Could Sri Lanka have become another Singapore if we had a Lee Kwan Yew?

Tale of Two Countries

Could Sri Lanka have become another Singapore if we had a Lee Kwan Yew?

Ajit Kanagasundram

Although I have lived and worked in Singapore since the riots of 1983, I am a constant visitor to Sri Lanka which I consider my true home and where my closest friends are. I find these visits exhilarating for a number of reasons, one of which is the lively discussions that take place on politics at every party and meeting of friends. In Singapore, very few discuss politics because it is so boring (like its newspapers!) as politics is so dull. Governments are elected every 5 years (the same party for 50 years!) and they make promises which they invariably fulfill or exceed – nothing to talk about.

But Sri Lanka is so different – gossip on who is going to cross over, new parties being formed, Ministers undermining their leaders, the latest corruption scandal or Presidential Commission of  Enquiry, the announcement of the latest mega projects and the enormous FDI expected, but which always fail to materialize – really interesting stuff! One reason is that, with a few notable exceptions, politicians in Sri Lanka are demagogues or even thugs. In Singapore, all parties select MPs based on their education and professional experience.

One topic that invariably comes up in conversation is the assertion that it is all the fault of our leaders. “If only we had a Lee Kwan Yew (LKY) we would be like Singapore” I have heard this so often that I have decided to analyze some of the differences between the two countries and see if one man could really have made the difference.

Let me start off by relating an anecdote that I heard at first hand (since my friend was in that graduating class).

Dr Goh Keng Swee,  Singapore’s first Finance Minister and the architect of its economic plan addressed the first post-independence graduating class of the  University of Singapore in 1969. He outlined the various plans the Peoples’ Action Party had – they would forge a common identity from the descendants of Chinese and Indian immigrants by making English the official language while every child would also learn their mother tongue. They would drain the swamps of Jurong and build an industrial complex to provide well-paid work for their largely unemployed population. They would build an international airline, although they had no domestic air service as they were too small. They would build a world-class airport, although they had no airport at the time and shared the RAF airbase at Payar Lebar for civilian traffic. They would provide decent subsidized housing for all their citizens and so on.

He said that there were only two risks to achieving this – first, if the Chinese communists, then waging a guerilla war in Vietnam, won and Malaya became communist. The second – if Ceylon wakes up. ”They have a hinterland producing tea, rubber coconut and graphite and we have no natural resources. They have Civil Service which the British have trained and gradually turned over to the Ceylonese, selected by the same rigorous examination as the British. They have better roads and railways. They have better schools and a University. They have an independent Judiciary with an appeal to the Privy Council. Above all, they have an English educated middle class. If Ceylon wakes up and follows our policies, then investors and trade will surely flow there and not to us.”

Fifty years on we all know the result – Ceylon had a per capita income per head in 1969 of US$ 152 – Singapore $516. Today Sri Lanka has a GDP per head of $ 4095 and Singapore $ 56320  (indeed the highest in the world, if we exclude oil-rich mini countries like Qatar and Abu Dhabi). What is more remarkable is that Singapore achieved this with negligible foreign aid. We have one of the highest aid per capita. Singapore has an airline that is acknowledged to be the best in the world, even by its competitors, and which has been profitable from the first year. We are looking for the 5th partner in 40 years (KLM, Union Transport Ariens(UTA), SIA and Emirates) to take a loss-making Albatross off our hands, having lost billions of dollars (not rupees) over the past 40 years in aviation. Incidentally, Singapore Airlines was set up by a Sri Lankan Tamil, J Y M Pillai, who ran it for the first 20 years while simultaneously holding other jobs like Permanent Secretary Ministry of Finance.

All Singapore children are taught in English and for the past 3 years the Singapore secondary school children at ages 11 and 15 have been adjudged to be the best in the world in Mathematics and Science. The UK is 24th and Sri Lanka does not figure in the survey. Forget secondary school children –  Sri Lankan graduates are barely numerate and very few speak English leave alone read and write.

How did this happen? Did Lee Kwan Yew achieve this alone did he formulate the vision, and then create the conditions for good men to emerge to implement it?

To answer this question I will analyze 6 areas of national life, before stating my general conclusions – these are not an exhaustive list but a full coverage will be beyond the scope of this short article, and besides I might not be the one qualified to write it. These are – nation-building (the foundation on which all else rests), education, national corporations like the airlines and electricity generation, corruption and governance. These should suffice to show the differences between our 2 nations and whether one man made the difference or whether under his leadership many people rose up to meet the challenges facing Singapore.

Nation building

At the time of independence in 1965, Lee Kwan Yew and the Chinese majority could have exerted their dominance over the Malays and Indians as they are 75% of the population and from the beginning they held the economic reigns in their hands. Instead they went out of the way to build an inclusive nation from the inception.  The first President was a Malay, the second Eurasian and there have been 2 Presidents of Indian origin. The National Anthem is always sung in Malay. Remember the hullabaloo when the National Anthem was sung in Tamil a few years back? I have already mentioned how they made Malay the official language and English the working language of administration (all children are also taught their mother tongue – Mandarin, Malay or Tamil as a second language) and the compulsory education language for all races is English, facing down tremendous opposition from Chinese traditionalists who are justifiably proud of their 5000-year culture (3000 years longer than ours). As national languages Chinese Mandarin, Malay and Tamil have equal status. All religions have equal status though Chinese Taoists/Buddhists are in the clear majority. They went further – they introduced multi-member electorates where it was mandated that at least one member must be from an ethnic minority to ensure adequate representation for minorities in Parliament. They have now gone the ultimate step and introduced a constitutional amendment stating that the elected Executive Presidency of the country (responsible for safeguarding the foreign reserves and Civil Service independence) should be rotated among the 3 races.

The majority community accepted this as they realized it was necessary to build a united country in a multi-ethnic community before economic progress could be achieved. They have draconian laws directed at anyone inciting, even by words alone, inciting ethnic disharmony. About two years ago a university student found to have made mildly derogatory remarks on Facebook about the Malay attitudes to work (intended to be humorous) was hauled up in court and given a stiff fine and probation and warned a repetition would lead to a jail term. We have a pugnacious monk who is the head of a nationalist organization, a common thug in saffron robes, roaming the country with his hooligans, making far more inflammatory statements about Muslims, responsible for physical mayhem in Aluthgama and treated with kid gloves. When he was remanded for contempt of court for disrupting court proceedings, he was kept in comfort in the prison hospital and visited by one of the prelates of the Malwatte Chapter (who commended him for standing up for the Sinhala race), and leading politicians from the government and opposition. All this received front-page press publicity and only served to increase his popularity. In Singapore, he would be facing a long prison term with hard labour, and if it were to be proven that his words had actually led to physical harm to minorities or their property, then possibly a caning! In Sri Lanka today the Muslims are the targets – 30 years ago it was the Tamils.

No wonder Singapore has not had even one ethnic disturbance in 50 years of independence,  and we (Sri Lankans)  have had four major race riots and a 25-year civil war. Without a solid foundation in nation-building, Singapore could not have become an economic powerhouse and the Chinese were intelligent enough to know it.

I will now touch briefly on the atrocities committed in the war and how we dealt with it – in all wars atrocities are committed and a decent government will deal with it transparently. Let me cite just one example – in the East in 2006, six aid workers working for the French medical charity “Action Contre la Faim” (ACF)  were shot in cold blood either by the Army or the STF. There were witnesses and the evidence was clear. Here was a chance for the government to show that we adhered to the civilized codes of war. But what happened? A judicial enquiry was commenced after French and EU pressure, but the autopsy that was required before the trial could commence was then delayed inordinately. An autopsy was to be performed in Trinco but was inexplicably moved to the hill country. The whole process was delayed till the corpses were no longer fit for an autopsy and the matter was quietly dropped. The ACF quit Sri Lanka in disgust. Is this the so-called independent judiciary that will deliver justice to the Tamils and which is touted as one of the crowning glories of our democracy in our press, when summoning arguments as to why foreign judges are unnecessary? I happen to agree that foreign judges are unnecessary but for different reasons, as I will explain later in my article.

