Friday, November 28, 2008

Why I left Sri Lanka for Singapore

Nov 28, 2008

Sharmila Gunasingham is the daughter of C. Gunasingham, who was Sri Lanka's High Commissioner to Singapore between 1979 and 1983. She became a Singapore citizen in 1985, a decision which owed much to her father's strong admiration for Singapore.

By Lee Siew Hua

MS SHARMILA Gunasingham, of Sri Lankan origin, lives today in a 'house of debate' in Singapore.

The youthful-looking lawyer enjoys lively contests of ideas with young Singaporeans, sometimes till 4am.

These are the friends of her son and daughter, both new graduates of British universities.

Their debates often centre on one controversial issue: the political choices Singapore's leaders made in building the island-state from the ground up.

The issue is one close to her heart because the country of her parents, Sri Lanka, and her own chosen country, Singapore, started out very similarly, but are today worlds apart.

Both were former British colonies, with ethnically diverse populations. When Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known, was given independence in 1948, it was to have been a model for other Commonwealth countries to follow.

Unfortunately, it failed to live up to expectations. Instead of preserving English as the language of administration, the new government chose Sinhalese, the language of the dominant ethnic group which formed three-quarters of the population, as the sole official language of the country.

It also chose Buddhism, the religion of the Sinhalese, as the state religion, where previously, there was none.

Together with other discriminatory policies against the Tamil minority, the result was a civil war between Tamil rebels and the Sinhalese government that rages to this day.

Ms Gunasingham's late father C. Gunasingham, was High Commissioner to Singapore between 1979 and 1983. He was an ardent admirer of the city-state, and spoke often with his young daughter and two sons about 'the fatal mistakes that Singapore did not make'.

The young Sharmila spent many of her growing up years in Washington and London. She grew up Americanised, pledging allegiance to the United States flag in school every morning.

But her parents soon realised she was getting estranged from her Indian culture, and decided that their bubblegum-chewing daughter should learn classical Indian dance.

Their hope was that she would be, in the words of her father, 'at home as much with the Nine Symphonies of Beethoven as with the Five Melodies of Sri Tyagarajah, a great Tamil saint'.

While still a student in London University, where she did her law studies, she entered into an arranged marriage to a fellow Tamil. She was 20 then.

Her father, whom she describes as a beloved friend and mentor, later persuaded her to leave London and make Singapore her home.

Highlighting Singapore's meritocracy, he told her she could rise faster in her career here than in London, as a female from a minority community. Here, she could also have children without sacrificing her career.

He was right. After four years in a major law firm with Chinese senior partners at the helm, she was made a partner along with two male Chinese colleagues.

'The difference in my case was that I was a female from a minority community who was also in full-term pregnancy,' she says, adding that 'whatever my learned colleagues in the West might say about equal opportunities, I doubt that I would have made it to partnership so quickly and that too whilst pregnant, if I had been in a law firm in their part of the world at that time'.

By 1985, she had taken up Singapore citizenship.

Today, she heads Global Law Alliance, a boutique corporate law firm that represents global financial institutions and international companies.

On Sept 16, she was moved to write a letter to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew after reading from the newspapers that he had kept a commitment to address the Global UBS Philanthropy Forum, despite being warded for an atrial flutter.

In her letter, she compared the political fates of Sri Lanka and Singapore. Based on the sad journey of Sri Lanka which was once a British gem, and her own fulfilled dreams in Singapore, she wrote that she had come to greatly respect Singapore's form of democracy.

She elaborated on her thoughts in an e-mail interview with Insight. (See separate story.)

By speaking up, she feels she has the courage to be honest and is not a 'sycophant' or 'spokesman' for the People's Action Party (PAP).

'We need to demonstrate an appreciation for our leaders,' she maintains, citing a Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar who asked, 'What has learning profited a man, if he cannot demonstrate respect for good and exemplary leadership?'

Asked about her hopes for Singapore and if anything here perturbs her, she replies: 'Our human values also need to reflect that money breeds envy and very often, trouble.'

In this light, she feels the PAP's measures of success should not be quantified in financial accolades alone.

After all, growth fluctuates, based on what is happening in the global economy.

