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Even Bruce Lee will find it difficult to turn around a huge ship called India

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Lee is a common word in two people’s names. Both had mesmerized the world in their own way, and unfortunately both are not amongst us today. One with his craft of martial arts and the other with his statecraft. Martial Arts enigma- never to be born again- Bruce Lee (born Lee Jun-fan), died at a very young age of 32 on July 20, 1973.He inspired many to learn this art world over. Lee Kuan Yew the late Prime Minister of Singapore for 31 years, who turned around a city state of marsh land into world’s best place to live in just three decades was another enigma.

Singapore now regularly features somewhere at the top of various lists of countries that are easy to do business, where the rule of law is paramount. Corruption is almost unknown and cleanliness is par excellence. Singapore is not quite a dictatorship, but neither is it a full democracy. Its political system was such that let Lee’s party dominated the country’s polity. In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Lee asserted, “It is not the business of the government to enable the opposition party to overturn us.” World over and the entire populace of this small nation wonders at this wonder of the world called ‘Lee Kuan’. Lee was a brilliant, clear-eyed, far-sighted statesman.

Be as it may, this one man who some called a democratic benevolent dictator, changed the life of 5 (now around 6) million People of Singapore guiding it with a zealous and kind hearted, caring yet a heavy hand. Core of his persona and reason for spectacular success was an unfettered commitment to make his nation great and his people self-sufficient with good standard of living.

 Lee’s premiership especially in the West was described as being semi-authoritarian and as a sort of a hybrid regime or a guided/controlled democracy. Critics accused him of curtailing press freedom, imposing limits on public protests, restricting labor from industrial strike through anti-union legislation, and bringing defamation lawsuits against prominent political opponents. However, others including his own countrymen argue his actions as having been necessary for the country’s early development, and that he was in fact a benevolent dictator. Singapore typically scores high on the rule of law and control of corruption indicators on the World Bank’s worldwide governance indicators.

He was an absolutist, focused, autocrat but never a tyrant and that is the big difference.

Though scores on the World Bank voice and accountability indicators are strikingly low for Singapore- which is obvious. The voice and accountability indicators measure various aspects of the political process, civil liberties and political rights. But for Lee and his people results mattered. ‘No pain no gain’ is the dictum.

He was a man for hundred percent and not an iota less than that. He said ‘I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.’ He couldn’t care less if people criticized him for his strict approach to get things done but he did what was good for his people not accepting anything less than the best. He set very high benchmarks for his team and his people.

His famous quote says it all ‘If you are going to lower me into the grave, and I feel something is wrong, I will get up.’

Singapore followed broad policies that helped them roll back mass poverty, high domestic savings, trade openness, competitive exchange rates, investment in human capital and good infrastructure. Lee was an autocrat who oversaw rapid economic advancement in an impoverished nation that at one time was expected to fall to communism like a row of dominoes and perish.

When he took over per capita income was around $400 and before he died it was $ 50,000. Phew! What is the point in having freedom to shout and create chaos with no food in your stomach?

 He learnt on the go

Lee was a quick learner and keen observer too. He learnt a lot from Nehru’s colossal failures. “It was my good fortune that I had several of these failed economies to warn me of this danger before I was in a position to do any harm in government.” I am sure he must have closely studied different state craft strategies and leadership styles of failed as well as successful world leaders and then created his own leadership template. And I feel that is the best way to go forwards.

He had learnt an invaluable lesson during Japanese occupation – ‘you can’t fill stomachs with liberty, but you can chew up those who use it to oppose you’.

His basic philosophy of running a nation flowed out of this mantra and that is why it was country first, liberty next kind of a stance. Lee was unapologetic about his heavy-handed style of governing, seeing it as a necessary evil to get Singapore to where it got.

He was a great communicator, a great orator.  An incorruptible and one of the most competent leaders the world has ever seen.

For instance for zero tolerance to drugs, he never minced his words. No pussy footing. If you are caught smuggling in drugs there is a steep penalty- often death.

He says “Before you land, the air crew will announce that there are very heavy penalties if you are found with more than certain number of grams of certain prohibited drugs and if you still come in with a few kilos of them, which will destroy hundreds, thousands of families, one death is too kind. Because you are killing that family every day for years and years and years that a daughter or a son is an addict.” He had a stated open logic and his nation endorsed it for the larger good.

