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PM Lee Hsien Loong’s recent visit to New Zealand stirred more than a little interest in the democratic affairs (or rather the lack of it) in Singapore. Some of his utterances have been severely undiplomatic and have cast Singapore in an even worse light. Below is a sample of the reports/opinion pieces that were published:
Who’s afraid of big bad baby Lee, the angry Asian autocrat?
Tze Ming Mok
Amid international media reports about Singaporean bloggers living in a “climate of fear” apolitical Singaporean blogger “Mr Brown” recently asked why he couldn’t read online just once that he was living in “a climate of ‘a little bit scared’?”
After all, with its latest public behaviour modification campaign, Singapore is aiming to be the city of “four million smiles” not “four million fearful grimaces”. This begs the question of the bilateral deal signed last week: How scary will the New Zealand-Singapore jointly- produced horror film about an embryonic ghost baby, be allowed to be? There could be trouble if it scares Singaporean women off breeding – declining Singaporean fertility has proved impervious to public behaviour modification campaigns marketing baby-bliss.
Even worse, the movie could constitute an illegal political analogy about the government’s fear of the embryonic and growing political opposition movement and the threatened maturation of Singaporean political society! No wonder Lee Hsien Loong freaked out in New Zealand, putting on his own Jekyll and Hyde horror show. We were treated to an echo of his father Lee Kuan Yew’s familiar transitions from vicious baby-eater to charming reptilian patriarch, in Baby Lee’s vitriolic tirade against opposition politician Chee Soon Juan, and his later volte-face of manners to smooth over, or explain, his surprise outing as an Angry Asian Autocrat.
Trying to move the press off the subject of human rights and freedom of expression, he said that New Zealanders needed to be “more attuned to what is happening in Asia”. Human rights were “familiar issues to Western journalists and maybe readers too, but really they don’t define Asia. You need to come and learn how people live.” I agree unreservedly with the prime minister of my maternal homeland. Yes, go spend some time in Singapore, and you’ll know just how cynical and sarcastic a huge chunk of ordinary Singaporeans are about their government. Because you’ll never see those ideas in the Singaporean press.
And yes, “defining” Asia through an Othering lense of one issue alone is always misguided and simplistic. Unfortunately, the way New Zealand is “attuning” to Asia now, would suggest that Asia is just about trade deals and photo-ops with leaders of countries who come and strike trade deals.
But if New Zealanders become more realistically attuned to what is happening in Asian countries, human rights will become only more relevant, because human relationships, human dignity and humanism as a whole will become more relevant.
I was under the impression that the big buzz about Asia was that a lot of human beings live there. Like anyone else, they dislike being exploited, intimidated, wrongfully arrested, repressed and tortured – and if they have ideas contrary to their governments about how to develop their economies and societies, then those ideas are just as Asian as they are. For a significant slice of New Zealand’s population, these are our families and our erstwhile compatriots. Many more of us actually are these people – mobile global citizens with bases still in Asian countries.
The Singaporean government’s stock response to overseas criticism, that Westerners “don’t understand Asia”, is a fraud when plenty of Westerners are Asian, and when a third of all Asian Singaporeans just voted against the PAP despite the opposition’s zero chance of success.
Civil society movements across Asia are vibrant, feisty, and doing vital, constructive work, even in Singapore. Supporting and learning from opposition movements in our neighbouring autocracies, and from the open discourse and social movements in the democracies, is a better way of understanding Asia than defining the region narrowly as either a cash-machine or an exotic/retarded/mystical/cranky/ dirty child to be taught the ways of the West.
Physical cruelty, vindictive destruction of opposition, flouting of the rule of law, media manipulation and political bullying have no intrinsic relationship to whether a society is Asian or not. The US for example, is excellent at such stuff, and certainly tortures harder than Singapore these days.
However, I’m still Singaporean enough to get angry about Singapore, while lucky to be not quite Singaporean enough to get sued for expressing it. So from the safety of Auckland, what specifically were the underhand, destructive, foreigner-pleasing, martyrdom tactics of the Singapore Democratic Party ranted about by the Singaporean prime minister to the New Zealand press?
The SDP adopts its nonviolent civil disobedience tactics directly from Mahatma Gandhi, who wrote the passive resistance rulebook while undermining the British Empire. Ironically, the PAP is in the role of machine-state imperialist now, while the little SDP is staying true to a hopeful political methodology indigenous to Asia: “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
The first three steps are well in hand – because, dear xiao Lee, you’re turning out a bully just like your old man. But maybe after the PAP’s worst election result ever, you too are “a little bit scared”.
Single party rule ‘best for Singapore’
John Burton in Singapore and Leora Moldofsky in Sydney
22 Jun 06
Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, has criticised Australia and New Zealand’s liberal democratic practices, suggesting that Singapore’s system, under which a single party has ruled since independence, is more efficient.
Mr Lee made the remarks at the end of a nine-day visit to the two countries, which are attracting a growing number of immigrants from the Asian city-state.
