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The subtitle of Sunanda Datta-Ray's book reads: "Lee Kuan Yew's Mission India". This is somewhat misleading. For once, a book delivers more than what the cover promises. This book is about Singapore's relations with India, but it ranges much more widely. In effect, it is an account of India's engagement with Southeast Asia since 1947.
Datta-Ray, one of India's most respected journalists, brings to the task a strong historical sensibility, immaculate research and a sparkly prose style. The result is a fascinating, untold story — one that will be of interest to a wide readership. The 350 pages of narrative pass off lightly, though the book could have been trimmed by divesting it of some unnecessary anecdotes and details.
Drawing on extensive interviews with Lee and many others, Datta-Ray takes us chronologically over a large historical terrain. Given Singapore's political and economic trajectory, it is interesting that at the outset, Lee looked upon India as a model for managing the transition from colonialism: in governance, economic development and foreign relations. These were, of course, Lee's "socialist" years. But there was a more personal element to it: his admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru.
Over time, Lee's views on India became more qualified. Two major factors contributed to this change. First, India's laggard economic growth made any serious, meaningful economic cooperation rather difficult. Until the late 1960s, Lee had hoped India would push ahead of China on the economic front. He had always admired India's private corporations. The Tatas, for instance, were invited to set up a pioneering industry in Singapore. Looking back, he feels (characteristically) that it was India's political culture that prevented it from being a "dynamic meritocracy", and thus realising its potential.
Second, India consistently turned down Lee's overtures on defence cooperation. One of Lee's first diplomatic actions after proclaiming independence on August 9, 1965, was to write to Lal Bahadur Shastri, seeking assistance for military training. The letter drew a blank. For one thing, New Delhi was preoccupied with the war with Pakistan. For another, Singapore continued to remain a part of the Anglo-Malayan Defence Treaty — an arrangement that made it impossible for non-aligned India to accede to Lee's request. For a third, India was concerned about the impact on its relationship with Malaysia.
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