Lee Kuan Yew on PURA

In an article in the Business Line titled “Kalam’s PURA will not work,” Lee Kuan Yew makes the case for urbanization of the population for India to develop.

Singapore, Oct 10: Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Minister Mentor, Singapore, on Friday said the PURA model advocated by the former Indian President, Mr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, will not work in bringing about India’s transformation into a developed country.

Answering a question at a session of ‘PBD Singapore’, he said, “He is a great scientist and a very powerful man. I don’t want to cross swords with him.

“But if you study very carefully how other countries have industrialised and become knowledge economies – Korea, Japan, China and Eastern Europe – you will realise you cannot bring urban amenities to rural areas.

“How can you do it? Where is the manpower? How will you get the best doctors to stay in the rural areas?”

Getting into the area of some “hard headed analysis”, he said one needed to look at the fact that while companies such as Pepsi and Citicorp were headed by Indians, “they are outside India.”

The way to do it, Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, was by rapid urbanisation as Singapore had done it (“we don’t have a single village left in Singapore”), or by planned urbanisation, as China was doing it by moving 10 million villagers to urban areas every year. “Look at Brazil: They are building huge centres, factories for making cars, aeroplanes and all kinds of things.”

Villagers are moving to these centres, he noted.

“If you look at ancient Greece – Socrates and Virgil, were they in the countryside?

“They were in the cities where all services were concentrated.”

(Link thanks to a comment by t.)

As I always argue, Singapore got lucky in the random draw for dictators and drew Lee Kuan Yew; India got unlucky and drew Nehru. (Nehru did not know much but had at least tried to educate himself, though somewhat unsuccessfully. But what he spawned — the whole uneducated khaandaan — would not know which end of a book was the correct end to start from.)

LKY is smart. He understands why urbanization matters. He has practical understanding of it. It’s interesting that Krugman who got the Bank of Sweden Prize in economics (the economics Nobel prize) has done important theoretical work on urbanization.

LKY is also very diplomatic. I like the way he says, “I would not want to cross swords with [Kalam].” Basically he means that it would be an uneven match and it would be unsportsmanlike of LKY to fight Kalam.

I think that Mr APJ Kalam was (and still is) very powerful. His PURA model was flawed from the word go and yet it got a huge amount of press and a lot of attention among the movers and shakers of industry. No one of any importance ever spoke out against it. I did but then my name is nobody. I did develop RISC before PURA came along, though. Here’s a comparison of RISC and PURA (Nov 2006).

RISC and PURA are in some sense diametrically opposed concepts. There is of course a superficial commonality of objective: economic development. But even that superficial commonality disappears once the objective is stated in more details.

PURA’s objective is based on what I would call “village centric development” while RISC is about “urban centric development.” PURA is about distributing economic activity among a group of villages and then connecting these villages so that people are constantly moving from one village to another to get something achieved. (In one version of PURA, I believe they want to connect all villages with bi-directional high speed modern alternative fuel buses — which makes me wonder why not implement PURA in Pune since this metropolis lacks a decent public transportation system.)

RISC concentrates all economic activity of a large number of villages in one location so that it can catalyze economic growth through lowered transaction costs, and economies of scale and scope are achieved. PURA attempts to keep people in 600,000 villages and disperse economic activity around the rural countryside. RISC says that the village as an economic social unit is inherently incompatible with development, and that the rural economy can be helped by urbanizing the population in place. RISC is feasible with limited resources while PURA is only possible if there is about $600 billion spare cash. RISC requires minimal government involvement, while PURA is what can be a license-permit-control-quota bureaucrat’s wet dream.

But once again, it is unsportsmanlike to pitch RISC against PURA.

Let’s get a little more wisdom from LKY. Here’s a bit from a 2005 Der Spiegel interview, “It’s Stupid to be Afraid.” (Thanks t again for the link.)

SPIEGEL: You’ve been the leader of a very successful state for a long time. Returning from your time in China, are you afraid for Singapore’s future?

Mr. Lee: I saw it coming from the late 1980s. Deng Xiaoping started this in 1978. He visited Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in November 1978. I think that visit shocked him because he expected three backward cities. Instead he saw three modern cities and he knew that communism — the politics of the iron rice bowl — did not work. So, at the end of December, he announced his open door policy. He started free trade zones and from there, they extended it and extended it. Now they have joined the WTO and the whole country is a free trade zone.

SPIEGEL: But has China’s success not become dangerous for Singapore?

Mr. Lee: We have watched this transformation and the speed at which it is happening. As many of my people tell me, it’s scary. They learn so fast. Our people set up businesses in Shanghai or Suzhou and they employ Chinese at lower wages than Singapore Chinese. After three years, they say: “Look, I can do that work, I want the same pay.” So it is a very serious challenge for us to move aside and not collide with them. We have to move to areas where they cannot move.

SPIEGEL: Such as?