Although the democracies of Australia and New Zealand made for “more exciting” politics, the national interest could suffer in a multi-party system, said Mr Lee.
The comments could provoke controversy, particularly as Mr Lee’s visit was meant to improve economic and defence ties in spite of criticism about Singapore’s human rights record.
“Endless debates are seldom about achieving a better grasp of the issue but to score political points,” said Mr Lee about the political systems in Australia and New Zealand.
He said John Howard, the Australian prime minister, “spends all his time dealing with this party politics. The result is you don’t have a lot of time to worry about the long-term future.”
Dominant party rule was the best system for a small, multiracial country like Singapore, Mr Lee said, as he prepared to leave New Zealand, whose population of 4m is similar in size and ethnic complexity to that of the city-state.
The People’s Action Party has governed Singapore since 1959 when Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Lee’s father, was elected prime minister.
Mr Lee blamed Australia’s multi-party system for his failure to persuade Canberra to open its aviation market to state-owned Singapore Airlines, which is seeking to fly the transpacific route from Sydney to Los Angeles.
He said Australia’s National party, the minority partner in the ruling coalition, was against opening up the route because Qantas could threaten in response to cut unprofitable routes to rural areas where the party is strong. Qantas has opposed Singapore Airline’s entry on the transpacific route.
The decision was “a net loss” for Australia because it hurt tourism, Mr Lee said.
His remarks appeared aimed at Mark Vaile, the National party leader and trade minister, who will lead negotiators next month in a review of the bilateral trade pact with Singapore.
Mr Lee was questioned about the treatment of Singapore opposition leader, Chee Soon Juan, who was charged this week with speaking in public without a police licence. He said all political leaders had to respect the law, adding that Dr Chee engaged in “destructive” policies that were meant “to impress foreign supporters”.
Speaking without a license?
New Zealand played host to Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, this week. Mr Lee’s visit has been marred by controversy following revelations that a leading opposition politician in his home country is facing prosecution for speaking without a licence. The issue brings into sharp focus concerns about free speech and the role it plays in a functioning democracy.
While Mr Lee is in New Zealand for discussions with Prime Minister Helen Clark, Singapore Democratic Party Secretary, General Chee Soon Juan, is facing a prosecution for speaking in public without a permit during the election campaign. Mr Chee is also defending a defamation lawsuit issued by the Prime Minister. Mr Chee has been jailed before for breaching Singapore’s restrictive speech laws, which prohibit public speaking without a police permit and allow the government wide powers of censorship.
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have documented a pattern of cases in which opposition politicians were sued for defamation and subsequently fined or imprisoned. Singapore’s judicial system has also faced criticism for being too compliant when dealing with Mr Lee’s People’s Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since its independence in 1959.
New Zealanders would consider the freedom to speak our minds a basic liberty, and in this vein Green Party co-leader Russel Norman urged Helen Clark to “speak out” to defend free speech. It would be easy for New Zealanders to take free speech for granted, but this situation on our doorstep is a reminder that we cannot afford to be lax in defending free speech.
Restrictive laws can have a chilling effect on free speech and the expression of contrary or unpopular ideas, particularly in the political arena. Without a free exchange of ideas in the public square, democracy would not exist. We would be deprived of the information and the ability we need to participate in the running of the country. Free speech isn’t always pleasant or comfortable and people may sometimes take offence at things that are said. However, allowing the expression of ideas, even discomforting or unpalatable ideas, is a minimum condition for democracy. And it is a price worth paying.
No regrets over glint of toughness on democracy, says Lee
New Zealand Herald
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who gave New Zealanders a glimpse of the hard edge of Singaporean democracy during his state visit this week, has no regrets about it.
Mr Lee, son of the city state’s patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, was asked at his Wellington press conference why he is suing an Opposition politician for defamation and pursuing charges against him of speaking in a public place without a licence before Singapore’s recent election.
“He’s a liar, he’s a cheat, he’s deceitful, he’s confrontational, it’s a destructive form of politics designed not to win elections in Singapore but to impress foreign supporters and make himself out to be a martyr,” the newly re-elected Prime Minister said of his unsuccessful opponent, Chee Soon Juan.
Speaking to the Herald in Auckland yesterday, Mr Lee did not believe the previous day’s outburst had left a bad impression.
“No I don’t think so,” he said. “It depends what you are doing and why you are doing it. Everybody has to abide by the laws.
“If you deliberately defame somebody then there has to be consequences. If we didn’t act against somebody who defamed us then it is not a matter of being generous and forgiving but the question arises if no action is taken, surely there must be some truth to it.”
As for licensing public speaking, “Our main concern is race, language and religion. These are issues where you can rouse people and words cannot be taken back and you can cause riots and bloodshed.”
It applied only outdoors, he insisted. “Indoors you can have any number of gatherings [and] you can publish anything you like in writing. But to organise a crowd and harangue the crowd – we thing it’s wise to have precautions.”
You’d wonder why they bother. Singapore has been ruled by the Lees’ Peoples Action Party since its independence 40 years ago. At the latest election the party won 82 seats, opposition parties just two.
