“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.”
As is the case in all newly rich societies, culture in Singapore is less a matter of art than of life style. The Singapore style is marked by Western and Japanese brand names: Swiss watches, Hollywood soap operas, American fast food, European fashions, Muzak, and Japanese cars. Singaporeans listen to Michael Jackson songs and read Sidney Sheldon novels or books on how to succeed in business. All this seems tame enough. Yet the government is worried. For Singaporeans, being highly computer-literate, are also plugged into the Internet. Some have used this as an opportunity to express critical opinions. Some have even made abusive remarks about the Senior Minister. There is a group on the Internet known as “soc.culture.singapore,” which provides a forum for uncensored information about Singapore. The Information Minister has voiced his alarm. The Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) will be used to police the electronic airwaves, he promised. But he added that the “SBA cannot police on its own without the support and cooperation of members of the Singapore cyberspace community.”4
Self-censorship is part of the Singapore life style. The National Arts Council is in charge of making sure that plays put on at local theaters do not “erode the core moral values of society (that is, promote permissive life styles like homosexuality)” or “subvert national security and stability.” Liew Chin Choy, the director of NAC, said that theater groups know “the onus is on them to exercise self-censorship responsibly.” However, some theater groups have said they feel more comfortable leaving things to government censors. As the representative of one group, called Sriwana, put it: “If we go through them, they will take care of things. Then we can be on the safe side.”
In 1987, a twenty-eight-year-old amateur dramatist called Wong Souk Yee found herself on the unsafe side. She had written satirical skits about the Singapore life style, including the treatment of Filipina maids, for a theater group called Third Stage. She was jailed, together with a number of young lawyers and professionals, for being part of a “communist front” and trying “to reach out to and radicalize the public.”
This summer Singapore Cable-Vision (SCV) concluded a deal with CNN and the Turner Network Television & Cartoon Network. Henceforth Singaporeans will be able to watch CNN news, old Hollywood movies, and Disney cartoons, as the SCV chairman put it, “in the comfort of their homes.” I attended a party celebrating this event. It was held at the Hyatt Regency. CNN executives, wearing Mickey Mouse ties, praised their “Singaporean friends.” Waitresses offered up glasses of soft drinks on silver trays. I left early, but not before seeing the CNN representative and the CCV chairman waving at us in the company of two adults dressed up as Tom and Jerry.
There is culture in Singapore with a more local color, but much of it has been destroyed, damaged, or sanitized beyond recognition. Bugis Street, for example, used to be the center of an old Malay, or more precisely, Bugis cultural tradition: transvestism. This had its seamy side, to be sure, but it is a pity that the street had to be demolished, only to be recreated, in a different location, as a kind of tourist mall with food stalls, but without Bugis transvestites. They have not entirely disappeared, however. Some can still be seen, lurking around the big hotels, making eyes at tourists. I asked one of them what life was like in Singapore. He slipped his arm into mine and sighed: “Sooo booring!”
More serious is the linguistic poverty of Singapore. Seventy-six percent of the population is ethnically Chinese. The rest is either of Indian or Malay origin. Most Chinese speak different southern Chinese dialects at home: Hokkien, Cantonese, or Hakka. But this practice has been discouraged by the government since the late 1970s, when the “Speak Mandarin” campaign was launched. Dialects were considered vulgar, the language of market hawkers; Mandarin was the official language of China. And a standard Chinese language was meant to unify the Chinese. So Mandarin was imposed on the mass media, and in public life. Cantonese soap operas from Hong Kong had to be dubbed. People who had never spoken Mandarin in their lives suddenly had to learn. Yet English is now the main medium of instruction in schools and universities. Chinese higher education was curtailed in 1980, when Nanyang University was merged with the English-language University of Singapore. As a result of these measures, few Singaporeans speak any language well. Television announcers and government spokesmen speak painfully correct English or Mandarin in the manner of elocution teachers. But most Singaporeans speak a mixture of English and Chinese slang, or Chinese and English slang, or Malay and English slang, or all of the above.
