“How Ceylon/Sri Lanka Mishandled the Tamils” in the words of The Great Lee Kuan Yew

A political solution was the only way, one considered fair by the Tamils and the rest of the world.

Compiled by Ananth Palakidnar

The founding father of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew will be laid to rest today. He had first travelled to Sri Lanka in 1956and remembered his stay at the Galle Face Hotel in his autobiography ‘The Singapore Story’. During his stay in Colombo he had dined with S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and also played golf with Dudley Senanyake. He remembered interacting with Sirimavo Bandaranaike and described the world’s first woman Prime Minister as a tough person. Lee had also visited the University of Peradeniya and played golf in Nuwara Eliya staying at ‘The Lodge’, the official residence of former British Governors.

The following are excerpts from ‘The Singapore Story’:


My fist visit to Sri Lanka was in April 1956 on my way to London. I stayed at the Galle Face Hotel, their premier British-era hotel by the sea. I walked around the city of Colombo, impressed by the public buildings, many with stone facing undamaged by war. Because Mountbatten had based his Southeast Asia Command in Kandy, Ceylon had more resources and better infrastructure than Singapore.

That same year, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike won the election as leader of the new Sri Lanka Freedom Party and became Prime Minister. He had promised to make Sinhala the national language and Buddhism the national religion. He was a brown “pukka sahib”, English-educated and born a Christian, he had decided on nativism and converted to Buddhism, and had become a champion of the Sinhala language. It was the start of the unravelling of Ceylon.


Singapore’s then Chief Minister, Lim Yew Hock, invited me to meet him at dinner. A dapper little man, well-dressed and articulate, Bandaranaike was elated at having obtained an election mandate from the Sinhalese majority to make Ceylon a more nativist society. It was a reaction against the “Brown Sahib” society – the political elite who on inheriting power had modelled themselves on the British, including their lifestyle. Sir John Kotelawala, the Prime Minister whom Bandaranaike succeeded, went horse riding every morning.

Bandaranaike did not seem troubled that the Tamils and other minorities would be at a disadvantage now that Sinhala was the national language, or by the unease of the Hindu Tamils, the Muslim Moors and the Christian Burghers (descendants of Dutch and natives) at the elevated status of Buddhism as the national religion. He had been President of the Oxford Union and he spoke as if he was still in the Oxford Union debating society. I was not surprised when, three years later, he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk. I thought it ironic that a Buddhist monk, dissatisfied with the country’s slow rate of progress in making Buddhism the national religion, should have done it.


In the election that followed, his widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became Prime Minister on the sympathy vote. She proved to be a less voluble but much tougher leader. When I met her in Ceylon in August 1970 she was a determined woman who believed in the non-aligned ideology. Ceylon favoured the withdrawal of all US troops from South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and a nuclear weapons free zone in the Indian Ocean, free of big power conflicts. As a younger man, I patiently explained my different foreign policy objectives, that Singapore would be gravely threatened if South Vietnam was to fall into the hands of the communists, threatening Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. The insurgency would spread into Malaysia, with serious consequences for Singapore.

Her nephew, Felix Bandaranaike, was her eminence grise on international affairs. Bright but not profound, he claimed good fortune of geography and history had blessed Ceylon with peace and security so that only 2.5 per cent of its budget was spent on defence. I wonder what he would have said in the late 1980s when more than half its budget went into arms and the defence forces to crush the Tamil rebellion.

Ceylon was Britain’s model Commonwealth country. It had been carefully prepared for independence. After the war, it was a good middle sized country with fewer than 10 million people. It had a relatively good standard of education, with two universities of high quality in Colombo and Kandy teaching in English, a civil service largely of locals, and experience in representative government starting with city council elections in the 1930s. When Ceylon gained independence in 1948, it was the classic model of gradual evolution to independence.

Alas, it did not work out. During my visits over the years, I watched a promising country go to waste. One-man-one-vote did not solve a basic problem. The majority of some eight million Sinhalese could always outvote the two million Tamils who had been disadvantaged by the switch from English to Sinhala as the official language. From having no official religion, the Sinhalese made Buddhism their national religion. As Hindus, the Tamils felt dispossessed

Golf with Dudley

In October 1966, on my way back from a Prime Ministers’ conference in London, I visited Colombo to meet Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake. He was a gentle if resigned and fatalistic elderly man. When we played golf at the Royal Colombo Golf Course, he apologised for the encroaching squatter huts and the goats and cows on the fairways. He said it was inevitable with democracy and elections; he could not justify keeping these green open spaces in the centre of the city. He sent me by train to Nuwara Eliya, their once beautiful hill station. It was a most instructive lesson on what had happened after independence. The food on the train (in a special carriage) was poisonous. The crab was badly contaminated and stank. I went immediately to the toilet and spewed it all out.

This saved me. In Nuwara Eliya, I stayed at the Former British Governor’s hill residence, ‘The Lodge’. It was dilapidated. Once upon a time it must have been well-maintained, with roses (still some left) in the garden that looked like an English woodland. About 5,000 feet above sea level, it was pleasantly cool. I played golf on a once beautiful course; like the one in Colombo, this also was encroached upon by huts, goats and cows.

