Could Sri Lanka have become another Singapore if  we had a Lee Kwan Yew?
Posted on January 9th, 2017

By Ajit Kanagasundram

(The writer is a former Central Bank officer who has worked in Singapore since 1983 as the head of automation in Asia Pacific for an American multi-national Bank. He is currently involved in renewable energy projects in Indonesia and Sri Lanka)

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, 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 we would be like Singapore” I have heard this so often that I have decided to analyze some of the differences between the 2 countries and see if one man could really have made the difference.

Let me start of 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 2 risks to achieving this – first, if the Chinese communists, then waging a guerilla war against the British in Malaya, 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 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.

50 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 $ 3678 and Singapore $ 56320  (indeed the highest in the world, if we exclude oil rich mini countries like Qatar and Abu Dhabi). 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. Ditto Changhi airport.

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 alone achieve this or did alone he formulate the vision, and then create the condition 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 tradionalists 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, 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 the 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 2005 , six aid workers working for the French medical charity Medicins Sans Frontiers 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 MSF 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 regionally, 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 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 – sounds 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 is ranked 160 in the world University rankings and all its graduates without exception have multiple job offers before 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 Chandra 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 school boy 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 where in the 60s we had two centres of excellence – first the Colombo schools like Royal, St Thomas’, Ananda (and Trinity in Kandy)  which excelled in 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 Senanyake 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 that have made the Singapore education system world class and an economic asset. 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 Chandra Dhramawardana  they were hounded out of the country.

National business corporations

I will comment on only two government businesses – SIA and electricity generation – although there are over 30. Bit 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 a microcosm of the Singapore story. In 1965 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 fledgling airlines no one would have picked SIA.

Pillai first developed regional routes and then moved international. 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 travelers – especially business travelers 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 relative of the President  JR and a crony of his son 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. 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. Rakitha is known to have bought luxury apartments in Malibu beach in California, which would have been a stretch on his salary.

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 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 Si 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. 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 center for the aviation hub to serve airlines in the Asian region.  Rolls Royce has its largest facility out side Derby here, capable of fully stripping and re-assembling an engine. Pratt and Whitney has 2000 of its 3000 Asian staff located here. In total these activities, together with Changhi airport terminals (but not including SIA ) provide 20,000 well paid jobs for Singaporeans and expats 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 Katunake and thus attract some of the East West long haul traffic to stop here as our landing fees are much less than Changhi 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 refueling business, given to us by our favorable location.

Energy and Power

In 30 years here I have never experienced a power cut in Singapore. The 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 negations 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 favoritism 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, 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 last week the JHU claimed that some minister had been paid as much as US$ 100 million to secure the lease of Hambantota port to Chinese interests – this claim is yet to be verified but the JHU has threatened to name names and provide evidence. Let us wait and see.

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 kick backs 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 honorable thing that was expected from a Confucian gentleman

I have personally experienced the long arm of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Board, which reports direct to the PM’s office. When I was promoted to take over banking automation for Asia Pacific for the American multi national Bank I worked for, I was given a Monblanc 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 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 basis of corruption free and efficient governance. Contrast this with the miserable pay given to our Ministers and top bureaucrats, as 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 – two 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, finger print 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 a vast 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 that all the IMF and foreign assistance. Two years later not a single prosecution let alone conviction, and we have given the evil doers 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.

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 journalist 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?

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 behavior, while all the while claiming to be true adherents of Buddhism, that most enlightened and compassionate of all religions.

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 Council, 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. 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?

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 Gal Oya 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 of 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 the Singapore’s achievements. By the early 1990s Singapore had achieved all its original economic goals but LKY and the party felt something was missing. 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 the 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 the 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, Pyush 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 how Singapore welcomes immigrants. I arrived her 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 aging 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 center 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 by 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 center infrastructure and state of the art fiber 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 word’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 performance 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 Juillard in New York. There was 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 Byonce 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 2 million. Singapore schools used to have two sessions to maximize the use of class room 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 recant 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 exhibits 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 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 HPB 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, specially among the Chines, and the corollary of an aging 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 2001 when my friend from London student days Ajith Jayaratne was appointed as our High Commissioner in Singapore, 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 first world and look for their primary trading partners to also be 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 second world and are willing to invest there in industrial zones and businesses to take advantage of their cheaper labor, 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 government 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 are 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 were 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 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 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 by product. On 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 was given in 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. 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, 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 a 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, Venkataramn Ramakrishnan, now a fellow of Trinity in Cambridge and a fellow 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 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 68 years – 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 6 lacs a year – equivalent to Sri Lanka rupees 100,00 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 a snapped up by US investment banks and consultancy firms for magabucks.

