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India looks to Singapore:
but size does matter

While the Indian middle class has been quick to lionise the late Lee Kuan Yew, the BJP would baulk at implementing some of his ideas on protecting minority rights.

London, April 2015

Modern oil portrait of former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew flashing a rare smile.

Modern oil portrait of former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew flashing a rare smile.

When I lived in Singapore from 1991 to 1999, I met many Indian visitors who were amazed by the clean, well-run city where people crossed the road only when the traffic lights let them and nobody honked; and where every tree and building knew its precise place. It was a fine city—with a fine for everything, the joke went; India was a country with rules for everything but only fools obeyed the rules. All we need is Lee Kuan Yew, they’d say.

After the reforms of 1991, many Indian leaders came to Singapore, seeking investments and keen to learn how Lee had done it.

After Lee’s death on 23 March, 2015, that old yearning for order has resurfaced. Ullikkotai and Mannargudi in Tamil Nadu have planned a statue and a museum, respectively, to remember him. The Indian middle class seems desperate for someone like Lee; some even think that Narendra Modi’s victory last year represents just that. But recall what the late Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, who admired Singapore, said once: “If I had only Shanghai, I too might be able to change Shanghai as quickly (as Singapore). But I have the whole of China.”
Salil Tripathi

Salil Tripathi

“No Chinese party could do in Singapore what the BJP did in India last year—come to power without a single MP from the country’s largest minority group…. Lee was an unshakeable bulwark against majoritarian tendencies..."

As journalist Robert Elegant recounted in his book Pacific Destiny (1991), Lee instinctively knew the extent of his reach. “When I first saw Jamaica, I thought to myself: if only I had been given an island this size, what could I have done with it!” At 10,991sq km, Jamaica is 15 times Singapore’s size (716sq km). That, he thought, was his limit. To put that in perspective, you can fit 300 Jamaicas in India. Lee would never have claimed that one could rule India the way he ruled Singapore. Size matters.

But more than size, it is Lee’s concern for minorities, which places him at odds with the orientation of India’s current government. Given its social and religious agenda, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would baulk at implementing some of Lee’s ideas on protecting minority rights. With slogans such as “equality for all, appeasement to none”, the BJP has camouflaged its majoritarian politics behind notions such as “equality and meritocracy”.

Lee was committed to meritocracy but he took an active interest in ensuring that minorities were neither marginalized politically, nor lived in ghettos.

To achieve the former, Lee changed electoral rules so that no party could win an election without minority support. Singapore’s elections have a unique feature—the Group Representation Constituency (GRC). Voters in a GRC vote not for an individual, but a team of between four and six candidates, of whom at least one must be from a minority. In the last election in 2011, of the 87 parliamentary seats, only 12 were single-member constituencies; there were 15 GRCs.

Its critics argue with some justification that GRCs allow the government to seal and perpetuate its majority, because regardless of the votes polled in a GRC, the winning party gets all seats. Results were lopsided: while opposition parties polled nearly 40 percent of the popular vote, they won only six seats in 2011. At the same time, nearly 25 percent of members of Parliament (MPs) are from minorities.

Contrast that with India, where the number of minority legislators has been declining, particularly sharply in BJP-ruled states. In Maharashtra and Gujarat, where Muslims form 10 percent and nine percent of the population, the proportion of Muslim members of the legislative assembly has fallen to three percent and one percent, respectively, and there are no Muslim ministers.

That simply wouldn’t happen in Singapore. As the Singaporean journalist-turned-academic Cherian George astutely observed: “No Chinese party could do in Singapore what the BJP did in India last year—come to power without a single MP from the country’s largest minority group…. Lee was an unshakeable bulwark against majoritarian tendencies that could have easily overwhelmed Singapore.”

Now consider another Singaporean achievement—its public housing. Independent Singapore had experienced race riots in 1969, and Lee thought grievances would fester in ethnic enclaves. So he required communities to live with each other. Some 80 percent of Singaporeans live in public housing in flats that 95 percent of them own, paid through a mandatory provident fund. Under Singapore’s ethnic integration policy, each housing block had to mirror (more-or-less) the composition of the national population. In 2010, for example, Chinese formed 74.1 percent of the population, Malays 13.4 percent and Indians and others, 12.5 percent. This meant no neighbourhood could have more than 84 percent Chinese, 22 percent Malay, or 12 percent Indians and others, and no individual block could have more than 87 percent Chinese, 25 percent Malay, or 15 percent Indians and others.

Contrast that with the increased ghettoization of urban India, such as the de facto separation of Juhapura from Ahmedabad and Muslims opting to live in exclusively Muslim complexes in other parts of India.

Cherian George writes that an older Indian tradition influenced Lee, “the Nehruvian secular ideal that accommodated minorities…[He] stood resolutely against sectarian politics and majority domination. Among all his core principles, this is the one least talked about abroad. Yet…this may be the single most precious aspect of the legacy.”

Such was the man India honoured.

This article was first published in LiveMint at

Salil Tripathi is an award-winning writer and journalist based in London. He is contributing editor at 'Mint' and 'Caravan' in India. He chairs the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International. He was born in India and has been a foreign correspondent in Singapore and Hong Kong, and has been a correspondent for magazines including 'Far Eastern Economic Review' and 'India Today'. His awards include the Citibank Pan Asia Economic Journalism Award in 1994, Bastiat Prize (third prize) in 2011, and Red Ink Award for Human Rights Journalism in 2015. His books include 'Offence: The Hindu Case' (Seagull, 2009), 'The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy' (Aleph, 2014 and Yale University Press, 2016), and 'Detours: Songs of the Open Road' (Tranquebar, 2015). He is currently working on a book about Gujaratis.


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R Parthasarthy (25 April, 2015) – India
I doubt very much the BJP will ever get it.
Ben Rickers (25 April, 2015) – USA
A controversial person, a giant among Asian statesmen despite the size of his island 'empire' and, despite earning the ire of the West and often being seen as the scourge of journalists and media freedoms, he was a great man and his city has prospered.
Vikram Khanna (17 April, 2015) – Singapore
A very insightful comment and comparison. It's worth adding that Lee Kuan Yew was committed not only to secularism and religious freedom, but also to cultural openness, including to western culture. Fear of so-called cultural imperialism was never an issue in Singapore. Vandalism against the likes of Pizza Hut, McDonalds and purveyors of Valentine's Day merchandise would be unthinkable. Even the old road names have remained unchanged since the era of British rule. At the same time, Asian cultural traditions remain as strong as ever. All of this has helped make Singapore culturally diverse in not only an Asian but also an international sense as well as the most cosmopolitan city in Asia.
There is a lot that the BJP leadership, in particular, can learn from this.
Prabhakar Dutt (12 April, 2015) – India
Very true. The size of Singapore enabled the creation of a state in which communities mingled with ease - or were forced to. India is much larger and more complex. A good point of view.

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