Meanwhile, we have apologists for the country like  Rajeeva Wijesinghe, who revel in their time in the international spotlight. I watched his interview in the BBC programme Hard Talk with Steven Sacker and he gave a brilliant performance.  He used clever arguments and his undoubted facility with the English language to parry the tough questions about the war and appeared to win the argument for Sri Lanka– except that subsequent events have proved almost all Stephen Sacker’s assertions correct. He is a good example of the shallow intellectuals we produce, facile and glib with words but with no moral compass that transforms mere cleverness into wisdom.  Chandrika Kumaratunga, when she was President, came through as more honest and sincere in her equally tough interview on BBC with David Frost, although she got much the worst of the argument.


One of  Lee Kwan Yew’s first actions on attaining independence was to mandate that from primary one all education was to be in English, with the Mother tongue being taught as a second language.  I have already mentioned that Singapore secondary education is now considered the best in the world (based on the results of international standardized tests), and its Universities are regional, if not globally, among the top rank. These are well-known facts and I need not dwell on it. I will write instead about Nan Yang University (equivalent to our Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara, when they were set up to promote Sinhala and Buddhism) funded by local Chinese and Taiwanese businessmen to promote Chinese culture. By the mid-60s, when Singapore became independent, Nanyang was a hotbed fostering communal disharmony and communism, and the Chinese educated students knowing they could not get a good job after graduation were constantly on strike and agitation – sound familiar? Lee Kwan Yew had a simple remedy and turned what was once a problem into a national asset – he closed down the institution, sacked the faculty and gave the students the option of going through a two-year crash course in Mathematics and English and re-apply by sitting for an entrance examination. Most of the sacked students had the good sense to comply. Subsequently, entry is strictly on merit after an examination and is open to all races into what had been hitherto an exclusively Chinese domain. The University was renamed Nan Yang Technological University (NTU), now mainly offering courses in Engineering, the Sciences and Accountancy all in English. NTU now attracts the best faculty from around the world and students from across Asia. Its previous Chancellor was a distinguished European scientist and its present one a well-known South Indian Tamil materials scientist who formerly headed Carnegie – Mellon University in the US. NTU is now ranked 11th in the annual Quarcauarelli Rankings of best universities around the world, and in selected subjects like Materials Science, Chemistry and Computer Science in the top 5. All of its students, with the exception, have multiple jobs offers before even they graduate.

How did we tackle a similar situation? Except for renaming them as Universities of Kelaniya and Sri Jayawardanepura, Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara, largely continue to produce graduates in Sinhala, Pali, Buddhist studies and History with no employable skills and the students knowing they have no future except as clerks in an already bloated state bureaucracy,  strike at every opportunity. A friend of mine from Cambridge, Professor Chandre Dharmawardana, was made the Vice-Chancellor of Vidyodaya in 1976, and quickly analyzed the problem and had a radical solution. It cost Rupees 2 lakhs at that time to educate one student for 3 years in Pali or Sinhala and they would subsequently either be unemployed or find a job as a clerk where they would not earn a living wage. He advocated getting rid of the teaching faculty and giving each student on their first day at University their graduation certificate and a cheque for Rupees 2 lacks and told to go back to their village (now as graduates!) and start a business.  He was only half-joking (his intention was to highlight the obvious fact that the government was spending large sums which did not benefit the students or the country and a radical re-think was necessary), but soon after making this suggestion he was forced out and went to Canada where he became an internationally known Physical Chemist. He was from the Sinhala Buddhist heartlands, a Central schoolboy who got scholarships to Royal College and Cambridge and he knew the real problems of the students better than any politician. He is clearly now better off in Canada where his education and talents are appreciated and rewarded – but we lost another man who could have made a difference. In Singapore, he would have been honored and given more responsibility.

Next, I will touch on Secondary education wherein the 60s we had two centres of excellence – first the Colombo schools like Royal, St Thomas,’  Ananda (and Trinity in Kandy)  which excelled in an all-round education and then the Jaffna schools like Jaffna College, Hartley College and Jaffna Hindu which excelled in the teaching of Mathematics and Science. This resulted in a disproportionate number of boys from these schools getting into the competitive faculties like Science, Engineering and Medicine, while most of the Central School boys had to make do with the Arts faculty with limited or no job prospects. This was clearly a national problem and a solution had to be found and the answer was obvious – give generous scholarships to boys from the provinces to attend these schools as boarders, and set up magnet schools with the best teachers (paid a financial incentive) in the provinces. Did we follow this sensible path which may have taken a few years to show results but which would have upgraded our schools nationally and not discriminate against talented hardworking students from Colombo and Jaffna? No, we went for the politically expedient step of “standardization” (which did more than anything to radicalize Tamil youth in Jaffna) and did nothing to upgrade the schools. Worse we went further and actually degraded schools who were doing well. Iriyagolle, when he was Minister of Education (!) in the Dudley Senanayake government in 1965 to 1970,  would arbitrarily transfer good Maths, Science and English teachers (capable of teaching at A level standards ) from the best Jaffna schools to remote schools in the Vanni where the highest grade was grade 5. This was done to handicap the Jaffna boys, who were doing well in the entrance examination  (especially in Maths and Science) and getting into the medical and engineering courses in numbers out of proportion to their population . When the Federal Party MPs – then with the government –  complained about this to Dudley Senanayake, instead of sacking Iriyagolle, who was too useful politically because of his Sinhala Buddhist credentials, the order was given that any transfers of teachers on the North and the East should be routed via the PMs office as a way of stopping this travesty (all this is documented in Senator Thiruchelvam’s biography – he was then the  Minister of Local Government). Badiuddin Mahmud, another uneducated ignoramus, continued the “good work” as Minister of Education under the Sirimavo Bandaranayake government

Again there were many good men of Sri Lankan origin – Sigamony ( a Tamil) and Eugene Wijesinghe ( a Sinhalese) – two of the pioneers, both headed the elite school Raffle’s that have made the Singapore education system world-class and an economic asset. Sri Lanka would have produced more men of this calibre but their influence and voice would not have been heard.  As a result, our state education system today is broken (that is why parents scramble to send their children to International Schools and even mediocre foreign universities, many of which have set up campuses in Sri Lanka). Today even our Honors graduates from state universities with a first-class or second upper degree, chosen as University lecturers are unable to get a place for postgraduate studies at a ranked Western University and have to make do with obscure Eastern European Universities or lowly ranked state universities in the US. It was not always like this in my time nearly all went to Cambridge or London. My friend Prof Gerald Pieris, our foremost geography scholar and my contemporary at Cambridge, told me how when Indian students asked why they had to repeat the final year undergraduate examination  while Ceylonese students could proceed straight to a PhD, they were told by the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge Sir Ivor Jennings “ this privilege is only afforded to students from Canada, Australia and Ceylon as we have confidence in their system of education.” We have fallen a long way in 50 years. Lee Kwan Yew only provided the umbrella and the good men emerged as they would have with us, if given a chance. But like Professor Chandre Dhramawardana they were hounded out of the country.

National business corporations

I will comment on only two government businesses – airlines and electricity generation – although there are over 30. But these will serve to illustrate the Singapore approach to business.

I will contrast Singapore Airlines (SIA) and The Singapore Public Utilities Board (PUB) with our Sri Lankan Airways and the CEB.


I have already alluded to the fact that SIA is the only airline in the world to have been profitable during every year of its operation, has never received government handouts and is acknowledged by its competitors to be the best-run airline in the world. How did Singapore achieve this when they had no domestic route network and no tradition in aviation unlike the Europeans and the Americans. This is worth a study as it is a microcosm of the Singapore story. In 1969 Lee Kwan Yew chose J Y M Pillai, who had no background in aviation but was known to be an intelligent hardworking Civil Servant in his mid-30s. He was mandated to start SIA with the two Dakota aircraft that Singapore received when it broke up with Malaysia – the only scheduled flights were to KL and Penang. At the same time, Air Ceylon was flying Lockheed Super Constellations, the latest planes and the most luxurious, on the international route to London and had an agreement with KLM to provide technical and logistics support. If one was asked to rate the chances of the 2 fledgeling airlines no one would have picked SIA.

