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The Singapore Way

To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison

by Francis T. Seow
Yale Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 293 pp., $22.00

Dare to Change: An Alternative Vision for Singapore

by Dr. Chee Soon Juan
Singapore Democratic Party, 156 pp., $13.00


I’m no more a Chinese than President Kennedy was an Irishman.”

Lee Kuan Yew in America, 1967

It could have ended like any number of squalid murder cases in Southeast Asia—with an execution and no fuss. In 1991 a Filipina maid called Mrs. Maga was found dead in Singapore with her ward, the small son of a Singaporean-Chinese family. Another Filipina maid was accused of the murders. She was arrested. She confessed. And in March 1995, she was hanged. So ended the life of Flor Contemplacion, one of 100,000 women and girls imported to Singapore from poor countries around the region. Some are sent by local contractors, others are attracted by ads like this, in The Straits Times of Singapore: “No day off. Filipino. $300. Indonesian. Hard-working. $320.”

But the case turned out to be more complicated. Two weeks before Mrs. Contemplacion’s execution, Filipinos protested against the verdict. There were rumors that she had been tortured by the police, that she might be innocent. Demonstrations were held in Manila. The Singaporean flag was burned. The Philippine government asked for a stay of execution, so that possible new evidence could be examined. The request was dismissed and the execution went ahead on schedule. Protest escalated in the Philippines. President Ramos, who was running for election, had lost face, so he recalled his ambassador, and relations between the two Asian countries went sour.

A Philippine commission was appointed to review the evidence. Mrs. Maga, it was alleged, had sustained injuries which a person of Mrs. Contemplacion’s size could not have inflicted. The victim’s body was dug up from its grave, and the commission concluded that she had indeed been severely maltreated; bones appeared to be broken. Singaporean doctors, however, claimed that those injuries had been suffered long before the victim was strangled. Relations grew worse still. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), one of two tiny opposition parties, sent a letter to President Ramos, asking him to consider mediation. The other opposition party, the Workers’ Party (WP), stated that the commission’s findings put the Singapore judicial system on trial.

In May, I attended a session of the Singapore parliament. I had been told that questions would be asked about the handling of the Contemplacion case. Walking up the stairs to the main chamber, I noticed a piece of masonry (a rose) from the palace of Westminster hanging on the wall. It had been donated by the Queen. Like the fine old Singapore Cricket Club, the neoclassical law courts, and the statue of Singapore’s British founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, all within five minutes’ walk, the parliament showed a solid sense of tradition. The opposition, including members nominated by professional associations, sat on one side of the House, and members of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) on the other. The language was in the best parliamentary tradition: “Mr. Speaker, a supplementary question, if you please, Sir…”

What followed, however, was not so much a debate as a piece of parliamentary theater. Two nominated MPs asked the government to explain its refusal to delay Mrs. Contemplacion’s execution. The Foreign Affairs and Law Minister, S. Jayakumar, who had been chatting with another minister all through the question, answered by giving a long speech about the excellence of Singapore’s judiciary and the soundness of the government’s decision. It was all done with the utmost decorum. If anything, there was a stale air of boredom in the house. There was not even a whisper of “hear, hear,” let alone a throaty roar of dissent.

The next day, a Friday, things took a nastier turn. The members of the SDP and WP were taken to task by the Home Affairs Minister, Wong Kan Seng, for aiding “an attempt by outsiders to undermine the Singapore judiciary.” A former secretary general of the SDP, ousted by the present leader, Dr. Chee Soon Juan, expressed his disaffection with his old party by stating:

All Singaporeans, whether they are supporters of the ruling party or the opposition party, have to be loyal to Singapore…. And when there is a dispute with a foreign country, they must close ranks with the ruling party and all Singaporeans and stand united. This is the message that all Singaporeans must give to all the people of other countries.

These words were quoted with approval in The Straits Times. The banner headline in Saturday’s paper read: JUDICIARY HERE CAN STAND UP TO SCRUTINY. Monday’s headline said: MAID ISSUE: GOVT THANKS S’POREANS. The acting Community Development Minister, Abdullah Tarmugi, expressed his gratitude for the public’s support, and added that the “maid case” had made the nation “more cohesive.”

Now, I do not know whether Mrs. Contemplacion was guilty or not. The reaction from the Philippines may simply have been an emotional outburst against the humiliation of being the main provider of low-paid maids for richer countries in the region. But there was something disturbing about these proceedings. Here was a British-style parliament, a democratic institution, being used to conflate patriotism with loyalty to a party, which has never been out of power since 1959. The merest hint of criticism was being treated as a kind of treason. The forms of Westminster, based on political contention, were made to serve the aim of authoritarian rule, to impose absolute unity. But what was most Singaporean of all was the sensitivity to any suggestion that the institutions left behind by the British Empire may now be in less than perfect order.

