Book: ‘Looking East to Look West, Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India’; Author: Sunanda K. Datta-Ray; Publisher: Penguin/Viking, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore; Price: Rs.499
This is a scholarly, meticulously researched and gripping story from journalist Sunanda K. Datta-Ray of how Singapore icon Lee Kuan Yew persisted despite great odds to court India, his successes and disappointments, and how his dream of embracing New Delhi has finally become a reality now.
Contrary to what many think, Lee remains a huge friend of India, one who knew virtually every Indian prime minister right from Jawaharlal Nehru and made 14 trips to India between 1959 and 2004 – more than any other foreign leader.
Although Chinese by ethnicity, Lee never wavered in his conviction that Southeast Asia needed India to cope with China. He even snubbed Chinese premier Hua Guo Feng by refusing to accept his gift of Neville Maxwell’s controversial book on the 1962 Sino-Indian war. Lee was steadfast even when India tied itself to Moscow and embraced economics that made no sense to Singapore.
Building relations with India wasn’t easy. Nehru liked Lee, and the Singapore leader admired the Indian giant. But Indian bureaucracy did not play ball. It did not want to get too friendly with tiny Singapore so as not to offend Malaysia. Even though India was the first non-European Commonwealth country to recognise Singapore, it still irks Lee that Lal Bahadur Shastri did not even acknowledge his appeal to help his country militarily. Lee’s interest in India was strategic. Indira Gandhi agreed to train the Singapore air force but Lee found to his dismay that India was too occupied with Pakistan to think big.
Lee was a trenchant critic of everything he saw was wrong in India. That did not endear him to everyone. Indian perceptions of Singapore too were based on a mix of half-truths, wishful thinking and myth. Indira Gandhi’s recognition of the Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin regime in Kampuchea saw India-Singapore ties hit their lowest point.
But by the next decade, when India unleashed sweeping economic reforms, some 3,000 Indian companies had opened branches in Singapore, whose global standing was now recognised. And although there were other hiccups in bilateral relations, not many Indians realised that Goh Chok Tong, who succeed Lee as prime minister after the latter quit to become ‘Senior Minister’, was only acting on the guidelines he had inherited by sponsoring India at various Asian forums. P.V. Narasimha Rao’s ‘Look East Policy’ helped.
From then on, despite now-and-then roadblocks, relations only blossomed. Congress president Sonia Gandhi was to summarise India’s perception of Lee in 2005: ‘Lee Kuan Yew has been a friend and a well-wisher of India. As a friend, he has also occasionally criticised us, but we have always listened to what he has to say with great, great respect.’
By then, Indians were finding themselves at home in Singapore compared to many other countries. That had nothing to do with Lee’s Gurkha guard and the bronze Nataraja at his door.