The real work of the Government, she continues, must be weighed with realistic measures: long-term stability, social justice, racial harmony, personal safety for citizens, good education and upliftment of the disadvantaged.

Also count infrastructure, health care and being able to 'preserve the accumulated reserves built up over the years by competent leaders who were able to steer the economy through its ups and downs', she adds.

For her, these are the achievements that matter and the values to be instilled in young people, 'so that success is not quantified by material gains, including the value of one's property'.

This is one lesson she shares with her children, who have travelled extensively with her and witnessed abject poverty in India and Sri Lanka, and encountered London's homeless.

'I have taught them as much as possible about learning to see beyond 'the self' and material gratification.'

And their idealistic friends with whom she has spent long hours debating issues of freedom and political leadership?

Rather than lamenting the lack of liberal democracy, she suggests, 'our youth should be channelled to focus on the competitive advantages that they are going to enjoy in what has been called the 'New Asian Hemisphere',' by Professor Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. That 'hemisphere' includes China, India, Singapore and the Middle East.

She believes our youth will 'out-perform' Western counterparts.

She is delighted that today, the friends of her offspring agree with her that 'Singapore's strength has been its style of leadership'.

Her house of debate may have opened a couple of doors in young minds.

Nov 28, 2008

'He had been to Singapore in the late 50s/early 60s and thought it was a country with no future'

'WHEN he served in London in the High Commission (1975-1978), there was some jealousy that as a Tamil from a minority community, he continued to hold high positions in choice postings.

A vicious and false rumour started to spread that he was a sympathiser of the Tamil Tiger movement. President J.R. Jayewardene, Sri Lanka's first executive president, who posted him to London, decided that my father's name should be cleared by having a Criminal Investigation Department (CID) team from Sri Lanka visit London to conduct investigations.

I, as a law student, felt the injustice of it all and realised the price my father had to pay for representing a country with ethnic problems.

I saw him through those painful days when he was under investigation and he was finally exonerated by the CID team as being completely innocent.

It was interesting that everyone at the High Commission who was interviewed in the course of the investigations, be they Sinhalese or Tamils, proclaimed his innocence.

I remember, in particular, that the non-professional staff like the peons and cleaners, to whom he had always shown kindness, were most vociferous in their defence of him...

Throughout his tenure as High Commissioner to Singapore (1979-1983), my father was not only amazed but also profoundly influenced by Singapore's transformation and its rapid pace of development from a city state with no resources to a modern metropolis with its well- developed infrastructure, cosmopolitan environment and good governance.

He had been to Singapore in the late 1950s/early 1960s and thought it was a country with no future...

My father's appreciation for Singapore's style of leadership, which he witnessed during his days as High Commissioner and which he imparted to me in letters he wrote to me, centred on Singapore's ability to achieve political stability through the sheer political will of its leaders, like Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who was prime minister at that time.

Despite Singapore having a majority Chinese race, the policies that had been implemented by its leadership, he said, had led to social cohesion by promoting racial and religious harmony in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic country like Singapore. Having achieved political stability, Singapore was able to focus on economic development, adopt open-door policies towards foreign investment, develop its infrastructure, its position as a financial centre and a regional hub.

In contrast, he said, other countries were grappling with the lack of political stability, protectionism in economic policies, exchange controls, and trade union strikes, which were notably absent in Singapore because the Government and trade unions were in basic agreement on economic objectives. Above all, he valued Singapore's corruption-free style of government...

Race riots break out

IN 1983, shortly after my father's return to Sri Lanka, racial riots broke out in Sri Lanka. As he was now Economic Adviser to the President, he was a high-ranking public servant from the minority Tamil community, and therefore a target of attack for the Sinhalese mobs that were burning down the homes of the Tamils.

I was deeply concerned for his and my mother's safety but, just before the thugs and looters could reach his home, he and my mother were removed to the residence of the President by the presidential guards, and he remained there until the rioting stopped and the nationwide curfew lifted.

My parents were the exception; they had the protection of the President himself. But the Tamil masses did not enjoy the same privileges. As the rioting continued, Tamils were fleeing for their lives from their attackers, and many from their burning homes, taking nothing with them but the clothes they wore.

