The Lee Kuan Yew of Lanka

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By 2017-07-18

By Abdul Samad

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all readers for the overwhelming response both positive and negative for my last piece headlined 'Gotabaya Rajapaksa – The man and his vision.' Not in my wildest dreams I envisioned such a response on the social media.

A special mention of gratitude must go to Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka former Minister of the Eastern Provincial Council and former Chief of Staff Sri Lankan Navy Mohan Wijewickrama, and last but not least Gotabaya Rajapaksa for sharing the article on their respective Facebook profiles that ignited such an overwhelming response.

The focus of my last article was to highlight why Gotabaya Rajapaksa should be at the helm of Sri Lankan politics. The article also focused on enlightening readers on his vision and courage.

This piece will focus on comparing the former defence secretary and one of my all time favourite leaders, the father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. Readers must understand that this is by no means a comparison. I'm not naive to compare Lee to any emerging politician. However, interestingly enough my reading on Lee gives me the opportunity to draw some comparisons on some of the prominent leadership traits between the two personalities.

Legendary leader

In the current political circle in Sri Lanka, carefully screening all participants, I fail to find one personality that has so much resemblance to the legendary former leader of Singapore. Readers must realize Lee was single-handedly responsible for developing Singapore from a third world oasis to a fist world trading and financial behemoth in a single generation. Singapore today records a GDP of $300 billion, with a per capita income of staggering $50,000. All this has been achieved with zero natural resources which make it all the more astonishing.

The remainder of this article will focus on the core leadership traits that are strikingly common to both personalities.

Since Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965 – an event Lee called his 'moment of anguish' – he had seen himself in a never-ending struggle to overcome the nation's lack of natural resources, a potentially hostile international environment and a volatile ethnic mix of Chinese, Malays and Indians. He went on to say, "To begin with, we don't have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors: a homogeneous population, common language, and common destiny. So, history is long time. I've done my bit."

Rajapaksa regime

During the time of the Rajapaksa regime, a key decision was taken to amalgamate the Urban Development Authority (UDA), Road Development Authority (RDA),to the Ministry of Defence with Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the helm. The shift in focus was economic development upon the completion of the three-decade old ethnic strife.

The move was criticized severely across main stream media as an attempt by the Rajapaksa regime to control a major portion of the national budget. Realistically it amounts to being just that. However, in saying this, readers must realize the ultimate outcome of the move.

It was Gotabaya Rajapaksa's vision that enabled Colombo to have world class infrastructure. Further it gave birth to the vision of connecting Sri Lanka with a world class road network. The road network in the war ridden North and East was completely revamped bringing in the much needed connectivity to key tourist destinations in the country.

Sothern Expressway

Readers must realize that the job was only half done. What is the state of affairs today? Where does the Sothern Expressway stand? The stretch from Matara to Hambantota should have been completed by now.

What is the progress of the Central Expressway, divided into three sections, the first section to be completed sometime last year?


Without a clear vision and in particular administrative talent, the projects can never be completed in time and efficiently. It was much like the Baseline Road 200m flyover that was built in eight years during the reign of Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Resilience and tenacity

Lee had gone through his toughest period when Malaysia chose to separate itself from Singapore. Shedding tears on television he marked one of the most historic moments in Singapore history.

Likewise, in an instance when Singapore Airline pilots threatened to go on strike his tenacity and resilience was on show. The legendary leader was prepared to ground the Airline totally and start all over again. His decision was clear. He gave them two choices. To restore discipline, get back to work and then argue their case, or he would be prepared to teach them a lesson of their lives with the help of the people of Singapore. He said, "Anyone who governs Singapore must have iron in him; this is not a game of cards, this is your life and my life, I spent my whole lifetime building this and no one can knock it down as long as I'm in charge."

During the period of the war against the LTTE, Sri Lanka was subject to great international scrutiny. The UN, human rights organizations, international Tamil Diaspora, and a host of Western economic superpowers brought in immense pressure on the government. A certain phase of the war was painstakingly slow. The long battle for Killinochchi was one of the highlights of slow progress.

International pressure

Another regime, another Secretary of Defence might well have succumbed to the international pressure and may well have been disheartened by the slow progress. It was the resilience and tenacity of the former Defence Secretary that kept the spirits of the forces together. It was the unnerving belief that kept their focus and victory over terrorism intact.

Comparatively, we have a situation with the Government Medical Officers' Association (GMOA), and university students' protests against the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) today. While acknowledging that these are two issues involving different stakeholders, what stands out is the current administration's inability to make decisions. Their lack of resilience and tenacity to deal with uprisings and instability is clearly shown.

Presenting the budget, the government proposed a fine of Rs. 25,000 on bus drivers for violating certain laws. It was the right thing to do. However, with the Lanka Private Bus Owners' Association (LPBOA) announcing strikes and holding the government to ransom resulted in the decision being back-tracked. The President himself showed clear signs of weakness and his sheer inability to deal with collective efforts to sabotage rightful policy making. As a result, the Association and the drivers have become more powerful and they continue to drive recklessly endangering the lives of passengers and pedestrians.

