Lee Kuan-Yew, who led Singapore for three decades, died on March 23rd. He was a remarkable man who is best remembered for courageous leadership that converted a tiny island with virtually no natural resources into one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
This commentary recalls a particular role that he played on the Caribbean’s behalf in the Commonwealth, saving the leaders of the Eastern Caribbean, Barbados and Jamaica from disdain over their invitation to the United States of America to intervene in Grenada in 1983.
But, first it has to be recalled that Lee Kuan-Yew commanded international respect, even envy for making tiny Singapore an economic powerhouse in global terms. He tended to tolerate nothing that would likely disrupt the march toward progress of his tiny country. Small states in the Caribbean and elsewhere are often directed to the “Singapore Model” as a design they should seek to emulate. That, however, is easier said than done.
Nonetheless, it is worth recalling the ingredients Lee utilised to develop his country. A principal and overriding factor was a dominant role for the state – something which International Financial Institutors and Western developed nations discourage in Caribbean countries – indeed, across the Third World.
Even while maintaining a dominant role for the state, Lee actively encouraged foreign investment, recognising, in the beginning, that Singapore lacked the capital and know how to create industries. That is not the situation today, but it was his attitude to social democracy that improved, health, public housing and, vitally, education. The wages and salaries of public servants today match equally payments in the private sector, resulting in public servants whose capacity is every bit as good as the best in the private sector.
Having registered the accomplishments of Lee Kuan-Yew in the development and prosperity of his own country and the respect it earned him in the global community, this commentary records a crucial role he played at the 1983 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting following the US-led intervention in Grenada.
I was privileged to be an Antigua and Barbuda delegate to that Conference under the leadership of then Foreign Minister Lester Bird. The temper of the Meeting, particularly from the leaders of African States, was annoyance with the countries of the Eastern Caribbean, Barbados and Jamaica that had participated with the US in intervening in Grenada after the military coup that had overthrown the government, murdering its Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop, and other leaders.
Condemnatory statements were made by Presidents Robert Mugabe, Julius Nyrere and Kenneth Kaunda of Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zambia respectively. Their governments – and the majority of governments of Commonwealth developing countries – had voted just weeks before at the United Nations General Assembly to condemn the US-led intervention. The Africans vented their distress at Caribbean participation with the US. Julius Nyrere called on the Commonwealth to express its anger. And so it might have done were it not for Lee Kuan Yew.
He explained that Singapore had voted at the UN against the US because its intervention in Grenada had broken a rule and breaking that rule could have “horrendous consequences”. But, he said he had listened to four Caribbean leaders who had spoken before him asking for understanding of their position.
Those leaders were Lester Bird of Antigua and Barbuda, Kennedy Simmonds of St Kitts-Nevis, Eugenia Charles of Dominica and JMG ‘Tom’ Adams of Barbados. Bird had said “when a regime murdered a Prime Minister and was terrorizing its own people, the governments of neighbouring countries with which there was an enduring relationship had a responsibility to act”.
Lee Kuan-Yew told the Conference that despite his condemnation of the US at the UN, which he would do again, “Commonwealth leaders were presented with a paradox”. He described the paradox for his government in the following way: “Singapore voted against the American invasion because of the resulting dangers; it was nonetheless grateful that it took place because there were 110,000 happy Grenadians”.
Each leader knew in his heart, he said, “that the Eastern Caribbean States’ response was right”. He went on to observe that “it would have been much more convenient” if the Caribbean countries had the resources to intervene on their own. The matter, he said, would not have been raised at the Commonwealth Summit “nor would their action have caused great objections in the United Nations” which “would have seen it as an example of the Third World resolving its own problems”.
And he concluded that Commonwealth leaders had not gathered “to put their partners from the Eastern Caribbean in the dock”. “It was necessary to condemn the action in the United Nations because of the dangerous precedents it could create”, but he wanted the Meeting to turn away from recrimination and to come out positively with a proposal to achieve security for island states, and so make a contribution “to international stability and security”.
Not all of the Heads of Government at the Commonwealth Summit would have welcomed Lee Kuan-Yew’s practical and pragmatic intervention, but they recognised the wisdom in it.
Lee Kuan-Yew received a respectful and careful hearing to what was a thoughtful and defining intervention – one which Secretary-General, Shridath Ramphal, developed into a forward-looking statement from the Summit that focussed “on the early return by Commonwealth Caribbean countries to the spirit of fraternity” and to the undertaking of “a study of the special needs of small states consonant with the right to sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Several positive consequences flowed from Lee Kuan-Yew’s statement at the Summit, first it helped to bridge the divide that had occurred between Commonwealth Caribbean countries that had participated with the US in the Grenada intervention and those who had opposed; it led to the first definitive study on the challenges confronting Small States; and it confirmed the value of Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings attended by Heads themselves.
Lee Kuan-Yew should be remembered in the Caribbean for the positive and constructive role he played at the 1983 Commonwealth Summit.
(Note: this commentary is based on personal notes and material released after 30 years)
(Sir Ronald Sanders is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London)