My experience tells me that all those successful bureaucrats and armed forces officers who joined private sector at senior positions followed a similar approach. Let me put it this way, every organization is a great learning place especially the ones which are robustly and sensibly structured- like the civil services or the armed forces. But once you change track and land up in an entirely new set up you need to modify your approach to deliver effectively. Those who adapted and re-created their template succeeded and came out with flying colors and the one who applied exactly the same template failed. Even case studies give pointers to solutions to tough problems but those pointers have to be used differently in different condition as each situation is different.

Lee was a deep, yet controversial, thinker, he gave pride of place to civilizational values. Joseph Nye, the Harvard University political scientist described Lee as someone who never stops thinking, never stops looking ahead with larger visions. His views are sought by respected senior statesmen on all continents.”

All policies in Singapore are worth studying closely, even if India doesn’t adopt all of them. We need to map some of these according to our needs, capabilities and constraints.

Lee’s Laws of governance

His basic principles were straight forward and had no frills attached and I think leaders at the top must have this approach if they want things done. For instance your vision and mission statement of a large corporation should be simple and short.

Lee’s cardinal principles of governance were.

  • Lee Insisted that Governance was first and foremost about results
  • Superior Performance Requires Superior Moral Leadership.
  • Leadership entails tough, unpopular decisions.
  • Equal Opportunity For all- meritocracy.
  • For Lee, the essence of a successful society was intense competition on a level playing field that allows each individual to achieve his or her maximum.
  • Discipline and Democracy need to go side by side.
  • The acid test is performance, not promises. The millions you impact do not want to know the theory. They want a better life. They want a more equal, just society.
  •  All companies, from the smallest start-up to the largest MNC, have to have a semi-autocratic way of governing and leading.
  •  People need to understand and get behind the greater good of the company or a country, to believe and to be committed and inspired by the cause, whatever it is.
  • They want their voices heard, to be part of the solution.
  • Not a blind allegiance to the chief executive but to what the nation wants to achieve and how they are going to go about it to reach there.
  •  Leader needs to understand these aspirations of people.
  • The acid test of leadership is your legacy – what you leave behind.
  • Will people in your organization mourn your leaving or will they cheer?
  • Will they say that he built a solid foundation, given a clear direction?
  • Will your countrymen talk about your moral compass?
  • Motivating everyone to do their best work.
  • Create a strong work-ethic and good humor in times of stress.

Advantage Lee

Singapore is a tiny country, half the size of London. It is a large city. Two thirds or more of Singapore’s population comprised of enterprising Chinese migrants, from a Confucian culture accustomed to submitting to authoritarian rule.

Another advantage was that it was not ‘under the scanner’ of world at large. It being a tiny nation, it posed no threat to big powers of the world like the US, Russia or Europe. It had no great role to play per say in World War Two. It got independence only in 1965.

Can Lee’s model work in India?

From 2014, since BJP came to power in India and Mr. Narendra Modi became the PM the country has witnessed palpable change and for the good of the nation. It is not unusual for someone to seek comparison between Modi led India and Lee led Singapore. Here you are not comparing apple to oranges but a pea to a watermelon! The problems and size as well population are entirely different for the two nations. Yet there are ‘cross lessons’ that can be learnt from Singapore and its meteoric rise under Lee Kuan yew.

India has a land mass of 3,287,263 square kilometers whereas Singapore is measly 724.2 square kilometers. A ratio of 1: 4540 which means India is almost five thousand times bigger than Singapore! Populations also are skewed. 6 million to 1400 million. A ratio of 1: 233

75.9% of the population are ethnic Chinese, with ethnic Malays and Indians comprising 15.0% and 7.5% respectively.

India has 28 states and 8 Union territories. Each state having its own Chief executive and lot of executive and legislature independence. Of course both are democracies based on the legacy of the British Empire which ruled both for long periods. India also has to carry the badge of honor of ‘secularism’ which leads to caste vote bank politics and religious bigotry.

It becomes evident that the problems of all developing nations would be similar but complexity of governance differ- largely.

LEE and MODI

Similarities are that both leaders are go getters and hard task masters. For both nation comes first and both are able to take tough decisions, even unpopular ones.

