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Lee Kuan Yew and the power of one

I am disappointed that the Straits Times did not give a full report of Lee Kuan Yew’s talk at the Standard Chartered Singapore Forum yesterday where he shared the stage with the former US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker.

The two reports on the Straits Times’ page 3 did not mention what he said when asked about China-India relations. You can see it in this video, shown on the Straits Times’ own website.

India does not have the same dynamism as China for many reasons, he said. “First, because they are not one nation, they are multiple nations.” India does not have “one cohesive core, as you have in China”.

China, he said, “has organically developed over the centuries, 90 per cent Han… So when you speak in China, everybody understands you. If you speak in India, if you speak in Hindi, you will be (garbled) by about 200 million in Northern India. If you speak in English, again you have about 200 million of the educated. So that sense of oneness is not there.So there is no comparison. One is organically developed over a million years, over 4,000 years, the other was only recently put together by the British…”

The importance he gives to this sense of oneness may be key to his political philosophy and Singapore’s development under his long leadership. He brooked no opposition, it is said, as he went about building a multiracial former British colony into one nation. And he succeeded. Singapore is one nation.

I admire him. It’s impossible to describe the emotions I felt watching him speak so haltingly. He is 89 years old but still so acute.

There is no denying the fissiparous tendencies and separatist movements in India.

He is right in stressing the importance of oneness — of having “one cohesive core”.

But can you imagine what the world would have been like had everybody held the same views, shared the same thoughts?

There would be no new ideas, no innovations.

We would still believe the sun revolves around the Earth because there would have been no Galileo.

People would not have embraced Christianity, Buddhism, Islam: they would have continued following whatever religions existed earlier.

The Americas, Africa, the Far East and Oceania would not have had intercourse with the Europeans because no one would have thought of circumnavigating the globe.

Singapore would have remained a Malay settlement because the British would not have come to the island and brought the Chinese and Indians with them.

And you wouldn’t be reading me online because there would have been no internet.

Singapore would not be the Singapore we see today had Lee Kuan Yew not led it out of the status quo. From a colony, it became a free nation, one of the richest countries in the world, a financial capital with world-class universities, advanced technologies and rich multinationals under his leadership.

He stresses the importance of oneness, but it was he who bucked the trend.

He was the great contrarian. When other leaders in the post-colonial world were distancing themselves from the West, nationalizing industries, he had the vision to welcome multinationals and remain a Western ally. And Singapore has benefited from his policies.

Now other countries are doing what Singapore did, seeking foreign investment, welcoming multinationals.

Lee Kuan Yew had the foresight to think unlike other post-colonial leaders.

Singapore would not be the Singapore we see today had he been like the others.

Unity and solidarity are all very fine, but it is the non-conformists who make a difference by having new ideas. That is possible only when you think unlike the rest.

About the author: Abhijit Nag loves reading, writing and getting news and information online.

  • Zephyr Thursday, March 21, 2013, 7:37 pm

    RE: LKY had the vision to welcome multinationals and remain a Western ally.
    You’re wrong.

    Suggest you read up on what one Albert Winsemius did for Singapore. And how
    he worked with one Goh Keng Swee on this country’s economy. Suggest too that
    you read up on the history of China, and see if what was stated is correct.

    • Abhijit Thursday, March 21, 2013, 10:07 pm

      Thank you.

    • AA Friday, March 22, 2013, 1:17 pm


      What is the point of your patronising comment? Do you think that LKY was a bad leader because he didn’t do everything himself? Who do you think appointed Goh Keng Swee and Winsemius? Who do you think these two gentlemen worked under? I suggest you read up on the history of Singapore before you post insulting remarks.

  • The Friday, March 22, 2013, 1:57 pm

    /// People would not have embraced Christianity, Buddhism, Islam: they would have continued following whatever religions existed earlier. ///

    And the world would have been a much better place.

  • doulosyap Friday, March 22, 2013, 10:08 pm

    Hi, just want to ask how you feel about TRS republishing your articles. Did they ask permission?

    They have copied many of mine wholesale, which violates my copyright, and they gain financially from it through their ads. I would expect them to at least ask first, which is the courteous thing to do.

    If they have stolen your content, you can ask Google to cut their ads by filling in this form: https://support.google.com/adsense/bin/request.py?contact_type=violation_report&&rd=1

    • Abhijit Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9:51 am

      I am happy if someone links to me.

  • Observer Saturday, March 23, 2013, 11:44 am

    Unfortunately, this oneness is being torn apart by the massive import of foreigners in recent years.

  • Yeoh Lian Chuan Thursday, March 28, 2013, 1:39 pm

    Good piece!