Pillai first developed regional routes and then moved internationally. He hired an Australian advertising firm – Bateys – to provide branding for the Singapore Girl concept. Customer service was stressed as a differentiating factor. The international routes grew with the growing realization among international air travellers – especially business travellers who valued good service, punctuality and reliability – that SIA provided all their needs even if at a premium price. SIA, conscious of its brand, never undercut it by offering discounts or cheap fares. The procurement plans for aircraft was simple – buy the latest planes, if possible as the first customer, thus obtaining substantial discounts from the manufacturers. The planes come with 3 years of free maintenance and are more fuel-efficient so the cost per seat/mile goes down and profits go up. Then depreciate the planes on your books in 5 years, and when they reach zero book value sell them at a profit to 3rd world airlines and repeat the cycle. Following these basic principles, SIA grew exponentially and in 1986 Pillai signed the largest aviation order ever for 60 Boeing 747s for US$ 5 billion. The contract did not go up to the cabinet or even the Ministry. It was handled internally by the SIA procurement Board consisting of its own engineers, pilots and management staff and Pillai took the final decision. The funding was SIA internal resources and bank borrowings. Needless to say, there was never any hint of scandal.

Consider our case whether it was Air Lanka or Sri Lankan Airways. They have good pilots and operating staff and the in-flight service has always been excellent (in my opinion better than SIA because the smiles of the air hostesses are warmer and more genuine). They failed for one reason only – aircraft procurement because money was to be made.

Rakitha Wickremenayake, a crony of the  President  JR’s son, former pilot masquerading as an “aviation expert” ignored SIA advice to buy Boeing and bought a Lockheed TriStar L1011 aircraft  (SIA were then advising Air Lanka after a special request by JR to Lee Kwan Yew). The only other customer in Asia for this aircraft type, the production of which was subsequently cancelled because of lack of demand, was All Nippon Airways and the Japanese Prime Minister at the time Kasukue Tanaka was later convicted of bribery and went to jail for this particular deal. The Air Lanka plane had to be flown to Japan or Europe for service! All airlines at this time were buying Boeing and it was no brainer for Air Lanka to do the same. The only question was new or, as SIA advised, used planes. When he ignored their advice SIA pulled out in disgust. Why Rakitha did this we can only guess-but he was no longer a poor man after he left Air Lanka.

This saga has gone on with every subsequent purchase under every government. Multiple tender boards and cabinet approval only increased the number of people to be bribed and naturally, the cost of the planes went up. Today we are left with the fiasco of taking on long term lease planes which have a mismatch in the distance they capable of flying to our existing routes and leases signed for planes in excess of our needs where we have to pay US$ 90 million to cancel our contract. Who was responsible? No one knows or cares and many in the old management responsible for this and other fiascos are being reappointed to the revamped airline. Beyond this, we have had the spectacle of the employment contract of the Emirates Manager cancelled because he refused to offload paying passengers to accommodate Rajapakse’s cronies going on a junket abroad. No wonder Emirates pulled out. Now we talk about starting on a clean slate – the Government takes over Sri Lankan’s debts and we find a new partner – if we succeed it will be because our new partner wants our sovereign routes negotiated by the Civil Aviation Authority on a government to government basis, not to help us. Besides the long-suffering public who pay high fares, the dedicated hardworking airline staff face downsizing due to the financial situation outside their control. SIA has never downsized Singapore staff even once and has expanded employment every year. Any temporary business downturn affects only foreign contract staff.

The success of SIA has had many spinoffs. SIA had to set up extensive maintenance facilities for its planes and then started servicing planes for other airlines and they set up a subsidiary to handle this. This attracted aircraft and engine manufacturers like Rolls Royce and Pratt and Whitney to set up their Asian hubs in Singapore. Seeing a chance the government offered the old RAF base at Payar Lebar as the centre for the aviation hub to serve airlines in the Asian region. Today Rolls Royce has its largest facility outside Derby here, capable of fully stripping and reassembling an engine. Pratt and Whitney have 2000 of its 3000 Asian staff located here. In total, these activities, together with Changi airport terminals (but not including SIA) provide 30,000 well-paid jobs for Singaporeans and ex-pats and government revenue via taxes.

If we had been smart we could have attracted some of this to our shores, as our location on the international air traffic lanes is as good as Singapore. But our aviation efforts never got off the ground because the chance to make money on aircraft purchases proved irresistible. We have an airline that is in debt for a billion dollars, and ageing airport in Katunayake and a brand new state of the art airport in Mattala, where no one seems to want to fly. A friend of mine, Dayantha Athulathmudali offered his services free of charge to the Rajapakse regime. He had spent 5 years in Singapore as the regional consultant on airports to the International Civil Asian Organisation (ICAO) and is an acknowledged authority on airport design. His suggestion was that we build a second runway at Katunayake and thus attract some of the East-West long haul traffic to stop here as our landing fees are much less than Changi in Singapore. He was turned down and instead we built Mattala on borrowed Chinese money. Dayantha was snapped up by Jebel Ali International airport in Dubai as a consultant when they were expanding to become the largest and most sophisticated airport in the world. We lost a chance to grab at least some of the international flight stopover and refuelling business, given to us by our favourable location.

Energy and Power

In 30 years running a large computer centre here, I have never experienced a power cut in or noticeable power fluctuation Singapore. The Public Utilities Board (PUB) seldom feature in the news because they are in the boring predictable business of providing and selling power. All of Singapore power is produced by clean natural gas, and the PUB has sold off its power generation assets to foreign investors, and only retained the distribution. Power is purchased from the owners of the generating plants by open tender for 5 year periods and the result is that consumers and industrial users pay 40% less per KWH than in Sri Lanka and the PUB also generates profits that are fed into the government coffers.

Contrast with our situation – at the outset, I must state that I have the highest respect for the CEB engineers who are competent and honest (I deal with them a great deal in my renewable energy business) and they are doing a great job under difficult circumstances. To take the Nuracholai coal plant as an example. They were told under the Rajapakse regime that it was a government to government deal between us and China and they were to have no part in defining specifications or standards. The result was a faulty system, prone to breakdowns and where many of the components are mismatched. Further, when, because of frequent breakdowns, we tried to sell the plant back to the Chinese and ask them to run it for us, it emerged that the price we paid was 30% in excess of what the Chinese had charged for it and they would only pay us the lower price – so the negotiations broke down.  We all know where the difference went. The net result of this is that in Sri Lanka consumers of electricity pay some of the highest tariffs in the world for unreliable power. This is one of the key factors if we wish to attract FDI for industries here as the price of power is one of the main components of the cost of production.

In addition, every tender for coal in the last 3 years, without exception, has led to a dispute, with allegations and counter-allegations of favouritism towards a particular vendor. Inevitably the issue goes to Cabinet or the Supreme Court who cancel the just awarded tender and order a new one. Then the same merry go round starts again. What a way to run an electric utility, but we are so used to it we don’t even register surprise.


This is an interesting topic as it touches every aspect of our life and economy. We once had an incorruptible Civil Service and I have already alluded in an earlier article on the Gal Oya project how it was completed without a hint of scandal, and as an example how my father when he was Chairman of the Gal Oya Board and building a house in Colombo would not order building supplies under his name as he feared unsolicited discounts from suppliers who were also doing business with Board. I contrasted this with the Mahaweli project where it was a standing joke that the Mahaweli had been diverted from Trinco to Finco and millions in public funds were syphoned off by cronies of the UNP. Corruption really took off after JR came to power in 1977 (the earlier SLFP government did so little investment that there was no room for large scale corruption) and the Dudley Senanayake government from 1965 to 1970 was a throwback to honest administrations as in the days immediately after independence.  During this period, for example, the Sapugaskande refinery was built with no hint of scandal and handled entirely by the Petroleum corporation staff and its Chairman.