A Chinese woman named Leena Lim, who runs one of the few decent bookshops in Singapore, lamented the disappearance of Chinese schools. She said nobody buys Chinese books any more. Chinese bookshops have to survive by selling Sidney Sheldon novels, American how-to-succeed-in-business manuals, and Ping-Pong paddles. She said that the only people talking about Asian values are PAP politicians: “After breaking down communities, languages, and cultures, they now want to recreate Asian culture artificially.”
“I’m told [repression] is like making love—it’s always easier the second time.”
—Lee Kuan Yew, October 1956
The story of Singapore is, in many ways, the story of Lee Kuan Yew himself. So much in the state was shaped in his image. One way of explaining Lee is to look at his enemies. He began his political career as a fighter against British colonialism. Yet he was very much a product of the British Empire. Born in 1923, Harry Lee Kuan Yew was educated by his well-to-do family in English. He took great care not to have a native accent. He refused to learn Mandarin (but spoke some Cantonese to his nanny). Harry Lee went on to read law at Cambridge University, where he won two firsts, a feat of which he likes to boast, especially to British visitors. He returned to Malaya a believer in democracy and genteel socialism.
Those, indeed, were the principles on which he based his anti-colonial politics. In 1955, he maintained that “If you believe in democracy, you must believe in it unconditionally. If you believe that men should be free, then, they should have the right of free association, of free speech, of free publication.” He fought the British as an “Anglified Chinaman” (Lee’s own words). But to mobilize the Chinese-speaking masses, the Anglified China-man had to speak to them in Chinese, so he began to learn Mandarin when he was about thirty years old.
His next enemy, after the British had gone, were the Communists. In 1963, hundreds of dissidents, including members of parliament, were arrested and jailed for Communist subversion. Most Communists and leftists in Singapore were Chinese-speakers: many of them were graduates and students of Nanyang University. And now, British anti-subversion laws, British detention centers, and British methods of punishment were used against them.
The most famous political prisoner is an academic and a former socialist MP called Chia Thye Poh. In 1966 he organized a demonstration against the Vietnam War, which was enough to get him arrested, but a better pretext had to be found. A few years later, while still in jail, Chia was accused of being a Communist. No evidence was ever produced. And he would have been freed if only he had agreed to confess publicly to his alleged communism. But he never agreed to do so, unlike most political detainees, who will confess to almost anything to get out of jail. He was finally released from prison in 1989, only to be confined to a room on Sentosa Island, a vacation resort where mostly Japanese tourists come to admire the wax tableau of British generals signing Singapore’s surrender to Japan in 1941. Since 1990, Chia has been allowed out during the day, but has to return to the island every night.
But even as the PAP struggled against Communist subversion, Lee’s party became an almost Leninist institution which gained more and more control over every aspect of Singaporean life—political, social, and economic. PAP cadres keep a careful watch on housing developments, student organizations, trade unions, and clan associations. It is impossible to start any private organization without government approval. Almost all local companies are linked to the government. For many years, students could not enter a university in Singapore without a political Suitability Certificate. A Social Development Unit was set up to encourage marriage between educated Singaporeans. Singapore, in short, is the epitome of the nanny state. But it is a peculiarly nosy and strict nanny. In 1987, the prime minister said:
I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters—who your neighbor is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what’s right. Never mind what the people think.
The specter of communism was invoked again in 1987, when the dramatist Wong Souk Yee was detained without trial, with a group of young lawyers and Catholic social workers. They were accused of organizing a conspiracy to overthrow the government and establish a Marxist state. Three of them were represented by a lawyer named Francis T. Seow. His own arrest brought a new enemy to the fore: the United States.
