It’s all academic for unruffled Lee

March 31, 2007
Singapore Democrats

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Emma Macdonald
The Canberra Times
30 Mar 07

Former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew laughed off student protests and a storm of criticism that has greeted the Australian National University’s decision to award him with an honorary Doctorate in Laws.

“Despite their protest, the ANU proceeded and I was not deterred from coming,” an unruffled Mr Lee said after yesterday’s ceremony.

Mr Lee, who at 83 remains Minister Mentor in the Singaporean Government run by his son Lee Hsien Loong, said he was “quite accustomed to hostile groups”. He told assembled journalists, “It’s not going to change me and I’m not going to change you. We are going to prosper, you are going to prosper. But if I allow you to run my country it will spiral downwards and it will hit rock bottom.”

Mr Lee was also conciliatory about past comments in which he warned Australia would become a “white trash” nation, saying “there are some words sometimes sown in the heat of the argument. You have changed and the Australia I came to in 1965 was a very different Australia.”

About 60 students gathered outside University House in time for Mr Lee’s 11am arrival, where they shouted slogans before dispersing once the ceremony began.

Mr Lee used a side entry to the hall where about a quarter of the reserved seats remained empty indicating some academics, including dean of the Law College Professor Michael Roper and director of the Centre for International Governance and Justice Professor Hilary Penfold, chose to stay away in protest. But the ceremony itself went without incident as ANU chancellor Allan Hawke praised Mr Lee as a “statesman of unique standing in the Asia Pacific” and an “honest friend of Australia’s.” Mr Lee, who was accompanied by his wife, mingled afterwards with other senior staff and dignitaries, including the head of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Michael L’Estrange, and Indonesian ambassador Hamzah Thayeb.

Dr Hawke was unrepentant yesterday about the decision to go ahead with the ceremony despite the disquiet it has caused on campus given Mr Lee’s reputation as an autocratic ruler and Singapore’s lack of press or academic freedom.

“It has absolutely been worthwhile,” he said.

Dr Hawke conceded he was personally responsible for nominating Mr Lee for the honour, discussing it with his vice-chancellor Ian Chubb before taking the suggestion straight to council for approval.

Under normal circumstances, the nomination would first have been considered by the Committee for Honorary Degrees, but Professor Chubb said yesterday that the fast scheduling of the diplomatic visit in December meant it went straight to council which, he noted, also contained six members of the Honorary Degrees Committee.

“It was simply a timing thing and you can argue it is right or wrong, but you can’t put every decision out for public acclamation.” Professor Chubb said neither he nor Dr Hawke had any idea the decision would be so controversial, adding the issue would be discussed in council tomorrow.

Law Students for Social Justice is preparing a legal challenge to declare the honour invalid on the basis that proper procedures were not followed. Spokesman Arjuna Dibley said, “We are really surprised given it is such a controversial appointment that the country’s preeminent university would not follow correct procedures.”

Professor Chubb said a legal challenge was an “imaginative and lateral approach”.

Australia Institute director Clive Hamilton said the award was an embarrassment for the ANU and was “particularly offensive given the ANU Law School is renowned for its expertise in international and human rights law”.

Council for Civil Liberties members attended the protest in which they held a banner showing a beheaded man with the slogan “Singapore swings” in reference to Singapore’s use of the death penalty.

Diplomatic relations between Australia and Singapore reached an historic low in 2005 when the Singaporean Government carried out the execution of 25-year-old Melbourne man Van Tuong Nguyen after finding him guilty of drug trafficking.