Lee Kwan-Yew, the World’s longest serving prime minister and the architect of modern Singapore, sees India’s rise as a welcome development, but felt the Indians were a sensitive lot who had to be handled carefully.
Lee also expressed his worries about Malaysia, which he called a “divided society” thanks to race politics, according to a US diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks.
Lee, a tough administrator widely credited for evolving an equally tough form of democracy and credited with bringing down corruption and heralding the rise of Singapore, was sharing his views with Senator Kit Bong, the vice-chairman of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Lee has often been criticised by foreigners for “diluting” democracy by laying down extremely strict punishments, but has also been held up as the creator of the only form of “tough” democracy that can work in Asian societies.
“Minister Mentor Lee described the most important trend in the region as being the growth of powerhouses China and India, noting that Singapore is at the crossroads of their battle for influence so can benefit from the competition.
“The strength of both China and India’s economies contributed to Singapore being able to bounce back quickly from recession, he said. Foreign Minister Yeo said that the rise of China means that all of Southeast Asia ants the United States and India to play a bigger role in the region…
“Ambassador Ong said that all Southeast Asian countries are concerned about China’s new assertiveness; the “charming phase of Chinese diplomacy toward the region is over, he believes, and China is becoming more assertive in both diplomacy and business,” a cable describing Senator Bond’s interaction with the Singapore leadership says.
However, even as Singapore and most of the regions countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, were eager to engage with India, Lee, who serves as Singapore’s “Minister Mentor”, pointed out that Indians were a touchy sort.
“He said that Singapore favored including India in the East Asia Summit (along with Australia and others) to counterbalance China, but cautioned that regional players must handle the Indians in a thoughtful way, characterizing them as having a “strong amour-propre,” the cable said.
Amour-propre, from the French Philosopher Rousseau’s writings, denotes a touchy sort of self-pride. People with a lot of Amour-propre tend to take offence at the slightest provocation.
Indians leaders and diplomats have often been accused of taking themselves too seriously and letting all the talk of India being an emerging power go to their head. [Lee was in India last year, when he made a statement that India and China are no longer comparable, as the latter has moved very far ahead of India.]
In the same meeting, Singaporean officials also commented on the difficulties of removing corruption from its neighbour, Indonesia – a problem that has come to the fore in India too recently.
“Professor Sebastian went as far to say that Indonesia’s institutions are “rotten to the core,” and suggested that the way forward was through new institutions, citing the Constitutional Court as a promising example..
“Prime Minister Lee encouraged Senator Bond to discuss corruption directly with SBY [Indonesian President Yudhoyono], but said he wasn’t sure Jakarta would be able to implement necessary basic changes; while SBY wants to go down as the greatest president in Indonesian history, reforming corruption is “beyond his powers,” the Prime Minister said.
“Minister Mentor Lee described the quandary SBY faced over a couple current corruption scandals in his government and expressed his disappointment that the controversy would likely prohibit SBY from achieving the reforms that would be necessary to fundamentally change Indonesia’s investment climate,” the cable, leaked by Wikileaks, noted.
The Singaporeans were also worried about the other big neighbour, Malaysia, which was riven by factional struggles between Islamists, moderates, Malays, ethnic Chinese, Indians etc..
They pointed out that different political parties’ strategy of playing one group against the other and race and religious politics has brought Malaysia to a slippery slope towards disunity and chaos.
“Prime Minister Najib faces danger from three internal sources according to Ambassador Ong: Islamists, the democratic opposition, and Malay ultra-nationalists.
“In order to accomplish anything, Najib has to manage all of these groups, he said, and the groups are consciously leveraging their position to demand more from the national government.
“Ambassador Tan agreed with Ong’s assessment and added that the Prime Minister and opposition parties were trying to “out-Islam” each other in an appeal for popular support.
“Minister Mentor Lee said that race politics have created a divided society, citing divisions between urban and rural Malays, manifested most recently in the “rampage” by Muslims over the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims.
“PM Najib is attempting to position himself to be seen as the defender of Islam, the Minister Mentor opined,” the cable noted.
In the opinion of Lee Kwan-Yew, Vietnam was the most promising country in the region.
“While Vietnam’s upper echelon still has the guerrilla mindset of the past generation, the younger Vietnamese are learning an open market system and slowly Vietnam has begun to change, he said.
“Vietnam also respects intellectual property rights and the sanctity of contracts, the Minister Mentor stated.
“Prime Minister Lee said that while Vietnam is not as cohesive as China, Singaporean investments are doing quite well in the country,” the cable said.