from: "From Third World To First - The Singapore Story:
"Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew"
first visit to Sri Lanka was in April 1956 on my way to London.
That same year, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike won the election
as leader of the new Sri Lanka Freedom Party and became prime minister.
had promised to make Sinhalese the national 1anguage and Buddhism the
national religion. He was a brown "pukka sahib" English-educated and born a
Christian; he had decided on nativism and converted to Buddhism, and
had become a champion of the Sinhalese language. It was the start of the
unraveling of Ceylon. A dapper little man, well-dressed and articulate,
Bandaranaike was elated at having obtained an election mandate from
the Sinhalese majority to make Ceylon a more nativist society. It was a
reaction against the "Brown Sahib" society - the political elite who
on inheriting power had modeled themselves on the British, including their lifestyle.
John Kotelawala, the prime minister whom Bandaranaike
succeeded, went horse riding every morning. Bandaranaike did not
seem troubled that the Jaffna Tamils and other minorities would be at a
disadvantage now that Sinhalese was the national language, or by the
unease of the Hindu Tamils, the Muslim Moors and the Christian Burghers
(descendants of Dutch and natives) at the elevated status of Buddhism as the
national religion. He had been president of the Oxford Union and
spoke as if he was still in the Oxford Union debating society. I was
surprised when, three years later, he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk. I
thought it ironic that a Buddhist monk, dissatisfied with the country's slow
rate of progress in making Buddhism the national religion, should have done it.
the election that followed, his widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike,
became prime minister on the sympathy vote. She proved to be a less voluble
but much tougher leader. When I met her in Ceylon in August 1970, she
was a determined woman who believed in the non-aligned ideology. Ceylon
favoured the withdrawal of all US troops from South Vietnam, Laos and
Cambodia, and a Nuclear-Weapons Free Zone in the Indian Ocean, free of big
As a younger man, I patiently explained my different
foreign policy objectives, that Singapore would be gravely threatened if
South Vietnam were to fall into the hands of the communists, threatening
Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. The insurgency would spread into
Malaysia, with serious consequences for Singapore. We could not subscribe to
this high-minded ideology when it had serious consequences for our future.
great powers in the region, China and Japan, would in time expand
their naval build-up.
was Britain's model Commonwealth country. It had been
carefully prepared for independence. After the war, it was a good
middle-size country with fewer than 10 million people. It had a relatively good standard
of education, with 2 universities of high quality, a civil service
largely of locals, and experience in representative government starting with
city council elections in the 1930s.
Ceylon gained independence in 1948, it was the classic model of
gradual evolution to independence.
it did not work out. During my visits over the years, I watched
a promising country go to waste. One-man-one-vote did not solve a
basic problem. The majority of some 8 million Sinhalese could always
outvote the 2 million Jaffna Tamils who had been disadvantaged by the switch
from English to Sinhalese as the official language. From having no
official religion, the Sinhalese made Buddhism their national religion. As
Hindus, the Tamils felt dispossessed.
Oct 1966, on my way back from a prime ministers' conference in
London, I visited Colombo to meet Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake. He was
a gentle if resigned and fatalistic elderly man.
At dinner, a wise and sad-looking elderly Sinhalese explained that
what had happened was inevitable with popular elections. The Sinhalese
wanted to be the dominant race; they wanted to take over from the British as
managers in the tea and coconut plantations, and from the Tamils who were
the senior civil servants. They had to go through this tragedy of making
Sinhalese the official language for which they had paid dearly, translating
everything from English into Sinhalese and Tamil, a slow and unwieldy process.
universities taught in three languages: Sinhalese to the majority,
Tamil to the Jaffna Tamils, and English to the Burghers. At the
university in Kandy I had asked the vice-chancellor how three different
engineers educated in three languages collaborated in building one bridge.
was Burgher, and wore a Cambridge university tie so that I would
recognise he had a proper PhD. He replied, "That, sir, is a political
question for the ministers to answer!" I asked about the books. He replied that
basic textbooks were translated from English into Sinhalese and Tamil,
always three to four editions late by the time they were printed.
tea plantations were in a deplorable condition. The locals who
had been promoted were not as good supervisors as their British predecessors.
strict discipline, the tea pluckers were picking not only
young shoots but also full-grown leaves which would not brew good tea.
coconut plantations had also suffered. It was said the old
Sinhalese, the price people had to pay to learn how to run the country.
did not visit Ceylon for many years, not until I had met their
newly elected prime minister, Junius Richard Jayewardene, in 1978 at a
CHOGRM (British Commonwealth Conference) in Sydney.