The JR government in 1977 opened the way to large scale corruption and this process was brought to its zenith under the Rajapakse kleptocracy when billions of dollars were syphoned off by family and cronies. Our present government is trying its best to change this but it is an uphill struggle as corruption had permeated our bureaucracy at all levels. Even our current President has stated that 40% of the procurement tenders on his watch are tainted and it is now suggested to set up a  centralized Procurement Office under the President! This will only add another layer to be paid off, as the expertise to evaluate a tender resides with the individual ministries and corporations who will continue to write the specifications and do the initial technical evaluation, all subject to being undermined by vested interest. There is no alternatives to having good honest men to do the job on the ground. If you haven’t produced them after 70 years of independence, then additional layers of control only add more layers to be bribed. Have things changed under the present regime? Certainly, the scale and impunity are less, but  the central bank bond scandal reminds us that both sides have this weakness

Singapore has the least corrupt administration in Asia and is only bettered worldwide by the Scandinavian counties. How did they achieve this? First of all Lee Kwan Yew was personally incorruptible and set the tone for everyone else and introduced draconian laws to enforce it – it must be remembered that corruption has always been part of the Chinese way of life (witness China and Taiwan), and Lee Kwan Yew knew he had to take drastic steps. First there is zero tolerance for even minor corruption and the few cases that emerge are given wide publicity and the perpetrators given deterrent sentences. The only case of a major corruption scandal in Singapore involving a minister was in 1989 when Teh Cheang Wan, the Minister of National Development, was implicated in taking kickbacks from housing contractors. Within 48 hours of this being announced by Glenn Knight, a Sri Lankan Tamil in charge of the Commercial Affairs Division charged with investigating corruption, a date was announced for the trial. He was an old friend of LKY, a comrade in arms from the days of his struggle with the Communists but he knew he could expect no mercy so he committed suicide. Announcing this in Parliament the next day, LKY commended him and said that he had done the “only honourable thing that was expected from a Confucian gentleman “

I have personally experienced the long arm of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Board, which reports directly to the PM’s office. When I was promoted to take over banking automation for the Asia Pacific for the American multinational Bank I worked for. I was given a Montblanc leather pad with high-quality writing paper (worth about $100) by a friend who was also one of our suppliers. Not wishing to offend him over a fairly simple gift, I took it but reported it to the bank in the required form and received explicit written approval to keep it. 6 months later I was called before the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), who had come across this item while examining the credit card expenses of my friend who had given a Chopard watch (worth $ 10,000) to the employee of another bank and was found out. (He was an Indian national and was expelled from Singapore). No action was taken against me as I had followed the correct procedure in reporting the gift and it was a trivial one, but had I not done so I would not only have lost my job but never again have been able to work in the Singapore financial industry.

The other way LKY has stopped corruption is by paying his ministers, top Civil Servants and heads of Government-linked companies wages equivalent to that paid by multinational companies. The mechanism is a simple one – the Income Tax department compiles an index each regular intervals of the average incomes of the top five earners in 5 professions – Law, Medicine, Banking, Architecture and General Management. Parliament then approves the linkage of the pay of Ministers, top Civil servants, the judiciary and senior management of government corporations. The Prime Minister at 85%, the ministers 75%, Chief Justice 80% and so on. In good times when this index goes up, their pay goes up and during recessions, they go down. The result is that Singapore PM is paid $ 2.4 million (6 times the pay of the US president) the ministers $ 1.8 million and so on. This puts them beyond bribery and it also enables the government to attract the best available talent. Despite some initial complaints that this pay was excessive, the government stuck to its guns – this pay, by far the highest in the world has been one of the bases of corruption-free and efficient governance. Contrast this with the miserable pay given to our Ministers and top bureaucrats, as also happens in Indonesia and Malaysia, which is a pittance. However strangely these gentlemen, despite their dismal salaries, often end up much richer than their Singapore counterparts!


This covers the ability of the government to execute on their promises and plans.  The Singapore government always delivers and this is one of its implied contracts with the people – follow our leadership and accept the sacrifices we ask of you and we will deliver on our promises of a better life for your children if not for you. The people trust them enough for this given their record. This is the single biggest problem faced by our government today headed by two sincere, honest well-meaning politicians in President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, who genuinely want to help the people and not enrich themselves. But how can they do it when the government machinery is broken? Take three examples – one trivial and two at the heart of the promise they made two years ago to the electorate and which got them elected.

The trivial one first – five years ago we announced that all Sri Lankans would be issued a biometric card by 2015. This would have entailed buying the equipment from abroad to emboss the cards, making arrangements with the Grama Sevekas to validate those issued new cards, making arrangements for photographs, fingerprint collection and retinal scans and so on. Fairly straight forward stuff. We have still not started. At the same time, India has issued biometric cards to 1.2 billion of its people, linked it with bank accounts for farmers to be operated via mobile phones. The basis of a world-beating system to cut out middlemen in giving farmers assistance and eliminating corruption and taking a giant step towards creating a cash-free economy. They have actually done a job 50 times larger in st geography while we have yet to start. They were able to do it because the Indian Administrative Service has not been demoralized,  corrupted and undermined and so is there to carry out government orders.

Now the two big promises –  First to bring those responsible for enormous corruption under Rajapakse to justice and recover their ill-gotten gains for the public purse – some estimates put the total as high as $3 billion – worth much more than all the IMF and foreign assistance. Two years later not a single prosecution let alone a conviction, and we have given the evildoers ample time to hide and dissipate this money. Why? Because the CID is riddled with supporters of the former regime as is the Bribery department, and the few honest officers are afraid to do their job because they will be victimized if the government changes.  The Attorney General is overwhelmed with work while being similarly undermined from within.

What we should have done was set up specialized courts with simplified rules of evidence to prevent unscrupulous lawyers delaying the proceedings – something we as a nation are expert in doing. The courts should have been empowered to seize bank accounts and assets even before conviction unless the person concerned could prove that his assets derive from legitimate sources and has been declared to the tax authorities and taxes paid. The US, that bastion of private property, empowers the FBI and Attorney General to do this in cases involving drugs or terrorism (under the RICO act) and we could have done this with overwhelming public support – only the JVP advocated similar measures to no avail. Convictions and deterrent jail terms, all under new legislation should have been obtained within six months of coming to power. I fear the chance is now lost and the culprits will go scot-free with their billions and future corrupt politicians will come to the conclusion that they too will not be caught if they stall long enough.

Now the second big promise to bring about national reconciliation and justice for those affected by the war – it was entirely on the basis of this promise that the minorities voted for this government and it made all the difference in the margin for victory, as Rajapakse won the plurality of the Sinhala Buddhist vote. But what has happened? First, the Government made entirely unrealistic promises based on the Geneva Human Rights Council meeting, and even co-sponsored it,  and has not delivered on a single commitment – this will come back to bite us and may affect our GSP + privileges with the EU in the future.

What the government should have done was to abstain from the vote and commit to taking other steps to foster national reconciliation – like giving back the lands seized by the armed forces, retaining only those required for bases and not for business. This single step could have been achieved by the stroke of a pen (after all the President is the Commander in Chief) and would have done more than any other step to reconcile Tamils.  Further, instead of promising courts with foreign judges, which will never be acceptable to the majority and may even be against our constitution, they could have set up a South African style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with powers to find out what actually happened but not to punish, and a Missing persons office that actually completed its work within a reasonable period of time, not just empty legislation which is what we now have. These steps were all that was required and then we should have completed the process within a year and then moved on and closed this sorry chapter in our history. Further charging our armed forces with war crimes would have been a travesty of justice, as they only pulled the trigger, but the real culprits, the politicians (who blocked every attempt at a political settlement prior to the conflict) and the clergy who created the climate of hate go scot-free. It will be interesting to see how the government will wriggle out of their promises made to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, which the Tamil diaspora and the western liberal establishment and media will not let them easily forget.