Seow’s account of his problems with the PAP government has a typically Singaporean flavor. His book, To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison, was published in the US. It cannot be bought in Singapore, even though it is not actually banned. It is merely “undesirable.” Like smoking marijuana in Britain or the US, one can get away with reading undesirable books in private, but booksellers would be unwise to stock them. Seow’s prose style, larded with quotations from Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and Lee Kuan Yew, is flowery and self-regarding: his rise as a barrister was “meteoric,” his speeches “won thunderous ovation.” But the book is also a devastating account of the destruction of the rule of law.
Seow started off as a young star on the Singapore bench, educated in London, and trusted by Lee Kuan Yew himself—hence the “meteoric rise.” In the 1960s he helped to expose Communists in Chinese schools. He became a feared prosecutor, then solicitor general, and then president of the Law Society. And then, round about 1986, things began to go wrong.
Seow, as well as other members of the bar, felt that the Law Society—the equivalent of the American Bar Association—should not only be consulted on promotions in the judiciary but also make its views known on legislation. In early 1986, the Council of the Law Society issued a critical report on a new bill that would enable the government to restrict the circulation of foreign publications if a minister thought they interfered in Singapore’s politics. The tax authorities began to harass Seow. His bank loans were suddenly called in. His accountants, sensing trouble, wanted to be discharged from handling his affairs.
Lee Kuan Yew decided to curb the Law Society’s public activities by staging a televised parliamentary committee hearing. This was meant to discredit the critical lawyers. Instead it made rebel heroes out of them. Francis Seow and two young women lawyers, Teo Soh Lung and Tang Fong Har, stood up to the prime minister’s harangues. The prime minister flew into such a rage that technicians had to be brought in to tone down his skin color for the television broadcast. Eight months later Teo and Tang were among those arrested for engaging in the Marxist plot. The prime minister declared that one of the ringleaders of the plot was a Catholic lay worker named Vincent Cheng. When the Singaporean Archbishop Yong asked him for proof of this allegation, Lee said he would not “allow subversives to get away by insisting that I [have] got to prove everything against them in a court of law….”
The plight of the political detainees became an international cause célèbre. Seow met American diplomats, representatives from law societies and human-rights groups, and was asked to run as an opposition MP in Singapore. He was arrested while waiting to see one of his clients—Teo Soh Lung—in the detention center. The accusation: plotting with Americans to interfere in Singapore’s internal affairs. American diplomats allegedly had paid him to oppose the PAP government. The proof: his dinners at Singapore restaurants with E. Mason Hendrickson, first secretary of the US embassy. To force a confession, Seow was subjected to the usual treatment: seventeen hours of continuous interrogation (his clients endured seventy-two hours) while standing half-naked under a freezing air-conditioner, threats, abuse, and so on.
Seow remained in detention for more than two months. Officers of the Internal Security Department (ISD) did their best to write a statement of Seow’s guilt that would be ambiguous enough to enable Seow to sign it without losing too much face, while also satisfying the government. The allegations were so far-fetched, however, and so lacking in evidence, that Seow’s case became an embarrassment. Yet, this being Singapore, the forms of due process and parliamentary rule had to be upheld. A parliamentary debate was staged to pass a government motion supporting the use of the Internal Security Act to prevent imaginary foreign interest groups from subverting Singapore. The Straits Times wrote that the PM had no choice but to keep Seow in detention: “To release the man would be an admission that it had been wrong to arrest him, and such an admission would confuse all those who have believed in the Government.”
Seow was released in the end, but was warned not to get involved in politics. He ignored the warning, won a non-constituency parliamentary seat, and the government started proceedings against him for tax evasion. While visiting New York to see a doctor, he was convicted in absentia, and without the presence of his lawyer in court. The fine was high enough to discourage any further political aspirations in Singapore. He now lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.
