In a brand-obsessed world, the self-congratulatory messaging of nations is hard to miss. Singapore, whose Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has been in Delhi this week, calls itself the “heart of Asia”, while Kazakhstan – where this writer was a guest of its government last week – deems itself the “heart of Eurasia.”
On the face of it, it would be impossible to compare a tropical city-state, teetering on the cusp of several oil routes in the Indian Ocean, to the world’s largest land-locked country. Kazakhstan is so big that it shares the Siberian steppe – a vast rolling land where the wind has an identity of its own – with Russia, while part of the south is bounded by the Caspian Sea – at 371,000 sq km the world’s largest lake – with Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Iran and Russia. If you don’t have a compass, you could reach for a map to get your bearings right.
In fact, both Singapore and Kazakhstan have much in common, apart from their marketing campaigns, that is. (If anything, the Indian sub-continent, with its unique diversity of religions, ethnicity, ideologies as well as population, could easily claim to be the “heart” or the “heartbeat” of Asia, except its policy-makers are so busy with much else.) Both have impressive socio-economic indicators and both are managing the transformation from “managed democracies” in an admirable way.
The secret, of course, is control. Singapore’s leadership, and Lee is only the latest in a long line of them, has controlled the dramatic growth of the nation-state in a way that doesn’t destabilise either the instinct to make money nor undermine citizen privileges. Per capita income in Singapore has touched $60,000 in purchasing power parity terms, easily on a par with first-world levels and certainly the highest in Asia. Alongside, good and affordable health care is subsidised, pensions are strictly enforced and public housing has a mixed ethnic character that is mandated by law. Singapore learnt well and hard the lessons from its own race riots in 1964.
In other words, you will never get in Singapore the racial overtones that are omnipresent in a city like Delhi — where Indian Muslims are denied rentals because of their religion and Africans are often treated with the disdain reserved only for those who barely exist. And now that Lee has overseen a partnership with Delhi to create a World Class Skills Centre in which 15,000 Dilliwalas will be trained in everything from electronics to finance, one hopes that the world’s largest democracy will rediscover its secular outlook.
Kazakhstan, interestingly, offers its own couple of lessons in secularism. In Astana, the Kazakh capital, this writer witnessed its President Nursultan Nazarbayev inaugurate the Hazret Sultan mosque on July 6, also his birthday. The scene was littered with women in Burberry scarves as well as short skirts and skimpy tees. The gargantuan white marble complex, built on 17,000 sq m, can hold 8,000 worshippers at one time. (The Jama Masjid in Delhi can hold 25,000 worshippers.) A Turkish construction company took two years to finish the job.
Now Nazarbayev has been president of Kazakhstan for over 20 years, since the Soviet Union broke up in end-1991. The gentleman retains tight control over the state apparatus, but allows the state to auction its enormous natural resources – oil, uranium and rare earths used in everything from space engines and mobile phones – to the highest bidder. China has already built one oil pipeline and is seeking to connect another with the oil farm it has bought out in northern Afghanistan. India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd has a 25 per cent stake in the Satpayev oil field and is hoping to get uranium to power its civil nuclear power plants at home.
Clearly, Nazarbayev has learnt from the Chinese next door, and it’s not hard to fathom why. A large part of Kazakhstan’s 16 million population was on the brink of starvation when the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it the economy. Nazarbayev learnt that the communist model of socialism with Chinese characteristics had to be married to the Buddha’s Middle Path, which meant a certain freedom of religion.
Like the Chinese, national wealth was leveraged to enrich the people — per capita income today is $17,000 in purchasing power parity terms in Kazakhstan. A nominal multi-party system managed successive elections, with Nazarbayev getting over 90 per cent of the vote. Unlike China, though, mosques have mushroomed, as the president ensures that the Salafist influence is kept firmly at bay. At the opening of the Hazret Sultan mosque, Nazarbayev began by saying, in Kazakh and Russian: “We are a tolerant people.”
Religious tolerance has given way to capitalist exuberance in the Astana skyline. What was a barren wasteland in 1997 is now a sculpted glass-and-steel-city, with a glass-and-concrete pyramid, a new theatre complex that looks like the Parthenon and a shopping mall called “Khan Shatir” that resembles a huge “yurt” or nomadic tent.
Certainly, Kazakhstan could learn from tiny Singapore, which believes that India could play its due role in balancing China in Southeast Asia. In Kazakhstan’s hotels, the American and Chinese and Indian oil executives in expensive Italian suits will only stay as long as the oil boom lasts. But by inviting Indian professionals and businessmen to help expand the economy – like Singapore does – Nazarbayev will find he has greater leverage with the Chinese, thereby confirming his own position in the heart of Eurasia.