Why I left Sri Lanka for Singapore

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Nov 29 14:13:11 UTC 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

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

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

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.

siewhua at sph.com.sg

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

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

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

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

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

'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

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

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

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

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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