Seow’s clients got off less easily. And the way they were treated is the perfect example of Singapore’s peculiar use of due process—not to protect individual rights, but to deny them. First, Teo Soh Long and eight others were forced to confess publicly to their alleged Marxist plot. After being released, they complained in private that the confessions had been extracted under duress. When the stories came out in the foreign press, the Singapore government said no credence would be given to these allegations unless they were stated in public. The challenge was met, and the former detainees spoke at a press briefing about being physically and mentally abused by ISD officers. Whereupon the government announced a formal inquiry into the allegations. But Teo and the others were quickly rearrested and sent into the custody of the very officers they had accused of mistreatment. After several days of interrogation by these same officers, the detainees signed a Statutory Declaration that their allegations had been “a political propaganda ploy to discredit the government.” It is an offense to claim that a Statutory Declaration was made falsely. So the government could now announce with great satisfaction that the formal inquiry into alleged abuses would be abandoned forthwith.
Lee Kuan Yew likes to invoke the Confucian tradition in his political speeches. The insistence on public confessions is indeed modern Singaporean Confucianism in action. The law, under authoritarian regimes in China, Singapore, and even sometimes in Japan, is not used to protect individual rights, but as an instrument of government power. Confessions are extracted to frighten people into submission. This is what is meant by “society above self” and “consensus instead of contention”: consensus is what the government wants people to think. And the law is used to make sure that they do.
By and large, especially in a tiny, rich state like Singapore, it works. People are frightened away from politics. They develop sensitive antennae for potential trouble. And if they are prosperous as well, they will do anything to stay out of harm’s way, for they have too much to lose. A British academic at the National University of Singapore told me about being sent an article from a Western newspaper which was critical of the Singapore government. He tried to show it to a Singaporean colleague. The man had a fit of hysterical blindness. He was unable to read it. He ran off in terror.
Singaporeans become very good at judging “tone,” at knowing just what to say, when, and to whom. Some regard this heightened sensitivity as a sign of Oriental refinement, of superior culture. I went to see a highly successful Singaporean property developer called Ho Kwon Ping. He is chairman of the “Speak Mandarin” campaign. He comes from a well-connected family, and has been mentioned as a potential PAP candidate. He is in short the embodiment of Singaporean success. But he, too, used to be a bit of a rebel, many years ago. He, too, was once detained for being a “Marxist.” And he, too, made a public confession. I saw him at his plush, modern office. In impeccable English, he drawled: “You know, I only feel comfortable talking about Asian values with my fellow Asians. For, you see, I think Westerners are so prejudiced.”
“My colleagues and I have been personal friends and political colleagues for fifteen, twenty years now, and we have been through fire together…. And you build a camaraderie that these little things [split or disagreement] cannot break….”
—Lee Kuan Yew, 1965
Some of the most embittered men in Singapore are Lee Kuan Yew’s former colleagues, men of his own generation, who helped him to fight British colonialism and build a free and independent nation. The former president, Devan Nair, currently living in exile in the US, was for many years one of Lee’s closest friends, and is now among his fiercest critics. The founding chairman of the PAP and former deputy prime minister, Dr. Toh Chin Chye, accused the government of “administration by intimidation.” He said:”People abroad say to me: ‘You Singaporeans seem to be nervous, always looking over your shoulders.’ And it’s true, Singaporeans are so bloody scared. Nobody wants to say anything. It’s always: ‘Don’t quote me….’ They’re scared of losing a license or their jobs…. Here we’re all ball bearings produced by quality control.”
David Marshall, the chief minister in 1955, was never a close friend of Lee Kuan Yew’s, and for much of his life has been a vocal critic. Marshall, a Baghdadi Jew born in Singapore, founded the left-wing Worker’s Party in 1957. He beat the PAP in an election in 1961. He could have been a contender. Instead, he accepted Lee’s offer to become ambassador to Paris. Marshall is an expansive figure, a bon vivant, a ladies’ man, with cream and white hair, bushy eyebrows, and soulful eyes. Singaporean liberals say that if Marshall had become prime minister instead of Lee, Singapore would have been poorer, but freer, and certainly more fun. I went to see him at his law firm in the center of town.
