William Safire and Singapore and Williams College

George Crane
Global Post

I noticed today that
Williams Safire died.  So, perhaps it is an appropriate time to recount the time, twelve years ago, that our paths crossed politically.

That crossing was rather unexpected.  Safire was, famously, a libertarian, conservative Republican, who had worked not only for Nixon but also Agnew (“nattering nabobs of negativism.”).  I am a standard issue left-liberal Northeastern academic, who was raised on a deep antipathy to Nixon and Agnew.  But Safire and I shared a certain skepticism about the faux-democratic government of Singapore.

In 1995, Williams College, where I teach, decided to grant an honorary degree to Prime Minister Goh Chok-Tong of Singapore.  Some faculty, myself included, thought this was a bad idea, given the Singaporean government’s track record on limiting academic freedom. 

We asked that the invitation be rescinded.  The president of the college – a true gentleman, Hank Payne – said that he could not do that.  So, we took our protest to the national level. 

Knowing that Safire had a history of challenging Singapore, we contacted him and alerted him to both the upcoming award and our protest of it.  He responded magnificently, with an NYT op-ed on July 10, 1995, entitled “Honoring Repression.”  In it, he published my email address in an effort to link up our protest with others who might be sympathetic:

Should Williams College rescind its invitation, as “No Goh” faculty urge? Quite the contrary; let’s hear his anti-freedom pitch. But a Williams political scientist (George.T.Crane at williams.edu) is organizing a serious, educational counter-award ceremony.

We did, indeed, have a counter-award ceremony, a weekend of talks and panels from leading Singaporean opposition figures.

In the run-up to the weekend Goh and his apparatchiks came up with the idea of inviting both Safire and me (I had become infamous in the city-state for an op-ed I had published in the Washington Post on August 30, reprinted in full below the fold; no link available) to come and debate him in Singapore. 

They would pay all of our expenses.  Of course, it was a set-up, an attempt to lure us into a venue packed with ardent Young PAP.  When the offer was made, I got a message to contact Safire.  We talked on the phone.  He asked me: “What should we do?”  I thought to myself: “This is rich.  Here’s a moment when William Safire and I have been lumped together.”  I told him I had no thought of going (my wife, worried I might get arrested, would not let me!) and that his idea of another op-ed in response was a good one.   It was a scathing and hilarious piece, “Singapore’s Fear:”

Evidently Goh Chok Tung, the puppet who is keeping the Prime Minister’s seat warm for one of Dictator Lee Kuan Yew’s sons, became fearful at the revelation in this space that he may be confronted on his great day by the exiled Singaporean dissident Francis Seow, now a fellow at Harvard Law School.

Supporters of academic freedom at Williams want to arrange a debate between Goh and Seow. The trustees, who recently voted (8 to 7) to stick with the embarrassing invitation, hope the college’s mistake in honoring repression can be rectified by having such a debate.

But dictator Lee wants Goh to avoid it at all costs. How to duck the dissident without appearing craven?

Result: A left-handed invitation has been extended to me and the Williams “no-Goh” organizer to come to Singapore to debate Mr. Goh. (The all-expense-paid invitation, in a letter to The Times that I hope runs today, is only “to” that island state, but presumably it is not intended to be one-way.)

But the best part was Safire’s description of the crowd that would pack the hall in Singapore:

I would be pleased to engage in a one-on-one debate on universal values. But it’s no fun to go up against anybody’s “stooge,” as Mr. Goh recently complained he is so frequently called. I’m ready to debate Lee Kuan Yew himself, and the dictator only.

The venue? A nation under the rule of law — not Singapore, and not in front of an audience selected for me of Lee’s relatives, cane-wielding thugs, Serbian generals, B.N.L. bankers, Packwood accusers and the Saddam Hussein Fan Club.

Since Dictator Lee admires the work of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, where we have both spoken in recent years, a debate at the next Davos meeting would be accessible to an unintimidated press.

How about it, Mr. Lee? My one proviso: that your man Goh also agrees to debate Francis Seow, the Singaporean opponent your uptight regime obviously fears most, at Williams college this fall.

The Goh-Seow debate never happened, even though I had the pleasure and honor of spending a weekend with Mr. Seow.  And neither did the Lee-Safire debate.  It was all posturing on the part of the Singaporean leaders. 

I never met Safire face-to-face, but one late summer we found ourselves thrown together as adversaries of the Singapore government.  Rest in peace.

My WaPo piece is below:

Wrong Choice for an Honorary Degree
George Crane

On Sept. 16, Williams College will dishonor itself by awarding an honorary degree to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong of Singapore, head of a government that severely represses freedom of expression, a fundamental principle of any American institution of higher education.