They fled to any safe port, had little idea where they were headed, or what fate might have in store for them. They had lost their livelihoods, their homes, their possessions and would have to start life all over again from scratch in faraway lands like Canada, Europe, the United States and Australia.

Many of the Tamils who fled Sri Lanka had experienced the first outbreak of racial riots in 1958, again stage-managed by politicians.

These tragedies had a profound effect on me and my family in Singapore (including my two children), in our attitude to political leadership.

My father was deeply pained. As economic adviser, he was responsible for reviewing and recommending to the President foreign investment proposals and helping to open up the economy. His vision for Sri Lanka, a country blessed in many ways, was, however, not to be because in the absence of political stability, there was no hope of Sri Lanka realising its economic potential.

In an interview on Singapore television in August 1987, he said: 'In multi-ethnic societies, fundamentalism, sectarianism, politics of race, language, class, religion will destroy the foundations of any country.

'Had we (in Sri Lanka) had less reckless politics, we might have solved the problem of bringing about national cohesion and statehood, comprising different communities who did not know a common statehood before, except the colonial unification. There is nothing wrong with religion, there is nothing wrong with politics. But when they get mixed up, then we are in trouble, we are really in trouble.'

A crescendo of hate

HE ALSO pointed out that Western-style liberal democracy and irresponsible press reporting in Sri Lanka had a damaging effect on the country.

In communal riots, he said, 'you do something on one side of the communal fence, then they do something on the other side of the communal fence, then you do something on this side of the communal fence, then they do something else'. So action and reaction till 'we reached a crescendo of hate between communities who have lived together and still live together'.

The press, in such situations, he said, became the key battleground in the conflict by reporting these reactive factors which came into play.

The newspapers in Sri Lanka also decided to write a malicious and false story about my brother, Dr Hari Gunasingham, being expelled from Singapore for arms dealings. With a first class honours as well as a doctorate from Imperial College, London, this brother of mine is a gentle soul and a brilliant scientist. In fact, he was the recipient of an award as the Young National Scientist of Singapore in 1988, and he too gave up his home in London to become a Singaporean.

I was made to understand that the Sri Lankan newspaper allegations about my brother were an attempt to embarrass President Jayewardene since he had appointed my father, a Tamil, to such a high-ranking position as his economic adviser, and here was the economic adviser's son running riot.

Despite all the sensationalised publicity, my father decided to sue the newspapers. He fought it out in the Sri Lankan courts for 10 years while remaining in his position as Economic Adviser to the President.

The great thing that also comes with some South Asian democracies is the protracted nature of their court proceedings. I attended many of the court sessions and was quite horrified when my father walked in and the lawyers for the newspapers attacked him in open court as the great presidential adviser whose son was an arms dealer and had been expelled from Singapore.

Our lawyer, who was a Queen's Counsel, was a class act and he bashed the newspapers in a way that I had never witnessed in my life. My father and brother not only won their case against the newspapers, but the newspapers also had to issue a public apology. I learnt from my father through this experience the value of being courageous when it comes to standing up for one's principles.

At the end of his tenure as economic adviser, I influenced my father to give up political life in Sri Lanka as it had taken its toll on his health, and asked him and my mother to return to Singapore to live with me. He agreed to do so and to become a permanent resident of Singapore, but felt he should not take up Singapore citizenship, given the offices he had held.

He was a rare breed. Those years in Singapore, he said, were the happiest years of his life. He joined a think-tank and was a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. He immersed himself deeply in political ideology and left with me shortly before his death his final conclusions on political leadership, including the mistakes that Sri Lanka had made and those that Singapore had avoided and should continue to avoid.

I can summarise these as follows:


Singapore and Sri Lanka are both island nations and former British colonies. When the British left Singapore, it was fortunate to have visionary leaders like Mr Lee, who kept the use of English as the language of administration rather than encouraging nationalistic sentiments by imposing the language of the majority on the minorities.

The English-language policy enabled generations of Singaporeans not only to have a competitive advantage in the global economy, but was also sensitive to the feelings of the minorities in Singapore by not imposing the language of the majority on them.