At dinner, a wise and sad-looking elderly Sinhalese explained that what had happened was inevitable with popular elections. The Sinhalese wanted to be the dominant race; they wanted to take over from the British as managers in the tea and coconut plantations, and from the Tamils who were the senior civil servants. They had to go through this tragedy of making Sinhala the official language for which they had paid dearly, translating everything from English into Sinhala and Tamil, a slow and unwieldy process. The universities taught in three languages: Sinhala to the majority, Tamil to Tamils, and English to the Burghers.

Visit to Kandy

At the university in Kandy I had asked the Vice-Chancellor how three different engineers educated in three languages collaborated in building one bridge. He was a Burgher, and wore a Cambridge University tie so that I would recognize he had a proper PhD. He replied, “That Sir is a political question for the ministers to answer.” I asked about the books. He replied that basic textbooks were translated from English into Sinhala and Tamil, always three to four editions late by the time they were printed.

The tea plantations were in a deplorable condition. The locals who had been promoted were not as good supervisors as their British predecessors. Without strict discipline, the tea pluckers were picking not only young shoots but also full-grown leaves which would not brew good tea. Their coconut plantations had also suffered. It was, said the old Sinhalese, the price people had to pay to learn how to run the country.

I did not visit Ceylon for many years, not until I had met their newly elected President Junius Richard Jeyewardene in 1978 at a CHOGM Conference in Sydney. In 1972 Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike had already changed the country’s name, Ceylon, to Sri Lanka, and made it a republic. The changes did not improve the fortunes of the country. Its tea is still sold as ‘Ceylon’ tea.

Like Solomon Bandaranaike, Jayewardene was born a Christian, converted to Buddhism and embraced nativism to identify himself with the people. In his 70-odd years, he had been through the ups and downs of politics, more downs than ups, and become philosophical in his acceptance of lowered targets. He wanted to move away from Sri Lanka’s socialist policies that had bankrupted it. After meeting me in Sydney, he came to Singapore, he said, to involve us in its development.

I was impressed by his practical approach and was persuaded to visit Sri Lanka in April 1978. He said he would offer autonomy to the Tamils. I did not realize that he could not give way on the supremacy of the Sinhalese over the Tamils, which was to lead to civil war in 1983 and destroy any hope of a prosperous Sri Lanka for many years, if not generations.

He had some weaknesses. He wanted to start an airline because he believed it was a symbol of progress.

Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines employed a good Sri Lankan captain. Would I release him? Of course, but how could an airline pilot run an airline? He wanted Singapore Airlines to help. We did. I advised him that an airline should not be his priority because it required too many talented and good administrators to get an airline off the ground when he needed them for irrigation, agriculture, housing, industrial promotion and development, and so many other projects.

An airline was a glamour project, not of great value for developing Sri Lanka. But he insisted. So we helped him launch it in six months, seconding 80 of Singapore Airlines’ staff for periods from three months to two years, helping them through our worldwide sales representation, setting up overseas offices, training staff, developing training centres and so on. But there was no sound top management. When the pilot, now chairman of the new airline, decided to buy two second-hand aircraft against our advice, we decided to withdraw. Faced with a five-fold expansion of capacity, negative cash flow, lack of trained staff, unreliable services and insufficient passengers, it was bound to fail. And it did.

It was flattering to have Sri Lanka model their country after Singapore. They announced that they would adopt the Singapore-style Area Licensing Scheme to reduce traffic entering the city. But it did not work. They started a housing programme in 1982 based on ours, but there was no adequate financing. They set up a free trade zone only slightly smaller than the area of Singapore which might have taken off but for the Tamil Tigers whose terrorist tactics scared investors away.

The greatest mistake

The greatest mistake Jayewardene made was over the distribution of reclaimed land in the dry zone. With foreign aid, he revived an ancient irrigation scheme based on “tanks” (reservoirs) which could store water brought from the wet-side of the mountains. Unfortunately, he gave the reclaimed land to the Sinhalese, not the Tamils who had historically been the farmers of this dry zone.

Dispossessed and squeezed, they launched the Tamil Tigers. Jayewardene’s private secretary, a Jaffna Tamil loyal to him, told me this was a crucial mistake. The war that followed caused 50,000 deaths and even more casualties, with many leaders assassinated. After more than 15 years, it shows no sign of abating.

Jayewardene retired in 1988, a tired man. He had run out of solutions. R. Premadasa, who succeeded him, was a Sinhalese chauvinist. He wanted the Indian troops out of the country, which was not sensible.

They were doing a nasty job for Sri Lanka. When the Indian troops left, he was in a worse position. He tried to negotiate with the Tamil Tigers and failed. He was not willing to give enough away.

I met him on several occasions in Singapore after he became President and tried to convince him that this conflict could not be solved by force of arms. A political solution was the only way, one considered fair by the Tamils and the rest of the world.

Courtesy: Ceylon Today

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