Asian democrats, fight back!

Chee Soon Juan
1 September 2004

The aticle below is published in Malaysiakini, Malaysia’s online newspaper. The Chinese version of the piece was published as the lead story in Hong Kong’s Apple Daily on 25 August 2004.

In a speech he gave recently at the Global Brand Forum conference, Singapore’s former Senior Minister and now (jokes aside) Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew supported Beijing’s brutal slaying of thousands of unarmed Chinese students and democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

He invoked the ghost of the late Deng Xiaopeng saying: “If I have to shoot 200,000 students to save China from another 100 years of disorder, so be it.”

Outrageous as Lee’s statement is, it does not come as a surprise, at least not to Singaporeans who have lived under his iron-fist for more than four decades.

Lee Kuan Yew uses the Internal Security Act to arbitrarily detain his opponents. One of the world’s longest-serving prisoners is Chia Thye Poh, who was released only in 1998 after having spent 23 years in prison and placed under house arrest for another nine without ever given a trial.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Lee closed down one independent newspaper after another. Today every local broadcast station and newspaper in Singapore is controlled by the state. In 2003, the Second World Press Freedom Ranking showed that of 166 countries ranked on respect for press freedom, Singapore was 144th – three places behind Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

Lee Kuan Yew continues to sue opposition leaders and foreign journalists/publications for defamation and makes them pay millions of dollars in costs and damages. He does not allow independent trade unions, and the freedoms of speech and assembly in the city-state are rigorously curtailed.

‘Asian values

Elections in Singapore are anything but free and fair, with the ruling party routinely using threats, intimidation and vote-buying to ensure victory for itself.

Lee’s firstborn, Hsien Loong, is the prime minister, finance minister and chairperson of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (the city-state’s de facto central bank) all rolled into one. Lee senior is chairperson of the body that controls the country’s national reserves, deputised by Hsien Loong. Neither gives the public an account of how and where the money is spent and invested.

The veteran politicians second son heads the biggest state company, SingTel. His daughter-in-law, Hsien Loong’s wife, is put in charge of Temasek, a holdings conglomerate that runs the country’s major corporations. It is not an exaggeration to say that the republic’s political and economic life is effectively controlled by the few in the Lee family.

But why should Asians care about what Lee senior says and does? Because the Singapore government holds itself out as a model and uses the “Asian values” debate to deter democratic reform in the region.

Other Asian autocrats find the argument that democracy – being a Western concept and therefore unsuited for Asia – very appealing. They express admiration for each other’s oppressive ways and, worse, gain encouragement from each other. So while Lee cheers on Deng for the Tiananmen massacre, Tung Chee Hwa cites Lee as his role model.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Shinawatra Thaksin is a conscientious student of Singapore’s authoritarian system, recently dismissing the role of an effective opposition in his country’s development.

Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister, in turn, hopes to emulate the longevity of the authoritarian government in Malaysia.

Collectively through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), these regimes embrace the brutal Burmese military regime and the communist dictatorship of Vietnam.

With these autocrats showing such fondness for each other’s habits, democrats in Asia cannot remain separated in our struggles. We must come together to support each other.

Fight back

Every time one of these dictators jail a democracy activist or close down a newspaper or rig an election, Asian advocates of democracy must unite to ensure that the repression is met with dissent and action.

Hitherto, Asians have not taken a stronger, more coordinated, and sustained lead in championing democratic reform in the region. Much of this effort has been undertaken by our friends in America and Europe. It is, therefore, both timely and meaningful that Asian democracy groups and activists rise to the challenge of entrenching the universal values of democracy and human rights in our own backyard. In other words, Asians must take the lead in fighting our own battles for democracy.

So when someone like Lee Kuan Yew supports the massacre of Asians so that dictatorships can continue to rule under the guise of “peace” and “order”, democrats in Asia must not sit back and keep quiet.

It is crucial that democrats throughout the region become pro-active in pushing for freedom and human rights. Presently, there are several regional bodies that are working towards this end, the Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia (ARDA) and the Council for Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD) are but two examples. More needs to be done to encourage a region-wide movement for democracy.

It is time for Asian democrats to fight back.

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