Fear and Flattery: Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew


When a dictator dies, the world’s leaders are ready to sing his praises. Especially if that dictator’s principal achievements were wealth and power.

President Obama dubbed Lee Kuan Yew “A true giant of history”. “Thanks to his leadership, Singapore is now one of the world’s most prosperous nations, a financial powerhouse” enthused Tony Abbott, Australian Prime Minister. “A lion among leaders” was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s admiring comment.

Lee Kuan Yew manipulated a tiny tropical island into a super-efficient money making machine, with a rich and powerful elite, massive inequality, and himself in total control.

The People’s Action Party (don’t be fooled by the name) has ruled Singapore 56 years. Lee was Prime Minister for the first 31. Stepping aside in 1990, he continued to dominate, even after 2004 when his son Lee Hsieng Loong became leader. I lived in Singapore through the 1980s, when this ruthless manipulator had such a stranglehold that people were afraid of their own thoughts.

News was heavily censored and micromanaged. Broadcast and print media were under tight state control. International publications — if allowed in at all — arrived days or weeks late, with paragraphs and whole pages blacked out. Telephones were replaced with an obligatory new model, and anyone without a phone was now required to have one. Sources within industry and government informed me all the new handsets were bugged. Not only calls, but also conversations in the surrounding space, could be recorded and scrutinized.

Opposition was ruthlessly suppressed. Workers’ Party leader Benjamin Jeyaretnam and chairman Wong Hong Toy were persecuted, tried on trumped-up charges, wrongfully convicted, and fined large sums. Both were jailed, and their assets seized. Jeyaretnam, a lawyer, was barred from Singapore’s Parliament and legal profession. He made an “appeal of last resort” to the British Privy Council, which ruled the men had “suffered a grievous injustice. They have been fined, imprisoned and publicly disgraced for offences of which they were not guilty.” This right of appeal to the highest British court — a feature of several Commonwealth countries — was promptly removed by Lee, who had already abolished jury trials back in 1969. Dictators are not happy when justice gets in their way.

One of the world’s highest death penalty rates was that of Lee’s regime. Another of his favorite punishments, flogging, was administered by a highly skilled martial arts expert to achieve maximum pain and permanent scarring.

Detention without trial was a Singapore specialty. In May and June 1987, 22 people were seized from their homes by night. They were lawyers and theologians, teachers and managers, students and social workers, actors and broadcasters, translators and writers. A few knew each other, most did not. All were accused of a Marxist conspiracy. They were isolated in small cells, unable to communicate and coerced into admissions of guilt. Beatings, bright lights, freezing cold water, threats against their families, sleep deprivation and other torture methods assisted the persuasion process.

What did they do to merit this treatment? Two young women, Wong Souk Yee and Chng Suan Tze, staged theatrical productions to highlight the plight of underpaid and ill-treated migrant workers. Solicitor Teo Soh Lung organized a free legal aid scheme for the poor. Vincent Cheng and Kevin de Souza, employed by Catholic organizations, were likewise trying to help the deprived and marginalized. Who would call these generous acts subversive? A tyrant with a plan to intimidate a nation.

Others, like K.C. Chew and Kenneth Tsang, were business executives who just happened to believe in democracy. Because a handful of the victims worked for the Catholic Church, Singapore’s Archbishop was pressured to close several church organizations and dismiss four priests. A support group of detainees’ friends and relatives was suppressed, and had to meet in secret. Its internal communications were of necessity obscure. “Angels sing to shepherds on Christmas eve” referred to a plan to sing carols by the detention centre, to show the prisoners they were not forgotten.

Detainees were threatened with permanent imprisonment unless they made suitable statements in front of television cameras. All the broadcast “confessions” were obtained under duress, and some were concocted by splicing together separate pieces of film, picked out from lengthy interrogations. Heavy restrictions were placed on those who were released. Some retracted the statements later, and were summarily re-arrested. Lawyers representing the prisoners were also arrested.

Why were these people not charged with an offense? Because there was no offense to charge them with. They had not contravened any of Singapore’s laws. The Internal Security Act allowed for arbitrary detention, renewed every two years, with no trial and no evidence needed. Indications of conspiracy never emerged, and I do not think Lee Kuan Yew himself believed this fiction. He had obsessively harangued the nation about an idiosyncratic set of “Asian values” — chiefly order and discipline — which he contrasted with “western values.” This witch hunt, known as “Operation Spectrum”, was most likely intended to demonstrate that ideas such as equality, justice and human rights, were off-limits. In other words, it was an exercise in state terrorism.

When the last two Spectrum victims were released in 1990, Singapore still held a long-term political prisoner. Chia Thye Poh had been arrested in 1966, shortly after his election to Parliament for the opposition party Barisan Socialis, a forerunner of the Workers’ Party. He was finally freed in 1998, after 34 years of detention without trial. Lee Kuan Yew created wealth, and clung to power. Neither of these achievements is in itself praiseworthy. He used manipulation and exploitation to make money. He used intimidation and injustice to maintain control. Thousands of mourners have “paid their respects” to his body. Perhaps they wanted to appease his malevolent spirit. Now, perhaps, the people of Singapore can reclaim their long lost freedom. But if democratic leaders persist in glorifying dead dictators, it is more likely our western liberties will be removed, rather than those of the east restored.

Mary Taylor is a freelance writer specializing in religion and politics. She lives in London.

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2015


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