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 devoted a recent article to it, and we too can profit from their experience if we can 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 68 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 a 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, 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. 3 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 awarded 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 jewelers 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 Changhi Airport and captained the Singapore hockey team at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 while representing Singapore in cricket, rugby  and football as well. 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 enlighten 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 behavior. 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?

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 68 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 credit worthiness, 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 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.

19 Responses to “Could Sri Lanka have become another Singapore if  we had a Lee Kwan Yew?”

  1. Christie Says:

    “Racism in Singapore

    This talk will critically engage with the myth of Singapore as a multicultural society. Singapore is seen as a successful multi-racial society by much of the international community, but this hides pressing issues of racial inequality and structural discrimination. I will seek to show where systemic racism exists between people of colour, and how the intersections of race and gender function in such cases. More broadly I will discuss the links between decolonization, racism and politics in other Southeast Asian societies. The presentation will be of particular interest to members of the South Asian and Southeast Asian diaspora, as well as to feminists concerned with equity, misogyny and anti-blackness in the region.
    Sangeetha Thanapal is an scholar and social media activist engaged in anti-racism work in Singapore. She is the originator of the term ‘Chinese Privilege,’ which situates racism between people of colour in an institutionalized setting in Singapore. She initiated the recent online conversation on racism in the country. Her work focuses on applying concepts of Critical Race Theory to the Singapore context. She was recently interviewed by peer-reviewed journal ‘boundary2′ on “Chinese Privilege, Gender and Intersectionality.” She has also started a petition to reinstate Thaipusam as a holiday in Singapore, and is currently working on policy changes in that area. She has spoken at panel discussions held by the Association of Women for Action & Research (AWARE), and guest lectured at the National University of Singapore (NUS). She holds”

    Before Lee came in Indians including Tamils were “Indian Privilege’ like still in Ceylon. Before Lee the Chines were drug addicts and Indian Colonial Parasites ran the place and were the non violent imperialists who dealt drugs and controlled the economy. The biggest Emporium in Singapore then was owned by Hydramanis-Kundanmals like in still in Ceylon.

  2. Dilrook Says:

    Thank you Ajit for the article. I agree on corruption and governance. Singapore, not Tamil Nadu, should be Sri Lanka’s model.

    Sadly Ajit’s article contains various irrelevancies and too much emphasis on Tamils. It must be noted that Tamil speaking people as a percentage have drastically reduced in Singapore since Independence. A clear indication of its melting pot reputation. Singapore does not teach Tamil (Nadu) language to its majority but unfortunately Sri Lanka does.

    I agree English knowledge must be the medium of instruction and it should also be the top development priority. Sri Lanka must immediately stop teaching useless Tamil Nadu language to Sinhala kids and instead teach Mandarin, Korean and Japanese in addition to more English.

    Ajit’s biggest deficiency is his inability to grasp the reason why Singapore is so peaceful and Sri Lanka is not. Singapore spends more than 3% of its GDP on defence. Sri Lanka spent less than 1.5% of GDP on defence until war broke out. Had Sri Lanka allocated more for defence since 1948, insurrections and war would not have happened. Singapore has mandatory conscription whereas Sri Lanka doesn’t. This makes sure a disciplined and patriotic youth force. If Sri Lanka is to have the same level of national feeling, discipline and security, it must copy Singapore in this regard.

    Ajit has also very shrewdly avoided ethnic harmony laws in Singapore that maintain the national ethnic balance throughout the country. An ethnic Chinese cannot simply sell his house to a Tamil for instance. All landed property sales are subject to maintaining ethnic balance and harmony. This must have been implemented in Sri Lanka too.

    He correctly identifies the low levels of entrepreneurship among Singaporeans. LKY identified it and implemented a fantastic solution – profit seeking state enterprises. Over 65% of Singaporean economy is run by Tamasek Holdings and other state controlled entities. This is the single most effective reason for Singapore’s stellar rise. This is a very good model for Sri Lanka. Shipping and related industries made Singapore what it is today and this is what Sri Lanka must copy.

    I agree district standardisation is not the solution. However, it is rhetoric and wrong to say it was a “root cause” of the war. Most Tamil terrorists didn’t even schooled let alone missing university entrance. Ethnicity based standardisation throughout the island is better as it guarantees equity and fair play for all taxpayers. I totally refuse to believe Jaffna Tamils are more hard working than others or bigger cheaters than others. No ethnic group is brainier than others. No ethnic group should be over or under represented vis-à-vis their national ethnic population percentage in state run university system as a whole.

