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
Lee Kuan Yew
Lee Kuan Yew; drawing by David Levine


“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…

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