It must be said as the war progressed, the Sri Lanka army became more professional (and effective) and started treating captures Tiger cadre less brutally – this was partly due to the fact that they respected their opponent’s bravery and dedication.  Certainly army generals like Denzil Kobbekaduwa were not only effective but followed the rules of war and avoided civilian causalities to the extent possible.  He was liked and respected by the people of Jaffna and his untimely death in a landmine explosion was a loss to the nation. The Tigers for their part committed fewer atrocities than the Sri Lankan army but were still guilty of the execution of captured Police recruits in the Eastern Province and attacks on Sinhala settlers in the Mahaweli region. I also believe that what happened in the closing stages of the war was not a war crime by the Sri Lankan army but what the Americans euphemistically call “collateral damage” – civilian deaths caused by the fog of war and the carelessness and eagerness of soldiers to finish the job coupled with the persistent and historic callousness of the Sri Lanka armed forces towards Tamil Civilian causalities – there is no credible evidence of deliberate targeting of civilians, and certainly, the number involved was closer to 12000 rather than the 40,000 as claimed. The Tigers were partially responsible for this by sitting mortars in areas designated by the UN as shelters for civilians. We should move on from this sad discussion and prosecute and punish those responsible for the white van murders by agents of the state, which were a purely criminal activity targeted mainly against Tamils – I have only given one example of the many that took place.

I also believe that the new constitution is unnecessarily distracting our politicians from getting to grips with the necessity of developing our country – but this is what we love to do – parliamentary select committees, public hearings, party submissions, public rallies etc etc – 2 years of this and the real work of the constituent assembly has not yet even started. All the work and ballyhoo about the new constitution will solve nothing if, as in the past, our Police and army are allowed to ignore these safeguards with impunity. We do not have to guarantee human rights in the constitution if the powers that be had not just ignored abuses by the armed forces and Police and more probably instigated it. Safeguarding press freedom and free speech is meaningless when 22 journalists have been murdered or disappeared without even one such murder being solved. Protecting minority rights are meaningless when the previous weak safeguards were never implemented. Take all the paraphernalia of our signing the UN Convention against torture and disappearances and the safeguards to be incorporated in the new constitution. All this would have been unnecessary if we had allowed consistently the right of Habeas Corpus, the right of a man’s family or lawyer to demand that when he is taken by the Police or Army,  for him to be produced in court the following day. This simple law from Anglo Saxon times had preserved individual liberty in England down the ages and would have done so for us if we are a law-abiding society.

The right of Habeas Corpus was handed down to us as part of the English common law we inherited. This simple device would have prevented all these abuses but starting with the JR regime in 1977 was essentially made dormant by the simple expedient of the Police and Army ignoring it. Et custodes qui custodit? Latin for “who will safeguard us from our guardians.”)

How does Singapore handle national security and human rights? Remember the government in Singapore are tough-minded and not bleeding-heart liberals. They faced two major security threats. First communism, which they overcame on in the mid-70s and now Islamic extremism. They have retained the draconian security laws of the British to face down these threats. But not a single person has been disappeared or killed unlawfully in 50 years. No allegations of real torture although extreme interrogation techniques like sleep deprivation are used. We have had thousands unlawfully killed or disappeared and it was routine to torture JVP or Tiger cadres till death or permanent disability. All these are well documented. In Singapore, critical journalists face being sued in the courts for defamation and financial damages. In our case 22 journalist have been killed or abducted and disappeared and not one case solved. In the Singapore case, they exhibit the hallmarks of a tough-minded but essentially civilized society. I will leave it to the reader to find an appropriate adjective to describe our behaviour, while all the while claiming to be true adherents of Buddhism, that most enlightened and compassionate of all religions. I will expand on this subject in my chapter titled Crime and Punishment. 

Singapore recently made a major constitutional change to mandate the Executive Presidency should be rotated among the 3 races. All the work – from taking Public hearings to Parliamentary debate to passing the necessary amendment took two months. Minimum public discussion or fuss.

All  the promises made to the Tamils in the new constitution will inevitably be watered down and those passed will, if the past is any guide, never be implemented. Meanwhile, the opposition and extremists like BBS will have a field day inciting the people into believing that the country is about to be divided and all the gains of our valiant armed forces that were earned with their blood, will be given away etc etc. I can just imagine the fiery speeches, the mass rallies, the protests of the Buddhist clergy – all stuff we as a nation love to do and are really good at!

Far better to take simple administrative steps that are effective.  Instead of delegating Police powers to the Provincial Councils, start with recruiting Tamil speaking policemen so that the residents of the North and East can actually make a Police report or complaint in their own language. As for land powers, the President can simply instruct the Governors in the North and East to be guided by the requests of the Provincial Council and Chief Minister in all land related matters except where it impinges on national security. These simple steps will satisfy the people actually living in the North and the East (if not the Tamil diaspora) and we can leave to a kinder, wiser future generation the job of coming up with a permanent constitutional settlement.

Also, I do not think that the Tamils in the North and East any longer have the capacity or the leadership for effective self-government – the educated middle class have largely emigrated and the best political leaders have also done so or been killed by the Tigers or by agents of the state. The Tamils are ill-served with politicians who prefer confrontation with the Central government instead of using the admittedly little funds they control and powers they have to actually implement projects. Or they propose self-serving and inappropriate schemes like the proposal to build thousands of steel houses in Jaffna – the hottest part of our island! They prefer grandstanding to the Tamil Diaspora and making impractical demands for “Tamil self-determination” and a Federal state blithely ignoring the reality on the ground that more Tamils live in the Sinhala south than in the North after 25 years of war!

This is perhaps the only positive outcome of the war – only by living together will the two races realize that they have a common humanity, stop demonizing each other and recognize that they have the same aspirations for the future of their children. Both the Sinhala people and the Tamils deserve better from their rulers. Far better for the Tamils in the North and the East to be ruled by a benevolent and competent central government, I repeat benevolent and competent, till the wounds of war have been repaired, civil society well established and above all trust and confidence built up between the two people. Without this trust, every move towards local autonomy will be viewed with suspicion as a step towards separation and hatred and enmity will fester and be exploited by unscrupulous politicians. Better solve the trust issue first and leave it to a later, perhaps wiser and kinder generation, to solve the fundamental issues of provincial governance. After all we Tamils have waited 60 years since the Bandaranayake Chelvanayagamm Pact and endured 25 years of war. Will another 20 years make really a difference in the life of the people?

There are certain practical projects that I have been advocating that could easily have been taken up by the present Tamil leadership and it is well within their power.

1.   Implement the “River for Jaffna” project first advocated 60 years ago by S Arumugam, who was a distinguished hydraulic engineer and Deputy Director of irrigation. This involves blocking the exits to the sea from the Elephant Pass lagoon thus making it freshwater after 2 monsoons and should cost about $ 20 million. This will enable about 10,000 acres to be irrigated and also raise the water table in the Southern part of the peninsula that is becoming saline through over-extraction.

2.   Implement together with a forward-looking organisation like Cargills Bank a move to improve dairy farming in Jaffna, something for which they have a natural affinity

3.   Implement drip irrigation techniques in Jaffna to prevent overuse of water that is depleting the freshwater table, and organic farming methods

The summary of the difference between Singapore and Sri Lanka in governance can be stated in one phrase – they always and consistently deliver. We with a few notable exceptions like the GalOya project have not, and as the years have gone by our ability to deliver and performance have actually declined.

To balance the harsh picture I have painted so far from our motherland let me state a few positive achievements. We have done a world-class job in health care (for example eradicating polio, malaria etc) and our national health statistical indicators are nearly as good as first-world standards. We have done a similar job in Primary education and achieved universal literacy, the only county in South Asia, Africa or Latin America to do so. Even our much-maligned leaders like JR Jayawardane and Mahinda Rajapakse have in their own way contributed significantly to the nation. JR by getting rid of the stifling socialist controls and freeing up the economy, and by completing the accelerated Mahaveli scheme in 5 years largely free of cost to us as he attracted foreign aid from the UK, Germany and Sweden. Rajapakse did the country, including the Tamils, a great favour by taking the decisive steps to defeat the Tigers and end a brutal war, that would have dragged on interminably for years, given the half-hearted prosecution of the war under previous governments. In doing so he also probably also saved lives on both sides.