    Ajit is off the mark on immigrants. Singapore picks and chooses its immigrants but Sri Lanka unfortunately gets over 20,000 unwelcomes Tamil illegal immigrants every year and has over 250,000 South Indians illegally living and working in Sri Lanka at any given time.

    Nepotism is what rules Singapore since 1965. LKY ruled it for over 40 years directly and indirectly and then his son. LKY’s daughter in law and other relatives control most state business entities, media and state institutions. This has worked well as they are mostly honest.

    Finally, Ajit does a Bombay looking Calcutta with his subtle promotion of Tamil Nadu as a model for Sri Lanka to follow after eluding the reader with fantastic achievements of Singapore. Though Tamil Nadu has achieved impressive economic growth within India, it still is way below Sri Lanka in terms of GDP per capita and Human Development Index. Sri Lanka will be going backwards if it copies Tamil Nadu.

    Buddhism and maintaining its foremost position do not in anyway affect Sri Lanka’s fortunes as it never hindered the island nation in anyway. Singapore is blessed with great neighbours whereas Sri Lanka is cursed with loathsome neighbours.

  3. Wetta Says:

    It was a waste of my time reading an article written with subtle racial bias and the same revengeful and false political prejudice against the previous government (Ajith says Mahinda Rajapaksha and his family has syphoned billions of dollar out of Sri Lanka but still didn’t pass all the relevant evidence and details of those corruptions to Sirisena so he can put MR in jail, is Ajith protecting MR by hiding the information he knew?) and sparing the terrorists probably because they were tamil (eg:…in the East in 2005 , six aid workers working for the French medical charity Medicins Sans Frontiers were shot in cold blood either by the Army or the STF. …Ha Ha Racial prejudice working full time ! already decided by Ajit that LTTE is not even suspected of doing that atrocity to distract the advancing army). It is all one way and not a balanced and neutral writing, which is only a disability rather than an ability. I gave up half way, but thought to write some passing comments.

    Dilrook’s comment gives the right message/reply.

    If Mahinda or Sirisena or Sambandan or even Prabakaran tried to perform exactly as how LKY did in Singapore, it will be called dictatorship, nepotism, state terrorism , racism etc etc. Ajith probably forgot that Singaporean prison’s are also among the fullest prisons in the world, means you cannot talk a word against how the governance happens or you can have free meals in the prison ! In 2010 Singapore had the 2nd highest prison inmates per 100,000 people, in the entire world, only behind the USA. So much for democratic freedom ! No wonder why that country is developed when free speech is only allowed in the prison. Try doing that in Sri Lanka for a change !

    Ajith talks about some “…hullabaloo when the National Anthem was sung in Tamil a few years back”. I wonder if he knows what the “hullabaloo” will be if the Singaporean national anthem was sung in Tamil, when a tamil cannot even buy a house of a Malay in Singapore.

    One thing Ajith says is good for Sri Lanka, that is to copy the Singaporean policy of teaching an ethnic language only to children with that ethnic background as a “second language” and the whole country should study and work in “one” main official language. I like that. What that “one” official language would be must be decided using valid logic by the qualified to do so. The current problem in Sri Lanka was most probably contributed by the ability to get the mainstream education, the university education, and also all the official and government communications including currency notes, stamps, coins etc etc in 3 languages. We should take that choice away using LKY and his Singapore as an excuse.

    Copying Tamilnadu model ? That makes the whole article smelling a big fat rat and laughable ! At the end I agree with one thing he says. Sri Lankan education is capable in producing “shallow” thinking professionals. I am sure Ajit had Sri Lankan education.

  4. Ananda-USA Says:

    Dilrook and Wetta have nicely debunked the facts, thrust and motivation of Ajit Kanagasundaram’s EELAMIST STEALTH article.

    As Wetta quite rightly pointed out, if Mahinda attempted to mimic Lee Kuan Yew’s methods in Sri Lanka he would have been tarred and feathered as an insufferable tyrant and dictator, but yet LKY is painted here as a benign democract who was reasonable in all things! Bah … sly Tamil cunning!

    I remember LKY’s methods very well. He brutishly imposed his ideas on his captive people and dragged them kicking and screaming towards the goalpost until his ends were achieved. He can best be described as a BENIGN DESPOT, who deserves credit only because he succeeded.

    In his second term Mahinda tried to do the similar things less forcefully in Sri Lanka, but failed because his goals ran counter to those of India, and the United Stayes pivoting towards Asia to counter China under the Obama Administration.

