Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Rajapaksa vs Lee Kuan Yew

Certain individuals have made significant roles in shaping the histories of the nations they led. Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was one of the best examples for such a leader. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the potential to become one. Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa became another such leader in 2009, only to mar his reputation in later years.

There are similarities in the way Lee Kuan Yew and Mahinda Rajapaksa went about dealing with their main challenges. For Lee, his main challenge was to make a nation out of a place which, in his own words, lacked the main characteristics of one. Rajapaksa, on the other hand, had to push off development as a second goal. During his first term as president, his main goal was finding a solution to the civil war raging in the country.

Both Lee and Rajapaksa took the bulls by their horns. Ably supported by some competent men and women, Lee made a fascinating transformation in his small land. Rajapaksa, who was also supported by a number of immensely capable men and women, led the war effort to a successful conclusion.

There was no doubt on Lee's commitment to his job. He once famously said, "this is about our lives. I spent my whole life building it. And until I am around, no one is going to knock it down."

Both Lee and Rajapaksa were patriots, and believed in nationalism. One major difference is Lee's apparent multi-culturalism and Rajapaksa's apparent Sinhala Nationalist appeal. This was one major difference which differentiated the two leaders. While Rajapaksa never won a respectable minority vote, Lee's People's Action Party attracted voters of all communities, and still does. Despite its extensive efforts at flooding the north and east with development projects, the Rajapaksa government could never instill a sense of 'belongingness' in the Tamil community in those regions.

However, perhaps the most significant difference between the two leaders was their stance on corruption. The fight against corruption was an integral part of Lee's government. Mahinda Rajapaksa also vowed to fight corruption at the start of his second term. However, while Lee strictly practiced what he preached, there is serious doubt on Rajapaksa's intent in doing so. While Lee is universally accepted as clean by even his opponents, Rajapaksa's second term was marred by the constant allegations of corruption and "mega deals".

The allegations on nepotism are simultaneously leveled against Rajapaksa and to a certain extent against Lee. However, nepotism in Sri Lanka, under many governments, can never be compared with what took place in Singapore. For an outside observer, it might look strange to see the first Prime Minister's son becoming the third Prime Minister of a country, and to see it maintain its record of success. However, once one understands the system in place in Singapore, it becomes quite clear.

Perhaps it is Lee Kuan Yew who provided the best answer to this question. Once when he was asked about his son succeeding as Prime Minister he said that Lee Hsien Loong will not be succeeding not as his son but as a Deputy Prime Minister who served the country for several years. People will decide if he was successful or not, he said, and added that the people will have the right to replace him if he proves unsuccessful.

The meritocracy in Singapore is such that an individual cannot become a Cabinet Minister for the simple fact that he is a 'crony' or loyalist of the top echelons. One has to go through a particular institutionalized system. Any person has to first become a Junior Minister for a certain period of time before becoming a Senior Minister. One has to prove himself, and if he does, he can move to the top echelons of the city state's government.

One striking difference in Rajapaksa and Lee was the appearance of their names in public places. Rajapaksa had various public constructions named for him, unlike Lee, who rarely had his name appear on such places. Furthermore, monumental images of Rajapaksa appeared around the island, becoming a far too common sight.

To the latter part of the Rajapaksa government, high rises were built in Colombo, at several places where there used to be slums. These new buildings reminded this writer of the Housing and Development Board flats in Singapore. Perhaps it was the model the Rajapaksa government was attempting to adapt in Colombo. However, there was one conspicuous difference in the buildings in Sri Lanka. They had larger than life sized portraits of Rajapaksa.

While the negative image of Rajapaksa was constructed partly by the pro-LTTE diaspora, his extravagance failed to counter this propaganda and added credence to it.

Sadly, Rajapaksa missed a unique opportunity to rival Lee Kuan Yew in guiding his country towards development.

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