Let me conclude my assessment of Singapore’s achievements. By the early 1990s, Singapore had achieved all its original economic goals but LKY and the party felt something was missing. This can be loosely described as culture and quality of life. I will describe a little later how in their usual methodical manner they set about trying to solve this issue. All Singaporeans had a job and decent housing (largely government provided). Their children went to good schools and medical care was adequate. Singapore has started using its success in building its own infrastructure and the Singapore brand to further its commercial interests – Singapore Telecoms built the telecommunications networks in Kazakstan, the PUB has built water desalination plants in North Africa and the Middle East and Jurong Town Corporation is heavily involved in the Modi government project to build 100 smart cities in India over the next 25 years.

There are many other facets of the Singapore story, which I will touch on briefly. Singapore welcomes immigrants with the required qualities to add to the country’s talent pool, especially from traditional sources like China and India. Many of the top professors at the University, and especially banking are staffed at senior positions by immigrants. The CEO of Singapore’s largest bank, DBS is an ex-colleague of mine from Citibank, Piyush Gupta. They are now able to attract the best talent in the world especially in  Banking (making Singapore one of 3 major Banking centres in the world) , thanks to paying internationally competitive salaries and offering immigrants and their families a safe, clean living environment with first-world medical, housing and entertainment facilities. A new class of immigrants has also now emerged – billionaires from the US, Russia, India and China (for example one of the founders of Google). They are attracted by a world-class banking system, a judicial system that is transparent and above all personal safety. They live all over the island but now particularly in Sentosa in houses costing up to $ 20 million, with a world-class golf course on their doorstep and the ability to moor their yachts by their house. To service them ancillary activities like shops selling caviar and air-flown wild Scottish salmon have sprung up.

I can attest from my personal experience of how Singapore welcomes immigrants. I arrived here in July 1983, after the communal riots in Colombo when my estate was burnt down, with a wife and 3 young children and no job. I was quickly offered a job by the National Computer Board, but through the intervention of another Cambridge University friend Mano Appapillai. I was counter offered by Citibank to become the Singapore Data Center Manager. The first 1 year was tough as I struggled to cope with modern technology (the Central Bank in Ceylon still used ageing IBM 360 computers). However, I quickly found my feet and showed them what I was capable of. I was then rapidly given more responsibility and promoted to a regional technology position and in 1989 was given my big chance – to set up a regional computer centre for the consumer bank to process credit cards in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. As this proved successful, we expanded into supporting all consumer banking and expanded our geographic scope to cover first North Asia and Japan and then Australian, Middle East and Eastern Europe. In 1999 I was asked to take over for all of Western Europe and South America, all processed from Singapore based on a state of the art complex of multiple mainframe computers,  which had grown to be the largest of any bank in Asia. We ended up processing 40 million accounts in 38 countries. The investment went into $ 200 million but was well worth it financially as we reduced unit costs due to the economies of scale and the Bank received significant tax concessions. Along the way, the Singapore government provided tremendous support through the provision of superb data centre infrastructure and state of the art fibre optic communications. I had over 1800 professional working for me – a core of top-class Singaporeans supplemented by talent from India, Philippines, China,  Japan, Korea, Australia the UK and Spain. Never once was a request for an employment pass even delayed or refused, never was there a power cut. I was rewarded by the satisfaction of doing a project that was a world first and handsomely rewarded financially so that I could give my family an upper-middle-class lifestyle in the world’s most expensive city. In no other country would I have had this opportunity, while enjoying home comforts like a full-time live-in maid that would not have been possible in a Western country.

But what of the finer things in life? Singapore was rightly stigmatized by foreigners in the early 80s as a boring place and the people only material minded. So in the true LKY fashion, they set out to change things methodically and effectively and this time they had the material wherewithal to do it.  They built a world-class performing arts centre with a theatre and concert halls and attracted top-class foreign orchestras to visit. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra was lavishly funded and able to attract top talent from Europe. A music conservatoire was set up and promising students sent off to study with the best teachers in the world at Royal Academy in London and Juilliard in New York. There was a 24-hour classical music radio station to teach Singaporeans to appreciate classical music. The result – an orchestra as good as in any second-tier city in Europe. Singapore was on the stop of major orchestras on their world tour – so when the Berlin Philharmonic came here 3 years ago and seats were priced at $ 500 for the cheapest going up to $ 2500, all tickets were snapped up with 2 days – mostly by ordinary Singaporeans living in HDB flats. Scores of foreigners come here for performances by Beyonce and other megastars (including many from Sri Lanka who are given packages by travel agents) and combine it with a shopping holiday.

Singapore has numerous public parks and spent $ 1 billion on creating the worlds finest indoor herbarium – the Gardens by the Bay. As the director for the botanic gardens, they hired the curator of Kew gardens – Nigel Taylor. Starting with zero natural attractions they now have Sentosa entertainment and leisure park, 3 world-class zoos, the most profitable gaming centre in the world in Marina Bay Sands, the F1 night race and so on. No wonder Singapore attracts 10 million tourists a year (to essentially man-made attractions) and we with the best natural endowment of attractions in the world can barely manage 1.4 million. Singapore schools used to have two sessions to maximize the use of classroom space – but now have single sessions with high-class facilities with libraries, laboratories and computer labs, swimming pools and gymnasia. Singapore has stressed sports and has special sports streams in major schools and even a special sports school for really talented youngsters. Singapore regularly is in the top 3 or 4 places in Asian and regional athletic and sporting competitions and far outclass countries like India and Indonesia with 200 times their population. They have built up a special reputation in sports like sailing, swimming table tennis and gymnastics. At the recent Olympics a Singaporean schoolboy, Joseph Schooling, won the men’s 100 meters butterfly beating the great Michael Phelps in Olympic record time – the first time an Asian has won a medal in this event. The revamped art gallery and Museum hosts exhibit from all over the world and the first time the British Museum sent its precious Elgin marbles abroad, it was to Singapore. The earliest Housing Board (HDB) flats were functional but austere. The newer ones now feature landscaped gardens, bike paths, children’s playgrounds and scenic walks by the sea or man-made reservoirs – as good as the best private condominiums. In 2016 there were 19 HDB flats resold for over $ 1 million! Singapore had originally 1 golf club for the elite – Singapore Island Country Club where entrance fees cost $225,000. The government provided land for 6 other golf courses to private clubs and entities like the Army National service association where you can tee off on a course as good as the SICC for $30. Every constituency has a Peoples Association club with rooms for yoga, ballroom dancing classes, bridge and so on. Though the government is extremely prudish there are designated areas for commercial sex where the ladies are from China or Vietnam. They are examined for STD on arrival and at regular intervals thereafter – a reason why AIDs is hardly encountered. There are regular Marathon races with mass participation and the public parks are full of joggers and people making use of free exercise equipment.

I think that I have said enough to show that the government has been equally effective in improving the quality of life of its people as in the material sphere.  The investment required to build up Singapore’s physical infrastructure is almost done and future investment will be improving the quality of life and leisure and artistic opportunities for its people.

In foreign affairs, though small, Singapore is also no pushover in the diplomatic arena – they have an armed force trained up to Israeli standards and equipped with the latest and most expensive military hardware. They jealously guard their rights and a few years ago expelled a senior American diplomat for criticizing government policies at a private dinner party – despite traditionally close ties to the US. They are extremely sensitive to the feelings of its neighbours like Indonesia and as an example, when pollution from the illegal burning of forests in Sumatra polluted the Singapore atmosphere for a number of years, they did not protest publicly but preferred quiet diplomacy and the offer of help in the form of helicopters to douse the flames with water and training for local firefighters. As a result, theirs is a strong voice listened to with respect in international fora, where they aggressively push for policies that are in their interest like free trade, open access to international shipping routes and open skies in aviation.

So, is everything perfect and the future uniformly rosy?