Such suggestions are being made by Singaporean dissidents as well as by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Its 1991 report on international human rights concluded that “law no longer restrains [Singapore] government actions or protects individual rights.” It went on to say that this “campaign against the rule of law is part of a broader effort by the current Singapore government to secure its hold on power. It parallels a similarly motivated effort to strangle the independent institutions of civil society and thus prevent the emergence of an effective and organized opposition.”1

Since the early 1990s, Singaporean officials, especially the former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who resigned in 1990 after thirty-one years in office, and is now Senior Minister (SM), have been promoting their brand of authoritarian politics as “the Asian way.” So-called Asian values, such as—to quote a 1991 Singapore government White Paper—“nation before community and society above self,” and “consensus instead of contention,” enforced by firm paternalistic government, have resulted in a vaunted combination of economic progress and social discipline. With its glittering high-rise skyline, spotless streets, multinational high-tech industrial parks, rocketing GDP, and obedient population, Singapore looks like the living proof that authoritarianism works, the dream of every strongman in Asia, and beyond.

The economic statistics are indeed impressive: 14 percent growth of the gross national product during the 1970s, and around 7 percent so far in the 1990s. Singaporeans enjoy a standard of living that is second only to Japan’s in Asia. The strategy to achieve this success has been twofold. Domestic business—services, mass media, real estate—is dominated by so-called government-linked companies. These are mainly or entirely owned by the government, which regulates the market, so that private entrepreneurs have a hard time competing. But Singapore is also a tax paradise for multinational companies, an entrepôt for international trade, a center for financial services. Singapore is a profitable place for foreign corporations to have computers and other products assembled. Indeed, the Singapore economy could not survive without these foreign corporations. Singaporeans are also efficient, honest, and relatively free of corruption. Since cowboy brokers, such as Nicholas Leeson, the man who broke the bank of Baring Brothers, are bad for Singapore’s clean reputation, the Singapore courts would love to make an example of this symbol of Western decadence.

One might wonder why spokesmen from tiny Singapore, with its peculiar colonial history, have become the exponents of Asian values. Economic success is not the only explanation. The tininess and the colonial background have much to do with it. It is in new, insecure, racially mixed states, such as Malaysia and Singapore, that you most often hear officials talk about Asia, or Asian values, or the Asian Way. Indeed, the phrase “Asian values” only really makes sense in English. In Chinese, Malay, or Hindi, it would sound odd. Chinese think of themselves as Chinese, and Indians as Indians (or Tamils, or Punjabis). Asia, as a cultural concept, is an official invention to bridge vastly different ethnic populations living in former West European colonies. The “Asian” is a kind of sales gimmick, used for political and commercial public relations. The Japanese promoted a pan-Asian identity during World War II in their effort to develop a broad front against the British, the Americans, and the Dutch.

Promoters of the Asian Way blend culture and politics in a way that is most convenient for political propaganda. George Yeo, Singapore’s information minister, explained why Singaporeans cannot be allowed to have satellite dishes, which would enable them to choose foreign cable television channels: “We must preserve our own sense of place, self and community.”2 What did he mean exactly? Was he worried that decadent Western values would corrupt an Asian sense of self, or that more choice of information would make it harder to impose political censorship? Of course if he believes that Singapore’s sense of self, place, and community is embodied by the PAP government, the question becomes redundant, for then political and cultural identity are the same. This is the “core value,” to use another favorite Singaporean government phrase, of every totalitarian system: you obey your leaders without question, because you are Chinese, or German, or Asian.

Last April, a conference was held in Kuala Lumpur of editors of English-language newspapers in East and Southeast Asia, who spoke about their common concerns. One of the speakers, Florian Coulmas, who teaches linguistics at Chuo University in Tokyo, pointed out that the desire for a common Asian perspective was “most popular among newspaper men from countries where the press is most firmly under government control.” Coulmas also pointed out why:

Instead of allowing the issue of free speech to disturb the spirit of Asian community, the real or alleged differences between Western and Asian views of Asia are highlighted. Rather than decrying censorship, the dependence on the three big Western news agencies, AP, Reuters, and AFP, is portrayed as the greatest evil.3

The first thing that strikes a visitor to Singapore is how Western it looks in comparison to most other cities in Asia. At the beginning of my stay, I had dinner with the son of a former Singapore government official. He was of Indian ancestry. His first language was English. And he was highly educated, partly in America. To save him from more trouble—he has already lost his job as a journalist for writing something mildly critical of the government; old friends no longer speak to him; he is a marked man—I shall not name him. We had Chinese noodles at an open-air restaurant. We gazed at the glass and chrome city across the bay, which could have been a picture on one of those visionary billboards you see in developing countries, showing the glorious future. “There is nothing Asian about Singapore,” he sighed. “It is the most Westernized country in Asia…but also the least free.”

  1. 1

    The Record of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, “The Decline of the Rule of Law in Malaysia and Singapore: Part II—Singapore,” Vol. 46, No. 1 (January/February 1991), p. 17.

  2. 2

    Reported in the International Herald Tribune, July 12, 1995.

  3. 3

    The Japan Times, May 31, 1995.

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