Supporters of the award argue that Singapore’s economic development of the past three decades has been extraordinary by world standards and that its social development has improved the lives of many residents. Goh, a Williams alumnus, has been a key player in engineering economic policy and is, they contend, worthy of our most prestigious prize. A closer look at the limitations on political and intellectual life imposed upon Singapore by the Ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), of which Goh is the head, suggests that prosperity has come at the cost of basic freedoms, a situation that continues in spite of liberalization in other “miracle” economies in East Asia, most notably Taiwan and South Korea. Singaporeans are among the most well educated and cosmopolitan in the region, but the PAP government chooses to repress political dissidents, journalists and academics as a means of retaining power.

Tiananmen-style massacres or middle-of-the-night disappearances are not the style of PAP strong arms. Rather, the Chinese saying “kill a chicken to scare the monkey,” is their watchword and the bankrupting libel suit their preferred tool. Prominent leaders of legal opposition parties engaging in constitutionally guaranteed political processes are regularly sued for comments that supposedly defame government officials. The PAP has never lost this sort of court battle, perhaps, as a recent U.S. State Department report stated, because “judicial officials, especially the Supreme Court, have close ties to the ruling party and its leaders.” And in case this is not enough to discourage political dissent, the state has in its arsenal the Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial, liberating jailers from any judicial constraints on how they treat those in their clutches. It was used against Francis Seow, former solicitor general of Singapore, in a bizarre 1988 case that alleged his involvement in a plot on the part of Reagan administration diplomats to bring down the authoritarian PAP government.

The Singaporean press is effectively controlled by the state, and foreign publications have been targets of libel suits. This summer a case was settled against the International Herald Tribune, which had been sued by Prime Minister Goh and former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew for publishing an article asserting that a form of “dynastic politics” was emerging in Singapore. No names were mentioned in the article in question, and it is common knowledge that Lee has long been grooming his son, currently a deputy prime minister, for the highest political office. The Tribune was ordered by a Singaporean court to pay $680,000 for the supposed defamation. Short of full-blown libel suits, limitations on circulation have been imposed at various times on a variety of foreign publications, including the Economist and the Asian Wall Street Journal. Such actions have a chilling effect on all sorts of speech.

Perhaps most troublesome in regard to whether a liberal arts college should honor Prime Minister Goh is the situation faced by Singaporean intellectuals, whose freedom of expression is severely compromised by the PAP government. Without the protection of academic tenure, some faculty members have lost their jobs because of their criticisms of government policies.

One of the most egregious cases is that of Chee Soon Juan, who was a lecturer in neuropsychology at the National University of Singapore. He was so dismayed at the increased political repression in the late 1980s that he decided to seek public office. In December 1992, he ran as an opposition Social Democratic Party candidate in a by-election against Prime Minister Goh. Although he lost at the polls, he continued his activism until the university took action against him, auditing his research grant of $27,000 in Singapore dollars and finding that he had supposedly misspent $226 ($137 in U.S. dollars). When he attempted to defend himself, he was sued by the head of his department, a member of Parliament for the ruling party, for defamation. He chose not to contest the case and was forced to sell his house to pay the subsequent fines. Chee was ultimately fired from the university over the matter, punishment for his political activity.

Most academics are not nearly as politically engaged as Chee Soon Juan, but his travails have driven home the message that crossing the government brings devastating consequences. Last year when Bilveer Singh, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, wrote an opinion piece in the Jakarta Post that suggested that economic inequality is now growing in Singapore, he prudently retracted his comments after a government official demanded that he provide more data or “withdraw these allegations.” To continue to debate the issues in the face of PAP displeasure would have put his livelihood at risk. Open debate of topics potentially embarrassing to the government is simply not possible in Singapore.

Goh has suggested that he would like to gradually liberalize Singaporean society; he promised a “kinder and gentler” government in his inauguration address in 1990. Whatever his good intentions, however, he has not acted decisively to reduce restrictions on expression. Last year, in response to a measured and mild critique of the PAP, he threatened to hit political dissidents in the “solar plexus.” Other leaders in the region have placed their careers, indeed their lives, in jeopardy to open their societies. Goh has not demonstrated this kind of political commitment or courage.

Singapore is not the harshest authoritarian government in the world; indeed, it is far from the worst. One would hope, however, that an honorary degree from an American college would be reserved for those who struggle, at great personal cost, to expand the most humane and enlightening facets of our existence. Goh, sitting atop a political system that seeks to stifle even the mildest critical commentary, is not such a person.



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