No – Singapore has two major issues. The first is that although the people are educated and hardworking they are not entrepreneurs and show little aptitude for business or taking risks. The major Singapore businesses are government corporations like SIA or Singapore Technologies. But the future fast-changing world requires small nimble private companies able to adjust to changing markets and technologies like the ones being spawned by Silicon Valley– so how can Singapore compete here. Since independence, Singapore has only one technology company by the private sector that was world-class – Creative Technology that invented the Sound Blaster card that dominated the market for digital music for 10 years. Since then, nothing. And further, the inventor was not from the vaunted National University of Singapore but from a humble polytechnic. Something was clearly wrong and the government brought down the best experts in education to review its education system and curricula. The result was major changes in the curriculum in schools and universities which were revamped to emphasize creative and project work and less routine learning and examinations. So a start has been made but there is a long way to go as Singapore is not competing in Asia alone but with the best brains in the US, Japan and Europe for a share in the future high tech industries. Perhaps the main impediment is of the Government’s own making. Singaporeans have been so coddled by the system and have learnt to follow directions so that they are not adept at creative thinking, risk-taking and competing in the ruthless international competition for markets. So here the jury is still out.

The second issue is even more serious – the low and falling birth rate, especially among the Chines, and the corollary of an ageing population. LKY recognized issue in 1986 in a televised address to the nation, he gave detailed statistics of marriage rates and births by race, He noted that birthrates were low and falling, especially among the Chinese, and he also noted a phenomenon. Men were marrying down – that is to women less qualified than themselves –so that highly educated women (who would not marry down to men less qualified ) and men at the bottom of the pyramid with very low qualifications were left on the shelf. So in typical LKY fashion, he set out to correct the situation in a direct way. He set up the Social Development Unit (SDU) for graduates and Social Development Association (SDA) for non-graduates. Ignoring the ridicule of the Western press about the Nanny state in Singapore, the SDU and SDA were lavishly funded to offer cruises, holidays in Bali, dancing classes, classes in dating etiquette etc for prospective couples. Figures for successful marriages were published in annual reports, just like in company report, prompting further ridicule from the western press which was ignored. Lavish tax incentives were given to couples to have children graduated according to their qualifications and currently stand at $20,000 per child for graduates. All this had some effect but not enough. Birthrates are still well below the replacement levels of 2.1 births per couple. The government is partly compensating for this by carefully controlled immigration, calibrated so as not to drastically change the racial composition of the country but this can never be enough. The real problem is that women have equal access to education and treatment in the workplace. They are financially independent and unlike their mothers need not marry to find a breadwinner. Once in the workforce, they are increasingly reluctant to sacrifice their career by having children. The leaders of Singapore from LKY to his successors have identified this as the number one challenge facing the nation but despite their best efforts have not been able to resolve the issue

What do the Singapore elite actually think of Sri Lanka?

In 2002 when my friend from London student days Ajith Jayaratne was appointed as our High Commissioner in Singapore and I tried to work with him to attract Singapore FDI to Sri Lanka. I used my considerable network of contacts, built up during 20 years of work with Citibank, with the all levels of government and business to no avail. Singapore decision-makers consider themselves to be the first world and look for their primary trading partners to also be the first world – like Japan, Korea, Europe and the US. They have a growing trade in high-value products with this sector in goods like electronics and pharmaceuticals. They consider Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and increasingly Indonesia to be the second world and are willing to invest there in industrial zones and businesses to take advantage of their cheaper labour, and get some of these countries expenditure on infrastructure development for Singapore companies. They consider Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh to be firmly in the third world and only fit for a few governments to government projects to earn goodwill. They simply do not take us seriously as business partners but look on us a place for beach holidays or a source of cheap domestic labour. Singapore has enormous an amount of capital to invest overseas and is setting up industrial parks in China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Burma and IT parks in India. Why not in Sri Lanka I asked? Because they do not believe that we will carry through with our part of the bargain in providing the necessary infrastructure and tax concessions and regulations, bribery may be required and our labour was considered lazy and unreliable and prone to strike, compared to those in, say Vietnam.  They do not even bother to have a High Commission in Colombo, despite the fact that we have had one in Singapore since 1965 and the considerable historical links between the 2 countries. They take the practical view that the local SIA manager can handle the occasional negotiation required. Singapore has embassies only with countries with which it has a significant commercial or diplomatic activity – we have embassies in almost every 3rd world country in Africa and South America. There is only one rational explanation – jobs for the boys!

Their view can be justified by actual experience. Prima, a Singapore based animal feed company had two ventures in Sri Lanka. A small high-end bakery, which they were forced to close down when the workers rioted and kept the Singaporean manager a prisoner in the roof of the building, till he was rescued by Police 48 hours later. No action was taken against the workers responsible. The second was a much larger investment to mill the wheat given to the Sri Lanka government as grant aid by the US, EU and Australia. They were to do this free of charge, retaining only the bran which was a by-product. On the surface, it looked like a good deal for Sri Lanka.  On closer examination, however, this was not such a good deal, in fact, a very bad one from Sri Lanka’s point of view, as the bran was worth many times more as high protein animal feed than the free-milling it was it exchange for. The interesting thing here is that the Sri Lankan bureaucrat who negotiated the deal on behalf of the Sri Lankan government – a former Central Bank colleague of mine who had got himself appointed as Food Commissioner through his political connections – did such a good (?)  job in the negotiation, that a few months he turned up in Singapore to work for Prima in a highly paid sinecure! No wonder they consider us third world when one of our top administrators could have been bought so cheaply.

Rather than trying to emulate Singapore, which is beyond our league, we should look closer to hand at Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu, formerly Madras state, had none of the advantages we had. The British did not lavish attention and build infrastructure and institutions there as they did in Ceylon, the model colony. They do not have our strategic location that attracts foreign patrons with deep pockets like China. At independence, it was a backwater and lost 60% of its land and 80% of its water resources to Andhra and Karnataka when they were carved out of the Madras state. It has none of our physical attraction – hot, dry and dusty. It had only one asset – its people. Over the past 30 years, it has become the centre of the automotive manufacturing industry in India with Korean and Japanese companies leading the way. It is the centre for electrical components manufacture, and with Bangalore, for India’s booming software industry (the word’s largest software firm Tata Consultancy Services is headquartered there and IBM, Accenture, HP and the Computer Science Corporation all have major investments).  It has 34 science and engineering colleges, the graduates of which are snapped up as soon as they finish – and the jewel in its crown is the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai. It has 6 medical colleges (all but one private) whose graduates easily find jobs in India or abroad, where unlike ours,  their medical degrees are recognized. Foreign aid per capita has been negligible and it has always been treated as a stepchild by the central government in Delhi.

So how did they achieve this? Certainly not because their leaders have been visionary or corruption-free as in Singapore – it is difficult to imagine a more venal and self-serving pair of leaders than Jayalalitha or Karunanidhi, who between them have ruled the state for the last 40 years. Tamil Nadu progressed, despite having this corrupt and self-serving duo at the helm because, being mere state-level Politicians, they lacked the power to undermine national institutions like the Civil Service and judiciary, or corporations like the Indian Railways or the elite IIT engineering schools or the change the constitution 22 times like ours have done. While they were corrupt in their personal dealings, the inherently sound fundamentals established at the time of India’s independence enabled the states like Gujerat or Tamil Nadu or Punjab, who had the right human resources, to progress such that they considered today to be a model for the rest of the country, despite their lack of resources like water. Our politicians could do whatever they wanted if they had a parliamentary majority and they proceeded to use this absolute power to undermine all our institutions because they were both self-serving and ignorant. Political power in India has always been with the Hindi speaking heartlands in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and the centre has lavished state investments there. Tamilnadu has always been a stepchild. Tamilnadu has achieved this because the people are intelligent, humble and hardworking, they do not believe the world owes them a living or depend on handouts. They do not go on strike, there has never been a communal riot, they have embraced science, technology and English. All qualities that make them an ideal workforce and Indian industrialists and foreigners have beaten a path to their door. Per capita income is among the highest of Indian states (almost equivalent to Sri Lanka), unemployment is negligible (in fact there is a labour shortage now filled by immigrants from other states). Their tertiary institutions turn out graduates who can compete anywhere in the world – people like Sundar Pichay the CEO of Google soon tipped to be the largest high-tech company in the world. Or Indra Nooyi, the CEO of Pepsi/KFC, and featured regularly in the list of the 50 most influential business leaders in America. It has world-class teaching hospitals and thriving medical tourism business, with patients flying in from all parts of the world for kidney transplants and bypass surgery. The universities continue to churn out superb mathematicians, in the footsteps of Ramanujan one of the all-time great mathematicians and are to be found in the faculties of all the major Universities. Most of the Indian Nobel prize winners are from Tamil Nadu, and a recent Nobel prize winner in Biochemistry, Venkataraman Ramakrishnan, now a fellow of Trinity in Cambridge and President of the Royal Society, stated that the reason he had to go abroad for his education was that he could not get through the competitive exam for IIT Chennai!