By contrast, although Sri Lanka had very outstanding people with regard to their English education, and their ability to speak and write English was excellent, after 1956, legislation was passed to make Sinhalese, the language of the majority, the sole official language in Sri Lanka.

This resulted in the next generation of Sri Lankans having barely a second-language knowledge of English, and created a chasm between the Sinhalese and the Tamil people.


If there are no strong curbs placed on attempts to politicise race, religion, language, class or chauvinism by politicians or the press, the foundations of a civic society will be destroyed.

Although there were sensitive ethnic issues in Singapore, which nestled between countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, and Singapore had experienced racial riots in the 1960s, the Singapore leadership was careful to keep the Pandora's box shut by not pandering to its majority Chinese race to win votes.

In contrast, the leaders of Sri Lanka, who had forged multiracial unity in opposition to the British until their independence, resorted to racial tactics supporting the majority Sinhalese for the sake of seizing political power.

I recall my father recounting the story of Mr Bandaranaike, who was born Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike in a highly Westernised Sinhalese Christian family that held positions of authority under British rule, and then changed his reference to S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and his religion to Buddhism, discarded the Western dress of the elite and campaigned on political issues favourable to the Sinhalese.

He opened the Pandora's box by making Sinhalese - the language of the majority - the sole official language of the country, and Buddhism the state religion. This resulted in resentment from the Tamil minority and incited racial tension.

It was not only the minority Tamils who were traumatised by the sheer madness of civil disobedience in Sri Lanka; the mayhem unsettled even those among the Sinhalese who were peace-loving. It was also the start of the continuing exodus of Sri Lankans of all races from what was once a peaceful country regarded as a paradise and the 'Pearl of the Indian Ocean'.


Singapore's leadership continued to display the political will that was needed to uphold meritocracy and multi- culturalism, and avoided passing legislation that discriminated against the minorities.

In contrast, my father said, in Sri Lanka, after Mr Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Sinhalese Buddhist priest, who felt that he had not gone far enough, his widow, Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who succeeded him, went further by introducing a system of quotas for each ethnic group. In effect, this meant that students from the Tamil medium had to obtain higher marks than their Sinhalese counterparts to enter university.

This resulted in disappointed Tamil youth resorting to militancy, and led to the terrorist movement that Sri Lanka continues to face today. Regrettably, in my father's view, successive leaders of Sri Lanka have not had the political will to resolve the ethnic conflict through a political solution.


Singapore inherited and kept great British traditions, including the rule of law, good governance, the incorruptibility of public institutions and the sense of fair play. In other instances, Singapore's leadership had to adapt its model to suit Singapore's circumstances.

My father argued vehemently with his Western counterparts who criticised Singapore for what they thought was the lack of Western-style liberal democracy. It may be true, he said, that 'Singapore is a one-party state, but it still delivers the objects of democracy'.

For one thing, he felt, its leadership is the closest example one has anywhere to 'an intelligent, foresightful, self-correcting, self-renewing, self-regulating model which is politically, socially, culturally sensitive, and has in-built mechanisms for sounding public opinion and for social engineering'.

For another, its strong no-nonsense leadership style, far from being despotic or authoritarian, makes leadership 'the main catalyst of change, a factor in the making of events, a force that has enabled Singaporeans to engage the future, perhaps even ahead of their own readiness to do so'.


He pointed out to me often that Western critics of Singapore's form of democracy conveniently forget to tell us the dismal stories of democracies, 'where multi-party struggles in a representative system with a wide franchise make leaders prisoners of politics, where political will and courage are eroded and divisive issues are brought to the centre of political debate', not forgetting as well 'the sleaze, corruption, graft, fraud, money politics and abuse of power' which had become part of their permissive culture. No tyranny, he said, is worse than such democratic ones.

The divisive, adversarial style adopted in multi-party politics used to bug my father no end. He believed that national interests must prevail over party politics, which was not often the case in Sri Lanka.

My father died in Singapore in February 1997. Apart from the anguish that I felt in losing my best friend and mentor, I was sad that fate had given him just five years of happiness in Singapore, where he was truly fulfilled in his work and derived much joy in sharing my experiences and in helping to bring up my two children, who were profoundly influenced by him.'

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