“Could I have achieved what Lee did? The answer is no. I don’t have the iron in my soul to have achieved it.” This was in answer to my question whether Singapore’s prosperity could have been achieved without Lee’s authoritarianism. Then the conversation turned to Asian values. He called them “phony baloney.” He did not see Asian values as being of any value. In Lee’s case, he said, “lust for domination came with power.”
And yet, David Marshall, the Oriental Jew despised by British colonialists and Chinese chauvinists in equal measure, was curiously like Lee in his emphasis on culture as the basis of politics. There is no understanding of democracy in Asia, he said. There is just a brutal Asian approach. You kill your enemies. This, he feared, was “the movement of the future. With the ebbing of American influence, and the flowing of Chinese influence, we see an extension of nails in our coffin, and an expansion of our ruthlessness.”
David Marshall did not seem bitter, just tired, resigned, old. Before parting I asked him whether he felt closer to the West, even though he was born and bred in the East. His eyes opened wide, owl-like. “Of course,” he said. “The brotherhood of man, equality, what a wonderful concept! What a beautiful thing: a religion that makes brothers of all people.”
The world would be simpler if Marshall and many others of his persuasion were right: that politics is mainly a reflection of culture; that liberal democracy is a matter of Judeo-Christian values; that despotism, enlightened or not, is destined to thrive in Asia, because of Confucius, or Shintoism, or whatever. But the example of Singapore shows that the world is not that simple. Underneath the rhetoric of Asian values lies a fear of not being equal to the West, of not living up to those Cambridge law degrees.
A Singaporean writer named Gopal Baratham told me that “the most ferociously anti-colonial, anti-Western Singaporeans are those in the Westernized, English-speaking elite.” They are sensitive to any suggestion that they might not be as good as their former masters. Of all the criticisms leveled at Singapore, and at Lee Kuan Yew in particular, two have caused more pain, more censorship, and more lawsuits than any other: the suggestion that political leadership is subject to nepotism, and that the judiciary is less than impartial.
In 1994 a Hong Kong journalist named Philip Bowring expressed the opinion on the Op-Ed page of the International Herald Tribune that “Dynastic politics is evident in ‘Communist’ China already, as in Singapore, despite official commitments to bureaucratic meritocracy.” 5 He was hinting at the position of Lee’s son, Brigadier General (“BG”) Lee Hsien Loong, who is serving as deputy prime minister, and is widely expected to be the next PM. The Herald Tribune, whose Asian edition is printed in Singapore, immediately published an apology, undertaking “not to make further allegations to the same or similar effect.” Nonetheless, Lee brought a libel suit for £427,000 in damages.The Singapore Supreme Court duly awarded the damages to Lee, father and son, as well as to the prime minister, Goh Chok Tong.
Two months after the Herald Tribune’s apology, another article appeared on its opinion page, this time by an American academic, called Christopher Lingle, who analyzed various types of political oppression in Asia, without naming any country. Some governments, he wrote, use tanks to crush dissent, but others “are more subtle: relying upon a compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians….” Again, under the threat of a libel suit, the Herald Tribune apologized profusely. Again the Singapore government insisted on a trial for “criminal defamation and contempt of court.” The Singapore High Court fined the paper, its printer, and the Asian editor. Still, Lee Kuan Yew was not happy. He filed another lawsuit, demanding an admission that the article was part of a concerted effort to undermine him.
This all sounds like an advanced stage of paranoia. But how to explain its particular nature? Why should Lee be so hurt by the allegation of dynastic politics? After all, if anything is in the Confucian tradition, dynastic politicsis. And why should he use his country’s law courts to stop accusations that these courts are sometimes used to stifle political dissent? After all, that is precisely how courts in China, and other parts of East Asia, traditionally have been used. The logical explanation is not that Asian values are at work here, but, on the contrary, that Lee is terrified of what the British used to call “going native.” There are hints of this fear of vanishing into the Oriental swamp, of being swallowed up by the Southeast Asian jungle, in some of the former PM’s speeches:
My deepest concern is how to make the young more conscious of security. By security I mean defense against threats to our survival, whether the threats are external or internal…. Civilization is fragile. It is especially so for an island city state. (Lee Kuan Yew, National Day, 1982).