With the higher income, they have been able to build infrastructure – a nuclear power plant at Kalapokam, the world’s largest solar power plant (684 MW) built in 8 months, water desalination plants etc. They have been able to do what we have never achieved in 70 years with one of the highest per capita levels of aid in the world– provide decent jobs for their youth in the land of their birth. They do not have to depend on the remittances from their womenfolk exploited as cheap labour abroad. And what jobs! – I can tell you from personal experience setting up the Citibank offshore technology centre in Chennai that the starting salary for a regional engineering college graduate as a programmer /analyst is Indian Rupees 4 lacs a year – equivalent to Sri Lanka rupees 65,000 per month. Half are females and we could not get sufficient recruits for our positions because of competition from the likes of IBM. We could not even aspire to the graduates of elite institutes like the IIT whose graduates snapped up by US investment banks and consultancy firms for megabucks.

Chennai is becoming a centre for the arts – the South Indian film industry is located there and it is the centre for all Indian film music (even for Bollywood) as A R Rahman, the doyen of Indian musicians is based there and has his state of the art recording studio and school to train young musicians. There is a thriving performance culture in Bharathanatyam and traditional Carnatic music.

The developments in Tamilnadu have been so remarkable that the Economist magazine devoted a recent article to it, and we too can profit from their experience if we can only get over our innate sense of superiority over the humble South Indian Tamil. We have much to learn from him.

So now let me come back to the question I posed at the beginning. Would a Lee Kwan Yew have made the difference in Sri Lanka and you will correctly guess that the answer is no. An LKY would never have emerged from our society and culture and if he did would never have been elected, and if by some miracle this had happened would never have lasted in power. Our people want easy solutions, are not willing to sacrifice and are easily swayed by demagogues waving the racial and religious flag. Nothing really has changed in 70 years of independence. LKY himself alluded to this on more than one occasion – asked why East Asia has progressed but not South America, Africa or South or South East Asia, he pointed to the Confucian ethic prevalent in Japan, China and Korea, This makes people disciplined, hardworking and willing to accept sacrifices and a level of central direction and curtailment of liberties very different to liberal democracy. Historians studying Europe have made similar observations on the Protestant work ethic in Northern Europe that was responsible for the industrialization of Britain and Germany when the renaissance first took place in Southern Europe and Italy in the 17th Century. This cultural difference is the main reason why a Lee Kwan Yew would not have succeeded in Sri Lanka, and if we wish to progress we must first change our culture and attitudes and emulate places like Gujarat, Punjab and Tamil Nadu who have shown that progress is possible even in a South Asian cultural milieu.

We certainly have the human capital.  LKY openly alluded to the fact that he depended on Jaffna Tamils as a resource to build up Singapore in the early years. Rajaratnam was his comrade in arms in the fight against the communists, became Singapore’s first foreign minister and then Deputy Prime Minister, the writer of the National Pledge recited by all school children ever morning and Lee Kwan Yew’s closest confidant. The current Deputy Prime Minister in overall charge of the economy is Tharman Shanmugaratnam another Jaffna Tamil. JYM Pillai, the man who started SIA and who was referred to in LKY’s memoirs as his most efficient public servant. Four of the 5 Supreme Court judges till the 1980s were Sri Lankan Tamils. Sri Lankan professionals dominated the medical and engineering faculties. A trio of outstanding doctors paved the way to Singapore becoming a medical hub in Asia.  Professor Ratnam, who pioneered in vitro fertilization, Professor Jeyaraj Jeyaratnam who did the seminal research work on the link between using insecticides and herbicides and human health and was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement meal by the World Occupational Heath Association, the only individual to be thus honoured so far Professor Arul Kumar Sabaratnam, born in Jaffna, who went on from a teaching post in NUS in Singapore to be Professor of Gynecology at Birmingham University and elected 3 years ago as the President of the Royal Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the British Medical Association and the International Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology. He was knighted by the Queen a short while ago. Wyman, who set up the Singapore Zoo and was its first Director and BP De Silva the leading jewellers in Singapore and agents for Rolex, who initiated the process that made Singapore a centre for high-value shopping. Two outstanding educationists, Sigamoney and Eugene Wijesinghe, who as headmasters made Raffles Institution the premier school in a world-class system and Vijayratnam, the first Director of the PWD, who designed the layout of Changi Airport and captained the Singapore hockey team at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 while representing Singapore in cricket, rugby and football as well. Jegthesan won the gold medal in the 1962 Asian games for 100 meters, 200 meters and the 4  X 400 meters relay. His American coach said that if he can come to the US and trained he would be guaranteed a medal in the 1964 – Tokyo Olympics. Instead, he preferred to peruse his medical studies and he became head of the MRI in Malaysia and today an adviser in sports medicine to the International Olympics Committee. I sometimes wonder how many of these outstanding individuals would have had a career in their Motherland Sri Lanka given their ethnicity – but Sri Lanka’s loss was Singapore’s gain.

What is the future for Sri Lanka – I think our only hope is that if a party emerges ( perhaps the JVP – if they can be persuaded to jettison their Marxist baggage -with the more enlightened members of the UNP and other parties) and provide strong corruption-free leadership for 30 years while demanding sacrifices from the people and curbing our much loved democratic freedom to agitate, disrupt and strike and protest at every opportunity. They will have to rule with a strictly rational and secular outlook – no favoured place for any religion or language. Workers will have to work and students study. Zero tolerance for disruptive behaviour. We must treat minorities fairly. We need to learn self-reliance and not rely on foreign handouts. This will be bitter medicine but what is the alternative?

            The question is often asked – can China be a game-changer for us? It is true that we are a valuable and willing pawn in the “Great Game” being played out in the Indian Ocean between the US, China and India given our strategic location. The answer has to be “Yes” given China’s vast resources and ability to play for the long term. However, they can only create pockets of superficial progress and prosperity in the Port City or Hambantota. No foreign power can create broad-based inclusive and self-sustaining progress and development if our intuitions are broken and our politicians ignorant and corrupt. True progress has to come from within the nation.

            For example no country has received more American help and largesse than the Philippines after the last war, but it remains the poorest country in East Asia, earns no respect from its neighbors in the diplomatic arena and like us depends on remittances from its Women who go abroad to work and be abused as domestic help in the neighboring countries and in the middle east. We can and must do better.

If we don’t change we can continue to portray ourselves as victims (of terrorism and separatism, of the tsunami or whatever) and continue to live off the remittances of our women who are exploited and abused in the Middle East. We can continue to live off handouts and by selling our national assets like Hambantota harbour. We can continue the drift of the past 70 years. This will buy us time for a few more years till the party has to inevitably end in tears, when we run out of assets to sell and use up our creditworthiness, like Greece. What we will not be able to do is provide for our youth a meaningful future in the land of their birth with a secure well-paying jobs, charter our own course in foreign affairs without interference from our donors or be Master in our own house.

The choices are stark and clear and it is ours to take.

Ajit Kanagasundram

About editor 3017 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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