Elections are so one sided that the constitution now awards the Opposition three seats in the legislature, regardless of the election results, and there are nine seats reserved for nominees from occupational groups, including the media.
Mr Lee is only the third Prime Minister the country has had, following his father, who retired in 1990 (though he remains in the Cabinet as “minister mentor”), and Goh Chok Tong, who was thought to be a seat-warmer for Lee junior, known as BG ever since he became the youngest Brigadier General in the Army’s history.
Mr Lee’s political apprenticeship was longer than expected, perhaps partly due to his brush with cancer of the lymph nodes in 1992.
He is said to be arrogant and autocratic, which possibly explains the tension in the hotel room as his entourage awaits.
But when he enters he is affable, languid and surprisingly tall.
How then did he explain his party’s unbroken record in power?
There have been other countries, he points out, with one party in power for a long period: Japan, Mexico.
“In our case special circumstances made us the dominant party after independence and keeping that position by a series of actions.
“One, by keeping talent and making sure we were the best qualified team. Two, we have kept ourselves renewed – same party but not the same people, new MPs, new ministers, new ideas …
“Three, keeping a broad central view of Singapore. We are not representing one section of the population, workers against employers or any other group. We are representing the whole country.”
But democracy is about dealing with differences of opinion. How does Singapore manage that?
“We have elections, many parties, news media report a wide range of views and now the internet. There are any number of blogs on Singapore.
“It’s not possible for us to have unanimous views … but on major fundamentals of the country – that you have to be self-reliant, have a strong defence, good multi-racial relations, that you have to plug into the world and globalise and earn a living for ourselves – those are broad principles which command very general support.”
Singapore and New Zealand have a free trade agreement, our most comprehensive after CER with Australia, and just last month the Singapore deal was the basis of a four-way Pacific pact with the inclusion of Brunei and Chile.
Mr Lee hopes his visit to Australia and New Zealand, his first overseas since his re-election, will help bring us closer. “I think you need a population more attuned to what is happening in Asia.”
Human rights, he said, “are familiar issues to Western journalists and maybe readers too, but really they don’t define Asia. You need to come and learn how people live.”
* Born February 10, 1952, Lee Hsien Loong is the eldest child of former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
* Studied at Cambridge and Harvard, gaining a first-class degree in mathematics and a masters degree in public administration.
* Joined Singapore Armed Forces in 1971. Rose quickly through the ranks to become brigadier-general.
* In 1984 followed his father into politics as a member of the ruling People’s Action Party. Elected to the party’s central executive committee in 1986. Appointed Deputy Prime Minister in November 1990. Became Prime Minister in August 2004.
* Married to Ho Ching, executive director and chief executive of the Government-owned Temasek Holdings.
The couple have one daughter and three sons, including a daughter and son from Lee’s first wife.
Singapore Prime Minister Defends Policy on Freedom of Speech
Tracy Withers and Yoolim Lee
19 Jun 06
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong denied that the city-state places unnecessary curbs on civil rights or that lawsuits against political opponents have harmed freedom of speech.
“We have no reason to want to restrict any democratic or political rights of the opposition politicians,” Lee, 54, told a press conference in Wellington, New Zealand today. “The rules are there. They apply to everyone. You participate within the rules.”
Lee’s People’s Action Party has been in power since before the country won independence in 1965, and several opposition politicians have been sued for libel in a practice critics say is a curb on free speech. Singapore also has restrictions on unauthorized public assembly and banned the distribution of political messages through blogs and podcasts during a recent election campaign.
Lee, who was in Wellington to meet New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, in comments to reporters rebuked Chee Soon Juan, leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party. Chee, 44, is being sued for defamation by Lee and his father Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, for statements made in his party’s newspaper ahead of the May 6 election.
Chee is “very deliberately going against the rules because he says ‘I’m like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, and I want to be a martyr,’” Lee told reporters. “If you decide to infringe the laws you have to take the consequences, which is how it works in every country.”
A critic of the Singapore government, Chee has had several skirmishes with the ruling party. He lost a defamation suit during the 2001 election and was ordered to pay damages to the elder Lee and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. He was declared bankrupt in February for failing to make the libel payments. Upon the bankruptcy order, Chee will not be allowed to stand for elections until February 2011.
It the May 6 elections, candidates from Chee’s party were the worst performers at the polls. Lee said the poor results reflect the unwillingness of Singaporeans to accept Chee’s confrontational style of political reform.
“Singaporean voters are not fools,” Lee said. “They judge who are the more credible candidates and they know that this man and his party are not credible.”
Chee Siok Chin, Chee’s sister and a member of the central executive committee at the Singapore Democratic Party, said the election results were affected by the suit against Chee and other party members, including herself, which was filed before polling day.
“The whole elections, how it’s conducted and the timing of the lawsuit, getting a quarter of the votes after that crucifixion, is in fact a reflection of the unpopularity of the People’s Action Party,” she said.
Chee Soon Juan could not immediately be contacted for comment.
Reporting by Linus Chua