1972 Prime Minister Mrs.Bandaranaike had already changed the country's name,
Ceylon, to Sri Lanka, and made it a republic.
The changes did not improve the fortunes of the country. Its tea is still sold as "Ceylon" tea.
Solomon Bandaranaike, Jayewardene was born a Christian,
converted to Buddhism and embraced nativism to identify himself with the people.
his 70-odd years, he had been through the ups and downs of
politics, more downs than ups, and become philosophical in his acceptance of
lowered targets. He wanted to move away from Sri Lanka's socialist policies
that had bankrupted it. After meeting me in Sydney, he came to
Singapore, he said, to involve us in its development. I was impressed by
his practical approach and was persuaded to visit Sri Lanka in April1978. He
said he would offer autonomy to the Tamils in Jaffna. I did not realise
that he could not give way on the supremacy of the Sinhalese over the
Tamils, which was to lead to civil war in 1983 and destroy any hope of a
prosperous Sri Lanka for many years, if not generations.
had some weaknesses. He wanted to start an airline because he
believed it was a symbol of progress. Singapore Airlines (voted as the Best
Airline Year 2000 in the Fortune Magazine's recent issue) employed a good
Lankan captain. Would I release him? Of course, but how could an
airline pilot run an airline? He wanted Singapore Airlines to help. We did.
advised him that an airline should not be his priority because it
required too many talented and good administrators to get an airline off
the ground when he needed them for irrigation, agriculture, housing,
industrial promotion and development, and so many other projects. An
airline was a glamour project, not of great value for developing Sri Lanka. But
he insisted. So we helped him launch it in six months, seconding 80 of
Singapore Airlines' staff for periods from three months to two
years, helping them through our worldwide sales representation, setting
overseas offices, training staff, developing training centres and so on.
there was no sound top management. When the pilot, now chairman of the
new airline, decided to buy two second-hand aircraft against advice, we
decided to withdraw. Faced with a five-fold expansion of capacity,
negative cash flow, lack of trained staff, unreliable services and
insufficient passengers, it was bound to fail. And it did.
was flattering to have Sri Lanka model their country after Singapore.
They started a housing programme in 1982 based on ours, but there
was no adequate financing. They set up a free trade zone only slightly
smaller area than the area of Singapore which might have taken off but for
the Tamil Tigers whose terrorist tactics scared investors away.
greatest mistake Jayewardene made was over the distribution of
reclaimed land in the dry zone. With foreign aid, he revived an
ancient irrigation scheme based on "tanks" (reservoirs), which could store
water from the wet side of the mountains. Unfortunately, he gave there
claimed land to the Sinhalese, not the Tamils who had historically been the
farmers of this dry zone. Dispossessed and squeezed, they launched the Tamil
Tigers. Jayewardene's private secretary, a Jaffna Tamil loyal to him
told me this was a crucial mistake. The war that followed caused 50,000
deaths and even more casualties, with many leaders assassinated. After more
than 15 years, it shows no sign of abating.
Jayewardene retired in 1988, a tired man. He had run out of solutions.
Premadasa, who succeeded him, was a Sinhalese chauvinist.
He wanted the Indian troops out of the country, which was not sensible.
were doing a nasty job for Sri Lanka. When the Indian troops left,
he was in a worse position. He tried to negotiate with the Tamil Tigers and
failed. He was not willing to give enough away.
met him on several occasions in Singapore after he became
president and tried to convince him that this conflict could not be solved
by force of arms. A political solution was the only way, one considered fair by
the Jaffna Tamils and the rest of the world; then the Tamil United
Liberation Front, the moderate constitutional wing of the Tamil home rule
movement, could not reject it. I argued that his objective must be to
deprive the terrorists of popular support by offering the Tamils autonomy to
govern them through the ballot box. He was convinced he could destroy them.
1991 and 1992 he sent the Sri Lankan army to fight major battles
against the Tamil Tigers. They did not succeed. In 1993, at a May Day
Parade, a suicide bomber approached him in a street procession. He and many
others died. His successor, Mrs. Bandaranaike's daughter, President
Chandrika Kumaratunga, tried negotiation and war. She recaptured the Jaffna
peninsula but did not destroy the Tamil Tigers. The fighting goes on.
is sad that the country whose ancient name Serendip has given the English
language the word "serendipity" is now the epitome of conflict, pain, sorrow and hopelessness.