Thursday, April 22, 2010

Travling from first world to third world and back again

“From Third World to First” is the title former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew chose for the second volume of his autobiography. The label could also be applied to my journey, last sunday, from Sri Lanka to Singapore. There is something meaningful to be said about contrasts between the two countries, the one - Sri Lanka - that was long viewed as Asia’s most promising development success story and the other - Singapore - that from unpromising beginnings successfully made the transition “From Third World to First.” ...But what??

Next Tuesday, I am committed to giving a fairly major address on this topic under the auspices of The National University of Singapore’s new Global Asia Institute. Here is the abstract I wrote describing this talk: entitled “Looking beyond the war: Are Sri Lanka’s leaders more likely to learn from history or repeat it?” shortly before my departure to Colombo:

What are the prospects for reconciliation and a lasting political solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, following the government’s military victory over the LTTE and then Mahinda Rajapaksa’s strong victory in the recent presidential election? This question is now engaging Sri Lankan political leaders as well as regional and international actors who concern themselves with Sri Lanka. In seeking answers, it will be useful to focus attention on the period before Sri Lanka’s conflict became protracted; before Sri Lanka’s government faced a cohesive, well lead militant group that was unwaveringly single-minded in its objectives.

Under three previous Sri Lankan governments, following elections in 1956, 1970 and 1977, there were lost opportunities to move toward communal reconciliation. Following decisive victories, the policies each government implemented lead, rather, to intensified confrontation accompanied by violence. Each sequence of events made it more likely that the next would catalyze formation of a viable militant movement, leading to protracted conflict. Between 1983 and 1985, that was the outcome. Now Sri Lanka’s government and civil society once again face circumstances where the Tamil community’s aspirations are not irrevocably (if unwillingly) tied to the LTTE’s agenda. There is an opportunity to learn from history rather than repeating it. Does Singapore’s less violent and more prosperous development trajectory also have lessons to offer?

But what - really - are the lessons that Singapore has to offer? My problem is that, after twenty-two years studying, and many months living in Sri Lanka during more that 40 sojourns ranging from a year, to several months, to short drop-ins, of a week or so, I can quickly adapt to the realities of Sri Lankan life, one facet of which is that many systems of “developed” countries - busses, taxis, public spaces, public water supplies, internet service, and more - simply don’t work very well. Because years of practice has enabled me to accept these inconveniences, I sometimes almost celebrate them. When I automatically remember to have boiled water on hand for brushing my teeth, to take my Malaria pills, to be careful of what I eat, to apply citronella before turning in, surround my bed with mosquito netting, enjoy cold showers, and much more, I feel as if I had “come home.” I experience little or no frustration. In fact, I love living in Sri Lanka, as I have come to love living in Singapore. But they are totally different life experiences.

When I returned to Singapore, I landed at an airport with forty or more planes from international carriers lined up at terminal gates. In Colombo, there were two, both Sri Lankan Air Lines. Flying over the Island as we made our approach, I saw more than 100 ships, either anchored, or transiting in out of the port. I cleared customs and immigration in 10 minutes. My baggage arrived soon afterwards and there was a customer service agent standing by the carrel, ready to help solve any problems. There is no waiting at the taxi queue and the driver as familiar with my destination. The drive to my apartment was on uncongested tree lined freeways, with orchids blooming in flower boxes lining the flyovers. I had the option of air conditioning in my apartment (mostly I don’t use it) and could brush my teeth with tap water. In Singapore, these simple amenities could almost be taken for granted, if one had not learned to live comfortably with the "reality" that having them was, very likely, impossible.

In four days, I must stand up before an international audience and say something intelligent about Sri Lanka’s future, and lessons that Singapore may have to offer. I have spoken on this topic before, but not soon after a trip that so sharply etched contrasts between the two nations and societies. No doubt useful insights will jell between now and next Tuesday, mid-day. But to say something that makes a difference will require some hard thinking and perhaps some hard praying as well.

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