Likewise, we have witnessed countless strikes ranging from railways, postal and various other government departments. On each occasion the leadership of the country has shown its inability to govern with an 'iron fist' to restore the much needed discipline.

Innovative approach

Zainuddin pays a tribute to Lee's strength of character by saying that he did not waste his time brooding over the separation from Malaysia. Instead he drew strength from it to create his vision of a Singapore that is "better and stronger" than Malaysia. He says he realized the vision by making sure that Singapore achieved developed-nation status before Malaysia. He credits this to Lee's creativity and innovative spirit.

Upon the completion of war against terrorism, Sri Lanka was unfairly isolated by the international community citing various political reasons. During this phase the country lost its traditional economic support mainly from the European Union (EU) in the form of GSP+ and foreign direct investments.

However, it was highly commendable of the previous regime that as opposed to mourning the isolation the administration led by the then president and defence secretary initiated a journey together with China collaborating Sri Lanka into the much hyped one belt one road initiative. The isolation didn't stall GDP growth, so much so that Sri Lanka grew from a $20 billon economy in 2009 to $80 billion today. This is an impressive fourfold increase. Talk of an innovative approach, Gotabaya Rajapaksa led by example in the country's history.

Iron fist rule

This earned Lee the position of a feared but respected leader. He was criticized for his iron fist rule, forcing several opposition politicians into bankruptcy or exile, and once invoked Machiavelli in declaring, "If nobody is afraid of me, I'm meaningless."

Lee led Singapore from a colonial backwater under the British control to one of the world's most thriving financial centres and he did so with a tight grip. Lee was both admired for Singapore's efficient government, economic growth and safe streets.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during his tenure as the defence secretary was viewed as a highly authoritarian leader. It was common consensus that he ruled with an iron fist. However, people forget the same rule, realized unprecedented results, a disciplined workforce and press that worked in the interest of the country than Target Rating Point (TRP). Today media channels have become a circus. Colombo, once a beautiful thriving city, has become a colossal garbage dumpyard.

Are the president and premier of this country respected or feared? It is a foregone conclusion that both of them are not respected or feared. They are neither respected nor feared, leading to inefficiencies, mass scale corruption and depleting economic progress.

Today the main stream media talk of press freedom, the right to information and highlight protests.

Social cleansing

Underworld kingpins either disappeared or left the country in fear under the stewardship of the former defence secretary. It was a form of unprecedented social cleansing. However, the past two and half years we can see them coming back in all their glory.

Gang war killings, drug cartel wars, and looting have become common today.

Has this new-found freedom been beneficial to citizens? Has it resulted in economic progress? Has it created new jobs? Has it dealt with the cost of living? The lack of discipline can be seen in ministries and departments.

Lee had the ability to fight for a noble cause, even if it meant doing difficult things for the greater good. He said, "I'm not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honourable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial."

Media freedom

One of the most criticized pages of Gotabaya Rajapaksa's tenure was the suppression of media freedom and the locking up of Sarath Fonseka.

The question arises what we should do with hypocrites? It was alleged that the ex-army chief was ready to testify against his own forces before an independent human rights commission.

Does the freedom of the press really help a country's economic or social progress? Is it merely a politically driven agenda? Is it the whole game of TRP ratings? As the saying goes, "If you do not read or watch news, you are uniformed. If you read or watch news you are misinformed."

The above is extremely true in today's context. Donald Trump tweets sell more than actual economic data; Modi's fake tweets sell more than India's actual economic performance and the dire consequences of demonetization.

Human Rights violations

Do we need journalists in Sri Lanka who are more worried about some Human Rights violations than wiping off terrorism from the country? Do we need journalists like Frederica Janz who writes an article about some "puppy" and claims to have no media freedom? Do we need an editor like Lasantha Wikrematunge who all his life has sabotaged governments and banked on "opposition" popularity to sell his tabloid?

Readers must realize that none of the individuals above could make a difference with their pens when hundreds and thousands of Sri Lankans were being killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). I am by no means indicating former defence secretary's involvement in any of these abductions or killings. The courts and the judiciary are best positioned to decide on them.

The fact remains that all the above individuals were either politically biased and creators of unproductive vibes for the country.

If they disappeared or fled the country it is in the best interest of the nation.

This article by no means advocates the former defence secretary to the helm of Sri Lankan politics. I'd rather prefer it to be a realistic view of the current state of affairs when compared to the situation that prevailed before 8 January 2015.

In my view it is mandatory that a leader must have some, or if not all, of the above traits to ensure successful and efficient governance. The responsibility lies with the citizens at large to appoint someone who has the vision, courage, determination, and administrative talents to the helm of Sri Lankan politics.

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