  • Zero tolerance to terrorism has been amply demonstrated by Modi though there are more constraints because of several reasons. Summary disposal of cases is not possible without going through a long judicial process in India. (About which many law abiding Indians complain). Majorly with the sluggish and complex legal system, the freedom of speech and action is far greater than in Singapore. Modi, even if he desires cannot get rid of these as he is bound by the constitution. Lee could have a strict/harshest punishment for drug peddlers because of the smaller and less complex federal structure.
  • Modi government eliminated the middle man- hence corruption- by removing the middle man and replacing him with Electronic communication and direct payment to individual accounts. He opened more than 30 crore bank (50 times the population of Singapore) accounts for people below poverty line which was done in record time! He modified the template!
  • Modi took big ticket decisions like implementing GST- one nation one Tax, demonetization to reduce corruption and even abolishing the article 370 in Kashmir which no one could ever even imagine.
  • Building more than 10 crore or 100 million toilettes in a few years is no joke. It would be like almost building twenty toilets for each Singaporean.
  • He moved on several fronts simultaneously, building roads, skilling India, Entrepreneurship, startup India. (Which was Lee’s focus too).
  • Swatch Bharat – a clean India- campaign was started so that public participation can be leveraged.
  • India missed industrial revolution big time. So Make in India was the way forward.
  • He tightened up Public sector and DRDO which are now slowly but surely improving in performance.

Disadvantage Modi

Scale, size, system, ‘soch’ and ‘show stoppers’ are the biggest challenges for Modi. He inherited a system which worked in an altogether different manner- not to his liking-sluggish, not responsive and bureaucratic. He inherited a culture of ‘saab Chalta hai’.People were used to working or not working at their own pace. He had and still has the task of waking up a sleeping giant!

Opposition though weak is trying its best (in its own ways) to put spanner in the work- there is no constructive opposition. In addition there are vested interests outside of India who do not wish well for India. India they know has a potential of dislodging many big powers of the world- it already is number fifth largest economy in the world. Most Indians feel that we will be on number three on the victory stand soon! So outside forces with internal opposing political parties are a big impediment to national leadership and progress.

India also carries the cross of secular state on its already heavily loaded shoulders.

Modi despite having a parliamentary majority cannot bulldoze like Lee. He cannot lock up people as Lee did. He had to move with judiciary in place, media hammering every day. He had to work with the legacy system of bureaucrats who are seasoned guys and masters of the system they so cleverly created.

Size and scale being huge (hundreds of times of Singapore) there was a problem of inertia. If Singapore was a Kawasaki motor bike, India is a Titanic ship or a huge multi wheeled truck with a huge trailer attached. Like a BelAZ 75710.The Beast of Belarus -it is the absolute biggest production truck ever made and the statistics are staggering. It has the largest payload at 450 tons and is powered by two, 65-litre diesel engines. It cannot be maneuvered like a motor bike weighing 150 Kilos.

As mentioned earlier Lee was lucky to have 75% population of Chinese lineage ready to submit to authority. In a rowdy democracy like India with people standing left, right or center of human governance philosophy it is difficult to reign in the big bull. As our (National Security Advisor) NSA Mr. Ajit Doval once remarked ‘we have too much of democracy’.

Like Lee Modi also believes in old values, our history and heritage and he has used this to an advantage to uplift the nationalistic feeling, sense of a nation hood. National Pride is a factor which though intangible is the most impactful and tangible parameter of national productivity and progress. Modi has worked hard on this with positive results.

With eight union territories and 28 full-fledged states ‘One Lee’ would not suffice. Modi needs at least 28 Lees with him to get the huge fireball rolling. Yet he has pushed the ball hard which has started moving- may be never to stop.

Let Indians understand that without pain there is no gain and accept it in the larger interest.

Do we want to see India become another Singapore? If yes then we must also say yes to Lee like democracy!

Remember- don’t look for free lunches as there aren’t any.

Also remember Legacy of a generation is also accountable when history is written. Which side you stand matters. And Now.

All I can say is ‘God bless India, give us more Modis and Lees’ and let good sense prevail upon us.

Virender Kapoor
Virender Kapoor
Virender is an Indian who wears many hats. An educationist of repute, Masters in Computer Science from IIT Bombay, he also holds an MA in International relations. He was the Director of a prestigious management Institute under the Symbiosis umbrella. He has emerged as a leading think tank in human behavior, motivation and success. As a celebrity author, his name appears with the likes of Thomas Friedman and Dale Carnegie. His books are now available in eight regional and foreign languages like Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati ,Telegu , Malayalam , Tamil, Punjabi and Vietnamese He has authored more than 36 books as of now which are on Amazon worldwide and several of his books are in the pipeline.

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