Lee’s law: How Singapore crushes dissent – excerpts

May 14, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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Below are excerpts of ‘Lee’s Law: How Singapore crushes dissent’ by Chris Lydgate. It is not sold in Singapore.

On 9 August 1965, Singapore proclaimed itself an independent republic. Through a quirk of history, the former British colony had become a geopolitical freak – a tiny, overpopulated, predominantly Chinese island, surrounded by hostile giants, an amputated capital dangling from the Malay peninsula like the head of a guillotined noble.

Lee regarded separation as a disaster. In 1962, he had called the idea of an independent Singapore “a political, economic and geographical absurdity.” the problems seemed insurmountable. How could the tiny city-state defend itself against its giant neighbours, who could starve it into submission any time they wanted? How would it ease the tension between the Chinese and the Malays? And how could it avoid falling prey to communist agitators who saw Singapore ripe for the plucking?

Over the next three decades, Lee and his lieutenants would succeed in solving many of these problems. But the trauma of separation bequeathed a lasting heirloom: a siege mentality among Singapore’s leaders that would persist into the next millenium. “Singapore is a small island, with a narrow base,” a senior local journalist said many years later. “It wouldn’t take much to upset it.”

This idea – that Singapore is an exotic, delicate flower that must be zealously guarded against predators – would be repeated by the PAP many times over the years. It would become a recurrent, even dominant theme in Singapore politics. The nature of the threat would constantly shift: communist insurrection; invasion by Indonesia; a rift with Malaysia (which supplies half the city-state’s water); an exodus of boat people from Indochina; decadent Western values; pornography; and drugs. But the underlying mentality would remain unchanged. In 1997, the minister for information and the arts, George Yeo, likened Singapore to a high-wire bicyclist who can never stop pedalling lest he fall over. “Our success is a result of anxiety,” he told Fortune magazine. “And the anxiety is never fully assuaged by success.”

Throughout history, astute leaders have known that nothing binds people together like an external threat. In Singapore, the atmosphere of crisis quite literally forged a nation. But it also had another darker consequence: it provided intellectual camouflage for the government’s efforts to dictate the destiny of its citizens. As long as Singapore’s survival hung in the balance, dissidents could be labeled dreamers, opponents as obstructionists, and human rights regarded as luxuries.

The Singapore government insists that it runs an exemplary democracy with fair elections, an independent judiciary, and a free press. And yet, time and again, the outside observer will notice strange anomalies: the suspicious silence thundering through newspaper columns; a pathological reluctance to challenge the government; and a curious coyness among non-governmental organisations about political issues.

Democracy in Singapore has the outward appearance of a mighty fortress, resplendent behind thick ramparts, girded by moat and canon. But the story of JB Jeyeretnam suggests that this imposing edifice is little more than a cardboard facade.

In 1971, when he became the leader of the opposition, Jeyeretnam was one of Singapore’s most successful lawyers. He enjoyed all the trappings of that success: a house, a swimming pool, servants, a car, and a chauffeur. Over the next three decades, however, he paid a staggering personal price for his political career. He was the target of dozens of libel suits; forced to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and damages; kicked out of parliament; jailed; stripped of his licence to practise law; ostracised from his profession; subjected to innumerable petty harassments; and finally bankrupted. By the end of 2001 he lived in a tiny bungalow in Johor Bahru, virtually penniless, eking out an existence by hawking books on the street.

Jeyeretnam’s struggle against the People’s Action Party reflects, in a microcosm, the conflict between two profoundly different visions of democracy: a classical liberal construction based on individual rights versus a communitarian ethic where those rights yield to the needs of society – the so-called “Asian democracy” championed by Singapore’s ruling elite.

But the battle of ideas is never waged in a vacuum. It is waged by men and women who have families to support, mortgages to pay, and businesses to run. As soon as the shrapnel threatens their own livelihood – as soon as their convictions jeopardise their jobs – the vast majority retreat to their armchairs. This book is an effort to examine an exception to this rule: a man who fought for his convictions with a fury that astonished his opponents; a man who would not give in, even when he stood alone and defeat was inescapable.

Jeyaretnam was driven partly by idealism and partly by stubbornness. But he was also driven by faith: a faith in the law, and a faith in the ordinary people of Singapore. In the final analysis, his faith in the law was shattered. His faith in the people may yet prove true.

For a sypnosis of the book, go to http://www.scribepub.com.au/New%20Releases/LL.html