therefore, the system will go on,” he said.

Another important aspect of Lee’s life is his ability to change. The world changed around him but he adapted accordingly. Other leaders who could not, eventually faded away, but Lee did not. This made him an exceptional leader in the region, and in the world.

However, one characteristic he never lost was his outspokenness. “No one can accuse me of not speaking my mind,” he once said.

No one will ever dare accuse him on that.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Dynamics of National Struggles (1815-1848)

Interview with Prof. Anura Manatunga
Prof Anura Manatunga (Pic. University of Kelaniya)

Anura Manatunga is a Professor of Archeology in the University of Kelaniya. He is also the Director of Center for Asian Studies in the university. A widely respected scholar, Manatunga has written widely on archeology and history.

Q: Before entering the phase after the Kandyan Convention, can you briefly describe what made the British conquest of Kandy possible? Was it caused by real issues or was it created by the British?

A: It is both. There were real issues. There is no doubt that the last king was a tyrannical ruler. Of course, this tyranny is partly created. However, it was partly real. Every ruler, then and now, fears their subjects. The last king, Sri Wikrema Rajasinghe, did not allow people of certain regions to marry people of other regions. He feared some regions were against him. His paranoia was so much that he went to the extent of separating such families. Furthermore, the king’s relatives behaved badly, which did not go well with the subjects. The king became alcoholic and it was the British who gifted him alcohol. The British also created dissent and encouraged divisions. But, the responsibility lies with the local rulers as well.

Q: What about the role of John D’oyly?

A: D’oyly was a good man. He was educated in Cambridge. He learned local language and customs. He respected the people and the nobles. For example, it was he who rescued the king from the mob of Eknaligoda on February 18, 1815. But he did his job. He was assigned to keep contacts with Kandy and as time went on, he used the contacts to topple the kingdom. He communicated with both Ehelepola and his rival Molligoda. He was doing politics, nothing else.

John D'oyly in conversation with Ehalepola, Molligoda and Kapuwatte
Q: There is speculation that he may have forged the signatures in the Kandyan Convention. Could that be true?

A: One cannot really say. The Kandyan Convention was presented on March 2 and most of the nobles signed it on March 10. However, Ehelepola did not sign until March 18. He did not come, giving various excuses. It is said that D’oyly sent the document to his mansion to get it signed. However, it is unclear whether he did it himself.

The speculation has arisen due to the slight differences in the signatures in the copies. There are five copies of the Convention. There are differences in the signatures in these. It is clear that all nobles, perhaps with the exception of Ehelepola, signed at least one copy. Perhaps someone might have copied their signatures in the other four copies. However, Ehelepola might not have signed any of the copies.

Signatures on the Kandyan Convention
Ehelepola actually wanted to be the king. He expected that the British would hand over the kingdom after chasing the tyrannical rule of Sri Wickrema. However, the British had other plans and decided to pay Ehelepola in money. Ehelepola threw away this monetary gift when it was sent to him.

Q: There are various claims on the fact that many nobles signed in Tamil?

A: That was the language of the king at the time. Also it was the language of the traders and the wealthy who had come from South India. Basically it was the language of the government. If you compare, how many leaders sign in Sinhalese these days? Even some of those who claim to be staunch nationalists sign in English. So, it is no surprise that it happened then. Of course, there were exceptions, including Keppetipola, who signed in Sinhalese.

Q: What happened after the Convention? Were there any attempts to chase the British from Kandy even before the Great Freedom Struggle of Uva?

A: Of course. Within two weeks, the Kandyans had decided to chase the British out at the earliest moment possible. It is obvious by the fact that the Sinhalese did not handover the Ceremonial Golden Sword of the king and the Tooth Relic. Obviously they were hidden with the motive of using them at the right moment to start a battle against the British.

Q: Who were the leaders or masterminds of these plans?

A: One cannot really say. It cannot only be Ehelepola. It cannot be said to a certainty as many nobles wanted the British out. One of the earliest attempts was in 1816 and was led by Ihagama Rathanapala Thera and Madugalle Udagabadamudali. However, this conspiracy was revealed, by none other than Eknaligoda. Ihagama Unnanse was arrested but he escaped. Madugalle Udagabadamudali was sent to prison for six months. This was the only known substantial attempt before the Uva-Wellassa freedom struggle started.

However, the intention was there. There is knowledge that Thaldena Mohottala in Badulla collected arms in his home. So did Kivulegedara Mohottala in Wellassa. He has once said that his warehouses are full of gunpowder. Why would someone stock gunpowder if not to fight? They must have prepared from the days of the collapse of Kandy.

One issue we had was that we never really had a local person to be named a king. It is not because on the differences between nobles. The simple reason was that all nobles were radala, but not of royal stock. Our society, whether rightly or wrongly, was caste based. Kingship should go to king’s caste. There was no one locally who belonged to that caste. Therefore, there was an attempt to bring a prince from Burma in these early days.