  5. S.Gonsal Says:

    I came to Singapore before Ajith came. I should aswer him one by one but I can’t waste time as the whole thing may be deleted by —.
    I don’t thin Dilrook has answere is properly nor Wtta.
    Nevertheless I must point out to all the main BIG LIE Ajit is making.

    He is hiding the fact that Tamils have been cheating our education system to enter the university even up to now. How could he explain 70% of Tamils qualifying to do engineering up year 1972 ? How could he explain students form Jaffna with 4 A’s failing first year exam in Engineering ?

    There is no racial group called “TAMIL” in Singapore. The racial group is called “INDIAN”. Even Sinhalese will be considered as INDIAN race.
    That is enough for the time being.

  6. Christie Says:

    Majority Chinese took over the control of the economy from the minority Indians. That is the Lees story.

    What we need in the island nation is to do the same.

  7. S.Gonsal Says:

    Ajith conveniently does not mention Singapore is a homeland for Malay/ Ja race, not Chinese race who are migrants. Chinese have stolen this land ( without war) and that is what Tamils are trying to do in Sri Lanka. When considered together with Tamil Nadu, we are minority.
    Appointing or Electing a Malay president is long overdue, not a goodwill gesture.

  8. Dilrook Says:

    Gonsal is right on race or ethnicity. Although Tamil (Nadu) language is an official language of Singapore (on paper only) it doesn’t recongnise Tamil as an ethnic community. They fall under Indians (including Sinhalese). This is the approach Sri Lanka should have taken. All Tamils must be classified as Indians as the case was before 1911. In 1881, 1891 and 1901 they were classified as peoples of Indian extraction (Indians). Burma, South Africa and Malaysia also follow this approach. Only Sri Lanka created an artificial ethnic group called “Ceylon Tamils” in 1911.

    Malaysia had to forego Chinese majority Singapore island under intense pressure from China. If Tamils seek a similar deal in Sri Lanka under Indian pressure, they are mistaken. Unlike Singapore, the north and east have no economic potential.

    Cheating by Tamils (if any) would have reduced by district based standardisation but it cannot stop Tamils cheating in Colombo or Matara for instance. For that the government should introduce ethnicity based standardisation island-wide.

  9. Ananda-USA Says:


    You are ABSOLUTELY WRONG when you say the North and East have NO economic potential.

    They have a HUGE economic potential centered around Trincomalee Port! A vast beautiful coastline with tourist potentia, and mineral and marine resources to underpin industrial activity.

    That economic potential is yet to be developed, and India/Tamil Nadu, the USA and the Tamil Diaspora are salivating to steal the North and East from the Sinhala people to do just that!

    In the meantime, the raise every possible BARRIER in our path to PREVENT the development of those historical areas of our people gradually pushed into the Southwest corner of our island over 3000 years!

  10. Lorenzo Says:

    I AGREE with USA on this.

    TRINCO port, PULMODAI minerals, YEPPWELAI phosphate, etc.

  11. Lorenzo Says:

    I forgot to add FISH.

    HUGE potential.

    But without SINGHALA COLONIZATION of north and east those economic potential is 100% USELESS.

  12. Dilrook Says:


    Please take it in the context. I said.

    If Tamils seek a similar deal in Sri Lanka under Indian pressure, they are mistaken. Unlike Singapore, the north and east have no economic potential.

    Do you think Indians will allow even scraps to Tamils? I doubt.

    Chinese on the other hand have allowed Singaporeans to thrive.

    Trincomalee has military potential but very little economic potential as it is furthest from shipping lanes. The military aspect alone is to its disadvantage as it will be targeted first in a confrontation. Collateral damage will destroy the surrounds. In peacetime, military installations will deprive business.

  13. Ananda-USA Says:


    It is precisely in your context that I think that your statement that the North and East have no economic potential is wrong, despite your assertions to the contrary.

    Singapore’s economic potential has developed because it commands the Malacca strait.

    Trincomalee commands the sea lanes to the east of Sri Lanka to some of the world’s most populous regions in India and Pakistan, and resource rich regions of Myanmar and Thailand. It’s strategic signifance is immense to India because of the shallowness of the Pal Strait that impedes navigation by deep draught vessels, and access between the East and West coasts of India must go past Trincomalee.

    Sri Lankan Tamils will not seek a deal similar to the Chinese in Singapore, they will gladly secede from Sri Lanka and become a part of Greater Tamil Nadu, giving TN and India a fabulous collection of Sea Ports in the Indian Ocean. That was the thrust of the Greater Tamil Nadu maps that Karunanidhi had prepared decades ago.

