Fascinating article about how Singapore's former leader views conflict, mistakes and Sri Lanka.
Choosing English brought success to Singapore, says Lee Kwan Yew
The mistakes of Sri Lanka and other newly independent 'failed states' made Singapore go in a different direction, its founding prime minister told the International Herald Tribune (IHT) in an interview. Lee Kwan Yew, now minister mentor, said when Singapore broke off from the Malayan Federation it had a hostile neighbour and population made of Chinese, Malays and immigrants from the Indian subcontinent."The basis of a nation just was not there. But the advantage we had was that we became independent late," Lee recalled in a wide ranging interview with the IHT published last week."
In 1965, we had 20 years of examples of failed states. So, we knew what to avoid - racial conflict, linguistic strife, religious conflict. We saw Ceylon."
"Thereafter, we knew that if we embarked on any of these romantic ideas, to revive a mythical past of greatness and culture, we'd be damned."
Lee was prime minister from 1959 to 1990 when he stepped down. Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948.Lee said the team that ran Singapore made a deliberate decision to use English as a working language and not focus on Chinese. At the time Singapore had Chinese, Malay and India schools in separate language mediums.
The British has also set up English schools to produce clerks, storekeepers and teachers. "Had we chosen Chinese, which was our majority language, we would have perished, economically and politically," Lee told the IHT.
"Riots - we've seen Sri Lanka, when they switched from English to Sinhalese and disenfranchised the Tamils and so strife ever after. "We chose - we didn't say it was our national language - we said it was our working language, that everybody learns English whatever language medium school you go to. Which means nobody needs interpretation to read English."
The country's foreign and defence policy was shaped on the realization that it could perhaps only hold out for two weeks against a foreign invasion. While Sri Lanka is still grappling with issues such as exchange rates, inflation and fuel subsidies, and political ideology Singapore is thinking far ahead, even to issues such as the effect of global warning on a low elevation island nation. Earlier this month a retired Thai diplomat, Sompong Sucharitkul, said Singapore opposed the entry of Sri Lanka to Asean when it was founded in 1967 because the country was viewed as unstable. In 1967 Sri Lanka was ruled by Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake in a shaky coalition with the Federal Party. His attempts to solve the ethnic question failed when proposals to devolve power was withdrawn amidst opposition.
Sompong said a discussion was held on August 06 and two ministers from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) were in an adjacent room. "I remember one was an economics minister. He waited there anxiously for a signal to join the discussion; but it never came," Sompong told Thailand's The Nation newspaper.