Even during the Uva-Wellassa struggle, people joined it because a king appeared. It was said that Wilbawe was a prince named Doresami. When it was revealed that this was not the case, the support to the struggle broke down. Perhaps Keppetipola may have known that Wilbawe was a pretender. But many people did not know. When the truth was revealed, some nobles including Pilimathalawe and Madugalle actually blamed Keppetipola for hiding the truth and planned to bring in a foreign prince once again. The struggle just collapsed thereafter.

Q: How was the secret revealed?

A: It could have been several ways. D’oyly had his spies who collected information. Meanwhile, there is a story of one monk who had recognized the person as a monk who had been with them at the temple by his voice. Besides, Wilbawe appeared in a group of eight. How can one keep a secret with eight people? It is simply impossible. Obviously the news spread slowly but it did.

Q: What made the struggle of Uva-Wellassa possible in the first place?

A: The immediate reason was the appointment of Hajji Muhandiram, replacing Kohukumbure Rate Rala and Butawe Rate Rala in Wellassa. The two nobles were in charge of the transport sector at that time. This was an important role. However, the British decided to replace them with a Muslim. Until then Muslims had been traders. But this new situation enraged the Sinhalese. At the same time, a king appeared. This was vital in the struggle.

Another interesting aspect was the role of the Veddahs. They were more numerous than now, and were friends of the Sinhalese people. Initially when Wilbawe emerged it was the Veddahs who joined the new king. This role of the Veddahs has been researched by a few scholars such as Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere.

Even Keppetipola was persuaded to join the struggle by the fact that there was a king. In October 1817, when fighting broke out, Wellasse Dissawe was Millewa. He was old and therefore he could not defeat an uprising. Therefore, Keppetipola of Uva was sent in by the British. On November 1, 1817, the defining moment in the struggle occurred at Alupotha.

A group of Wellassa fighters led by Kotamberala leaped on to the path, blocking Keppetipola’s way. “We have a great king now. You can join us. Or else, we know how to take you to the king,” Kotamberala told Keppetipola. This was an obvious threat that if he was not going to join the fighters, he was going to be killed and his head will be presented to the king. We cannot really say if it is a pre-planned event. Perhaps Keppatipola knew that Kotamberala was going to intercept him. But Keppetipola decided to join the fighters. What is great is that Keppetipola sent the army and the weapons back. Whether preplanned or not, this was a great moment in war history.

Q: The Uva-Wellassa struggle was crushed severely. Can we describe it as Genocide?

A: I’m not exactly sure. Some people do that these days. There was an order to kill anyone over 14 years of age in some of the areas. They burned the Wellassa area. In a way it was Genocide. But, people did not always succumb to that. Many managed to escape.

Q: What happened thereafter?

A: Many leaders died during the fighting. More than 40 were executed after being captured. Twenty four others including Ehelepola and Pilimatalawe were exiled to Mauritius. Furthermore, many important families were exiled to other parts of the country. Meanwhile, some young people in those families were given Western education and a group of loyal supporters.

Another thing the British did was to introduce alcohol to the upcountry. Many people of the families of even the high classes got used to heavy drinking. Also, there was no education except for a few Christian schools in the upcountry. So, there could hardly be a national leadership.

Nevertheless, until 1848, there were several attempts to overthrow the British. At that time, the opposition came from the upcountry. The low country people had reconciled with the colonial rule as they had been under it for nearly 400 years. However, the Sinhalese never reconciled with losing Kandy, which was actually called ‘Sinhale’ at the time. There were several attempts in 1820, 1823, 1824 and so on. Even in 1842-43, there were disturbances. After 1818, there were one anti-British attempt every five years or so.

However, little by little the leadership was removed from the region. Even in 1848, it was two people from low country who led the Matale Struggle.

Q: How could people of low country lead an uprising in up country?

A: Sometimes leaders emerge overnight. Even today, it is the same. Who would have heard of Arvind Kejriwal two three years ago? Today he is a Chief Minister in India. This is how it is. In 1848, it was a protest against taxation which developed into a rebellion. Puran Appu and Gongalegodabanda gave leadership. They were obviously brave. That is why they emerged as leaders. People did not mind who gave them leadership.

Q: Why were there no struggles in up country after 1848?

A: One reason was, there were no suitable people to lead them. They had either been exiled or had become allies of the British or were wasting their times with alcohol. There could be no national leadership. Meanwhile the society changed after estates were introduced. The demographics changed in the central highlands. Furthermore, the Buddhist Temporalities Act became a huge fiasco. This made monks engage in land disputes among themselves as land was awarded to temples in a haphazard manner. Perhaps this was done intentionally. At any rate, monks started wasting their time on legal affairs. They could not think of a national struggle. On top of it, education was practically nil in the upcountry, except for the few Christian schools. It was only after the Buddhist renewal in the lower country that education reached there.

Q: After 1848, the anti-colonial struggle shifted to the low country. But you said that the low country people had reconciled with being under colonial rule. How did the changes happen?
A: There were many reasons. The role of the Buddhist priests was essential. A new, more radical group of Buddhist monks came up from the coastal belt from Colombo to the South. They did not belong to the Asgiri or Malwatta chapters. Their leadership was extremely important. They saw how Buddhists were treated in countries like Burma and compared with what was happening in Ceylon. It was obvious that they needed change.