Lee Hsien Loong, the BG, once warned that without faith in Singapore, “we would vanish without trace, submerged into the mud of history.” The only serious confrontations the state of Singapore has had in its short history were with Malaysia and Indonesia. Security, then, can only be seen in this regional context: security from the Malay world. But the Lees’ paranoia is more complicated even than that. In fact, it is shared by the Prime Minister of Malaysia. Prime Minister Mahathir’s anti-Western diatribes, like Lee Kuan Yew’s, are not-so-distant echoes of their British colonial education. The White Man’s Burden was justified by claims of European discipline (as opposed to native idleness), of European vigor (as opposed to native decadence), of tight ships and stiff upper lips. Lee Kuan Yew’s preoccupation with genes and his horror of decadence are the burning embers of nineteenth-century social Darwinism. Singapore is the last bastion of the hang’em and flog’em brigade. Lee and Mahathir still claim to uphold the old standards, even as the West goes to the dogs. They will stick to the ceremonial forms of British rule, even as they destroy the content.
Once again it is instructive to see who Lee Kuan Yew’s opponents are. For in fact the political contest in Asia is not between Asian and Western values. Dissidents in Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, or China are not Westernizers. The most trenchant criticism of Lee’s Asian Way came from the South Korean opposition leader Kim Dae Jung. Kim is a populist politician from South Korea’s most rebellious province, the rural southwest. He is hardly a proponent of Western values (whatever they may be). Kim argues, in Foreign Affairs, that there was nothing incompatible with democracy in East Asian culture. On the contrary, he said, “Asia has democratic philosophies as profound as those of the West.”6 He quoted Mencius to make the point. This might be a case of over-egging the pudding. But Kim made another observation, which is surely true:
Asian authorities misunderstand the relationship between the rules of effective governance and the concept of legitimacy. Policies that try to protect people from the bad elements of economic and social change will never be effective if imposed without consent; the same policies, arrived at through public debate, will have the strength of Asia’s proud and self-reliant people.7
This is also the gist of a short book on Singapore politics written by Dr. Chee Soon Juan, the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party. His book, Dare to Change: An Alternative Vision for Singapore, has been labeled “undesirable.” Dr. Chee has to sell his book on street corners. The content, in any democratic society, would be banal. In the US, Dr. Chee would fit into the mainstream of the Democratic Party. What is interesting about his book is that, unlike Western democrats, he needs to argue why democracy is not just a “value,” Western or Eastern, but a system that works better than other systems. He writes: “With man’s corruptible nature, democracy ensures that no individual is able to abuse the powers entrusted upon him. It is exactly the same system that enables the citizens to remove a bad leader from office.” To say this in Singapore amounts to rebellion.
He has other, more pointed things to say about Singapore which apply equally to other countries in East Asia. By controlling much of the economy through government-linked companies, the PAP, contrary to Lee Kuan Yew’s propaganda, has stifled private enterprise. He thinks an over-regulated, over-protected economy will gradually stop being competitive. He argues that “authoritarianism is the one biggest obstacle to Singapore’s growth as an international city of high-technology, business, and commerce.”
I met Dr. Chee in the lobby of an American hotel. We sat in soft leather chairs and drank cappuccinos, Muzak tinkling through the palm fronds. Large men with leather bags under their arms hovered about between the white grand piano and the front desk. They were watching our every move. Dr. Chee pointed to one of the bags. It had a little hole punched in it. “A camera,” he said.