    Yes, Indians will be ecstatic to have North snd East of Sri Lanka become a part of India, and they will figure out s way to control and keep Tamil Nadu from seeding from India as Jawaharkal Nehru did in the past just after India’s independence. If India fails and TN secede from India, Sri Lanka will still be unable to recover it’s territory lost to TN.

    You underestimate the value of Trincomalee, the largest naturally sheltered harbour in South Asia and it’s future economic and military potential, for example as a centre for ship and offshore oil platform construction. It already has one of the largest graving docks that can handle large naval and commercial ships and a very large oil tank farm for storing naval fuel and commercial oil and gas.

    Speaking from my experience as an r&d engineer and manager at Chevron and Gulf Oil Corporations, the Bay of Bengal is very likely to have very large deposits of oil and gas in offshore sedimentary basins. When those oil reservoirs are exploited in the future, they will dwarf North Sea reservoirs in capacity, and Trincomalee could become a center of oil exploration, production, storage, refining and tanker shipping activity.

    I repeat, the North and East of Sri Lanka centered on Trincomalee are invaluable assets that other powers would love to acquire and develop economically for their benefit, and Sri Lanka must never lose it to greedy foreign powers.

    This is is the patrimony and treasure of all Sri Lankans to be used for our benefit. It is the incteasing ability to exploit this kind of natural wealth by a resurgent patriotic MR/UPFA government that Sri Lanka’s foreign enemies moved to PREVENT by engineering the Regime Change of January 8, 2015.

    We patriots of Sri Lanka must ENSURE these enemies ABJECTLY FAIL IN THEIR ATTEMPT to STEAL the national wealth of our people.

  14. Ananda-USA Says:

    Oops! I meant to say “most populous regions in zindia and Bangladesh”

  15. Christie Says:

    This is another story of the success of Indian colonial parasites told by one of them. The parasites who went to colonies as equal partners with the British. Tamils, Gujaratis and Punjabis all Hindus. Sikhs say they are different but still they are Hindus.

    The Guajaratis and Punjabis made a killing from all colonies except Ceylon where Tamils made a killing. All these three are the leading racial group from India lead by Gujaratis who were instrumental in forming the Indian Empire lead by Mohandas Karamchand.

    We can look at things in time past present and future from different angles.

    Problem of the majority Sinhalese be they Buddhist, Christian or Muslims are the Hindu Indian colonial parasites and the Hindu Indian Empire.

  16. Dilrook Says:


    I have no disagreement on Trincomalee’s military significance but I’m at a loss to understand its commercial significance to the extent you state. Economic resources of Myanmar can be accessed via Hambantota which has a twin advantage of linking to the Silk Road too.

    In 2012 Basil agreed with then Indian commerce minister Sharma to set up a Special Economic Zone in Trincomalee for Tamil Nadu investors to invest. However, nothing happened thereafter.


    If Sri Lankan Tamils join Greater Tamil Nadu or India, that is the end of them. Indians treat them lower in status and possibly caste too.

  17. Ananda-USA Says:


    There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.

  18. Christie Says:


    Trinco Harbour is one of the deepest natural harbors in the world.

    Submarines can play havoc in modern warfare. Now with the ability to launch missiles with Nuke war heads they may decide the final outcome of an all out war.

    Harbour is needed for restocking and repairs and maintenance of subs.

    Deep harbor makes it a safe heaven.

    Indian Empire is to lease the latest Russian nuke subs even before they are used by Russia.

  19. Nimal Says:

    Good article but the writer should keep the subject between Singapore and Sri Lanka but not India.
    I am happy that he mentioned my relative BP de Silva.
    Also my two Chinese brothers in law were involved insetting up AIR Lanka For JR and they got frustrated and fed up with the corruption in the country. For some reason they looked down upon us and I had a frosty relationship with them. They were happy to leave the island. Though I have assets and relatives there, I would only like to change planes at Singapore, but not to live but I doubt that we will ever another Singapore.Sadly Singaporeans have branded us with all the backward South East Asian countries as third world. Sending domestics to these countries diminishes the respect they have for us. Japan too treat us the same way and I would not go there with my wife.To stretch a point further a Japanese old monk, just outside the Kandy Maligawa berated us in raw filth in Japanese and I reciprocated in the same manner in Japanese in raw filth. Just to annoy them we kissed passionately while walking along with them. I thought furious them would jump into the Kandy Lake.
    We have a image problem and the ambude clad leaders are making it worse for all for obvious reasons mentioned above.

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