Meanwhile, education expanded. English language knowledge improved. Then people could read of happenings abroad. Meanwhile the effect the Irish community had was also important. The Irish had a grudge with the English and their version of the British imperialism seeped through to local educated class. Meanwhile the press became an important asset in dissemination of knowledge. Sinhalese newspapers were being printed by 1860s. These developments changed the whole outlook of the leaders of the low country. This transformed the epicenter of the anti-colonial struggle from the highlands to the coastal belt in the southwest.

Originally published in 'The Nation' on March 01, 2015

No compromise on 100 Days Program – Ajith P Perera

Ajith P Perera is a United National Party Member of Parliament from Kalutara District. He was a foremost critic of the former government and after the election of Maithripala Sirisena as President, he was appointed as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. In an exclusive interview, he spoke on the future of the government and the mechanism of a domestic inquiry on alleged war crimes during the war. Excerpts:

Q: Certain matters pertaining to the 100 Days Program are getting delayed. What are your thoughts on this? What are the practical difficulties, if any, that the government is facing?

A: The 100 Day Program is being coming out as planned. The only significant delay taking place is the constitutional amendment process which is due to the debate that has arisen on the electoral reform. There is a debate if a new electoral process should be introduced before the next general election or if an exception is to be made in the case of that election.

Q: Why has this debate arisen?

A: The main issue is the need to reconsider the electoral map. The current system of 160 electorates came up in the 1960s. Population distribution and densities have changed drastically in certain areas since then. There are some electorates with less than 100,000 registered voters while there are electorates with much larger populations. Are we going to introduce multiple member constituencies or are we going to redraw the map such that the populations are balanced? How are we to rectify the differences? This issue is delaying the process. The Delimitation Commission is currently inactive. Therefore we have to reactivate it and work on this.

Q: If this is complex, why can’t the government take perhaps a few more weeks, change the electoral system and then call for the election?

A: That could not be done. We are committed to holding elections after the completion of the 100 Days Program. If we take a few weeks for this and a few weeks for that, we will keep on procrastinating on tasks we have to complete. We promised an election after 100 days and we have to carry out our promise. We will not compromise on the 100 Days Program.

Q: The government has promised that there will be a domestic inquiry on the alleged war crimes. However, there seems to be a lack of clarity on what this inquiry will be. Does the government have an idea on what kind of an inquiry or a mechanism?

A: Yes. The government has an idea. Our position is that any criminal case pertaining to such a alleged incident should be tried within this country, in Sri Lankan courts, according to Sri Lankan laws. There can be no doubt on that.

Furthermore, we will focus on both accountability and reconciliation. We will learn from the experience of other countries, including South Africa. For example, an expert team from South Africa will arrive here on February 23 and will hold a workshop, and they will share their experiences. However, our mechanism will be completely local, as our experience was different.

When it comes to accountability, if there has been any crime, if there is evidence, the perpetrators should be punished, according to Sri Lankan laws and in Sri Lankan courts. We might need external technical assistance on matters in which we may need help, such as training lawyers and judges. However, such assistance will be purely technical assistance and nothing more. Foreigners will never come as facilitators.

Furthermore, we will also take the opinion of civil society and political parties into consideration in designing our mechanism.

Q: South Africans came here even during the tenure of the former government and held talks and workshops. Did not we get enough technical assistance from them then?

A: No. They were invited but they were not given the feeling of being welcome here. Their knowledge was not used properly in reconciliation process.

Q: According to what you said, I get the feeling that there is a lot to be done before a real mechanism can be instituted?

A: Yes. There are laws to be made too. Perhaps training of lawyers and judges, and other aspects should be considered too. The newly introduced Victims of Crimes and Witness Protection Act is one landmark in instituting new laws that are needed. Under this we are welcoming witnesses and are giving them protection. This is not only related to the alleged ‘war crimes.’ Even in a case of a rape for example, the victim might not be able to live in her village anymore. She might need a new identity, a job and so on. We have to take care of such matters.

In such instances, we will need technical assistance and even financial help. The UN can help us in these matters.

Q: The UNHRC has deferred the report on Sri Lanka for six months. However, it will be out by September. Can we institute a domestic mechanism within the six months? What will happen then?

A: The UNHRC will have its report. We will take in to consideration and look at any incidents that are raised and inquire them locally. We are ready to do that.

Q: The Tamil National Alliance has passed a resolution in the Northern Province saying that ‘Genocide’ took place against the Tamil people. What is your idea on this?

A: The government cannot be responsible for what the TNA is doing. However, we regret that they have done it at this juncture.

Q: What will be the scope of the domestic inquiry? Will it cover only a few years, or will it cover incidents, say for example, from the 1980s?

A: War crimes involve serious crimes such as murder for which there are no statutory limitations. So, this question will not arise in such cases.

Originally published in 'The Nation' on February 22, 2015.