Mr. Lee: Such as where the rule of law, intellectual property and security of production systems are required, because for them to establish that, it will take 20 to 30 years. We are concentrating on bio medicine, pharmaceuticals and all products requiring protection of intellectual property rights. No pharmaceutical company is going to go have its precious patents disclosed. So that is why they are here in Singapore and not in China.

SPIEGEL: But the Chinese are moving too. They bought parts of IBM and are trying to take over the American oil company Unocal.

Mr. Lee: They are learning. They have learnt takeovers and mergers from the Americans. They know that if they try to sell their computers with a Chinese brand it will take them decades in America, but if they buy IBM, they can inject their technology and low cost into IBM’s brand name, and they will gain access to the market much faster.

SPIEGEL: But how afraid should the West be?

Mr. Lee: It’s stupid to be afraid. It’s going to happen. I console myself this way. Suppose, China had never gone communist in 1949, suppose the Nationalist government had worked with the Americans — China would be the great power in Asia — not Japan, not Korea, not Hong Kong, not Singapore. Because China isolated itself, development took place on the periphery of Asia first.

Further down in the interview, he talks about democracy and why he had to do things differently.

The British came here, never gave me democracy, except when they were about to leave. But I cannot run my system based on their rules. I have to amend it to fit my people’s position. In multiracial societies, you don’t vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion. Supposing I’d run their system here, Malays would vote for Muslims, Indians would vote for Indians, Chinese would vote for Chinese. I would have a constant clash in my Parliament which cannot be resolved because the Chinese majority would always overrule them. So I found a formula that changes that…

People voting for narrow sectarian interests — sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Worse yet, how the politicians do their best in India to divide the population on caste, creed and religious lines just so as to get the vote. The wonders of democracy in India are a marvel to behold. A few days ago I saw a full-page ad in the Times of India which declared proudly what Mayawati had done to privilege Muslims over non-Muslims. It was a blatant display of religious discrimination and a shameful admission of the failure of the Indian political system.

Singapore gets Lee Kuan Yew. India gets Nehru and soon enough will have Mayawati. Makes you want to weep.

Author: Atanu Dey


9 thoughts on “Lee Kuan Yew on PURA”

  1. “Singapore gets Lee Kuan Yew. India gets Nehru and soon enough will have Mayawati. Makes you want to weep.”

    It sure does. It sure does.


  2. In spite of all its faults, democracy is the best option available for India. I can not imagine a dictatorship (however benevolent, smart it might be) keeping India united in post-independence era.


  3. Baransam, not being able to imagine a system of governance better than “democracy” is an admission of personal inadequacy. Don’t confuse that with realty. It is possible that better systems can be designed that are beyond our personal imaginings.


  4. And dictatorship is better than democracy? How so? It’s interesting that you get your undies in a twist over nanny state, but are fine with a pappy dictator.


  5. Democracy or dictatorship we indians have the uncanny ability of messing up whatever we do ,so unless we change our mentality about things , i dont see any form of government being of much use to india.frankly we indians are a third class race who have got a wrong set of morals.India is in deep shit ,certainly says a lot about we indians being “smart and intelligent”


  6. “Baransam, not being able to imagine a system of governance better than “democracy” is an admission of personal inadequacy”

    -> Bang on point. I can not agree more.

    “Don’t confuse that with realty. ”
    -> What is reality? How do you define ‘reality’?

    I could not resist the above comments as I am a big fan of Morpheus. On a serious note and staying on the topic, I chose to believe in the self-sufficient-village centric distributed development model. (My opinion was largely formed by writings of one Amlan Dutta). My ideas shook on reading your (Atanu Dey’s) take on the issue. So thank you Atanu. I am still keeping an open mind on the issue, or as they say “jury is still out”.


  7. Atanu, in the past, you have been very outspoken and come out in the defense of individual on two issues – one was certain rules for taxi drivers, and the other was in response to someone’s comment about elementary education (or rather, going to school) being mandatory. I think you’ll remember.

    It’s not unreasonable to assume that under a dictatorship, certain freedoms of the individual (similar to the two examples above) will be curtailed. So are you assuming that in a dictatorship, you will be on the dictatorial board making decisions for others, rather than have someone else make decisions for *you*? 🙂 🙂

    My point is different from shortcomings of democracy – which I am aware of.


  8. What after LKY is gone?. Is another ‘benevolent’ dictator going to step up to the plate?. I assume a heir will be chosen and he’ll have the great vision of LKY as well.

    I dont believe dictatorship of anykind benevolent or otherwise is anything but a short term idea. A small central govt and freedom for localised decision making is much more stable and sustainable.Of course,for that,the wings of those currently in power will need to be clipped -thats a difficult task.Power usually corrupts.


  9. of all things said and ultimately it is the culture and quality of the people that will decide wether a nation progresses or not .eastern europe successfully transformed itself from communism to market economy without any fuss.


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