Chee is used to being followed. He has been hounded ever since he decided to run for a parliamentary seat in 1992. The usual things happened: libel suits, harassment by the tax department, and trouble finding a job—he is one of the few neuropsychologists in Singapore. Businessmen who back him or his party financially are questioned by the ISD. “Enough,” according to Chee, “to frighten them off.” These and other pressures make it hard to find suitable opposition candidates. A person with ambition will get on better with the PAP. Nonetheless, in 1994 the SDP won 47 percent of the votes in constituencies it decided to contest.
The typical SDP voter is not a Westernized member of the elite. The prosperous English-speaking middle class tends to be conservative, afraid of disorder, happy to be well-off. The typical opposition voter is more likely to be a Chinese-speaking market hawker, a taxi driver, or an Indian businessman, the sort of person who might have been a leftist in the 1950s. Culturally, the opposition voter is often more traditionally “Asian” than most PAP supporters. Such a person will vote for the opposition, not because of a superior understanding of John Locke or Western values, but because he or she does not feel representedy the oligarchy that runs the country.
Dr. Chee is a young man, Chinese, highly educated. He could lead a good life in Singapore if only he kept quiet, minded his business, accommodated himself to PAP rule. I wondered what possessed him to go against his own interests, against the wishes of his family, against all the advantages of conformity. So I asked him. He gave a vague answer, about wanting to change the heavy-handed way things are done. He said that professionals don’t want to join the opposition, yet always grumble that the opposition parties are not effective. “That is why I wanted to join.”
To be an opposition leader in a system which does not recognize loyal opposition takes a steeliness, a fearlessness, a ruthlessness that very few people possess. Lee Kuan Yew had it. David Marshall, in his own account, did not. Dr. Chee appears to have it. Singaporeans who have paid the price of submission for their present affluence often dismiss Dr. Chee as a marginal eccentric. But it is Dr. Chee who appears to have modern Asian history on his side, as one country after another, from South Korea to the Philippines, moves further toward democracy and away from Singapore’s idea of the Asian way.
I spent my last night in Singapore on the reconstructed Bugis Street. On the second floor of a café, on the corner of the street, is a place called the Boom Boom Club. I was taken there by a Singaporean woman who said she felt better about her city whenever she went there. That night was ASEAN night, the night of Southeast Asian nations. The star of the show was a Singaporean-Indian drag artist called Kumar.
The place was packed and smoky. The décor was stripped down, deliberately shabby. “Young Singaporeans like to go down,” explained the owner. “They’re bored with marble floors and chandeliers.” There were flamboyant Chinese and Malay homosexuals in the club, but most of the audience looked like well-scrubbed Singaporean yuppies, men in striped shirts, women in expensive dresses. The curtain lifted, the show began.
Dancers in outrageous costumes of the different Southeast Asian nations shimmied across the stage to Hong Kong disco music. They sang a song about being part of one big Asian family, singing one Asian song, in one Asian voice. The audience loved it. Then came Kumar, an apparition dressed in a cross between an Indian sari and a Western evening gown. He spoke in the Singlish patois, English with Chinese and Malay slang. “We’re supposed to be one Asian family,” he screeched, “but we don’t care about that, la! I’m going to talk about something else…. I’m going to talk about cock, very much la!”
The audience hooted and hollered. I had never seen Singaporeans in such a state. It gave one hope. Then Kumar dropped his voice and said: “The trouble with Singapore is there are too many Indian chiefs telling us what to do. Too many politicians, la.” A hush swept the room. Not even a titter was heard. The audience was too frightened to laugh.
October 19, 1995
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. ↩
Reported in the International Herald Tribune, July 12, 1995. ↩
The Japan Times, May 31, 1995. ↩
International Herald Tribune, March 9, 1995. ↩
International Herald Tribune, August 2, 1994. ↩
Foreign Affairs, November–December 1994, p. 191. ↩
Foreign Affairs, November–December 1994, p. 193. ↩