Nair takes aim at Lee

July 10, 2004
Singapore Democrats

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C.V Devan Nair
1994

Below are excerpts from Mr Devan Nair’s foreword in To Catch A Tartar written by Mr Francis Seow.

Before reading Francis Seow’s manuscript, I had decided that I would decline his request for a foreword. My political days are definitely over – and more reasons than either friends or foes imagine. Apart from a series of reflective essays (in preparation) on the making of an ideal (in which I too had been privileged to share), on its unmaking (which I watched in helpless pain from the sidelines), and on the dubious – to say the least – political and social aftermath of phenomenal economic success, I had, and still have, no intention of becoming involved in promoting the political views or program of any individual or group, whether within or without Singapore.

After reading through the manuscript, however, I realized that I would never again be able to look at my face in the mirror without flinching, if I said no to Francis, at least in regard to this particular piece of writing by him. For this was no political harangue by one of Singapore’s leading opposition figures, excoriating the political or economic program of the powers-that-be, and pleading the virtues of his own political cause. On the contrary, central to this book is a grim account of how a citizen of Singapore was treated while under detention without trial under the republic’s internal security laws.

As an ex-detainee myself, who had undergone in two separate spells a total of five years of political imprisonment in the fifties under the British colonial regime as an anti-colonial freedom fighter, I recalled that I was never treated in the shockingly dehumanizing manner in which Francis was by the professedly democratic government of independent Singapore. Indeed, my fellow detainees and I had as legal counsel a brilliant lawyer and vocal freedom-fighter by the name of Lee Kuan Yew, who has publicly borne witness to the comfortable circumstances in which we lived under detention, and how he was able to visit us, without supervision, to discuss, among other things, strategies for bringing the colonial rule of our jailers to an end.

Mr. Seow’s book is an eye-opener; that is, for those whose eyes still required to be opened. Mine too, for that matter. Nobody is blinder than the captain’s inveterate hero-worshipper. And none probably as wilfully, self-righteously closed to unfolding reality as I was. Indeed, until fairly recently, I had believed that the People’s Action Party (PAP) government, by which I had once sworn, had all along been tolerably civilized and humane in its treatment of political prisoners. Yet another scale had to fall from my eyes, the latest in a series of scales which had already fallen earlier, and which I will deal with in my own book.

The economic transformation wrought by the PAP government is there for all the world to see. The towering skyline of the island city state, the great vistas of new high-rise apartments which had replaced the sordid sprawling slums and malarial swamps of only three decades ago, the magnificent international airport at Changi about which all visitors rave, the world latest and, perhaps, the best mass rapid transit system, the clean and green garden city – all and more – quite rightly evoke the envy and admiration of foreign visitors, especially those from developing countries with much less to boast of by way of efficient development-orientated governments.

I would be the last person to denigrate the material achievements of Singapore, for the good reason that I was also a member of the ruling team responsible for them. Like other members of the PAP old guard, I saw the creation of a solid socioeconomic base as a vitally necessary springboard for the realisation of human ends and values. At least for me, and for the others in the anti-colonial movement like me, the human agenda was primary. In short, the urgent, organized, disciplined drive for economic growth and technological progress was powered by non-economic aspirations and ideals.

Lee Kuan Yew’s earlier speeches echo the great themes of freedom fighters everywhere. As the several irrefragable quotes Seow offers in his book testify, Lee too had once waxed eloquent about liberty, freedom, harmony, justice, and the dignity of man. But reading Lee Kuan Yew today, or listening to him, one realizes how brazenly he has abandoned the positions which had so convincingly persuaded an earlier, revolutionary generation of Singaporeans, both old-guard colleagues and the population at large, to confirm him in the captainship of party and nation. We had taken him at his powerfully eloquent word. If Lee had then given the mildest hint of the apostate he was to become, he would have received short shrift from the revolutionary following who had put their trust in him.

What we launched as the independent republic of Singapore succeeded, as the world knows, all too well, only to discover that in the eyes of Lee Kuan Yew, means had become ends in themselves. First principles were stood on their heads. Economic growth and social progress did not serve human beings. On the contrary, the primary function of citizens was to fuel economic growth – a weird reversal of values. The reign of Moloch had begun. Not an unfamiliar phenomenon to those who browse in the pages of history. My old-guard colleagues and I might have been wiser men and women if we had read our history with greater comprehension than we do now. Alas, one cannot alter the past.

The inevitable drift to totalitarianism begins with the typically symptomatic thesis of the progenitors: “Society as No. 1, and the individual, as part of society, as No. 2.” The words are Lee Kuan Yew’s, speaking to journalists in Canberra, ACT, on November 16, 1988. He was dutifully echoed by Goh Chok Tong, the First Deputy Prime Minister, (now Prime Minister), when he announced this as one of the pillars of the government’s new goal of “a national ideology” for Singapore. Portentous words, given the current morbidities of the republic, which include the account given by Francis Seow in the following pages of his seventy-two days of detention and interrogation by the guardians of “national security,” the Internal Security Department. Seow learned at first hand what happens to the individual as No. 2, when subjected to society as No. 1 in the shape of his jailers and interrogators in the Whitley Detention Centre.

“The individual, as part of society,” is a marginal improvement on Mr Lee’s egregious penchant for referring to fellow-citizens as “digits” of the development process. You are either a productive “digit” or an inefficient one. And “digits”, like robots, if they are to be functionally useful, have to be programmed. So one need not be surprised that Singapore’s political programmers should now be working on a “national ideology,” in addition to the social and genetic engineering already in the works. Shades of Huxley’s Brave New World!

The tree is known by its fruits. The supremacy of the state over the individual which those inclined to totalitarianism always propound has invariably meant, in practice, the immolation of the individual at the altar of an impersonal, faceless, and conscienceless deity, sanctified by the grandiose term: “the organized community.” But the voices which issue from the iron throat are recognisably those of the political elite in power. They spell out the implacable social “imperatives” which override the rights of the individual. And in the name of these imperious mandates, the social juggernaut driven by political roughnecks grinds the hapless individual under its wheels. Francis Seow was one such victim. Another was Chia Thye Poh, whose lengthy incarceration has been compared to the experience of Nelson Mandela. It would be invidious to mention others by name, for either their spirits have been broken, or they remain subject to tongue-tying restrictions.

I am personally able to confirm the brutal fact that exile, for whatever reason, uprooted from one’s entire milieu of life, culture, and career, from friends and relatives, is, to put it bluntly – unremitting spiritual agony. Nonetheless, an ordeal certainly preferable to the individual as No. 2 suffering systematic asphyxiation by society as No. 1. And writing this foreword, I am cruelly aware that I am, in effect, finally and irretrievably burning my boats with my country and a people whom I love and served over the greater part of a lifetime. But what would you do? Exile, pensionless to boot, at least ensures the survival of the integrity of the person.

The story, as Francis Seow tells, is a grisly symptom of a high-seated (rather than deep-seated) political malaise afflicting Singapore. History will indict Singapore’s eminence grise, now Senior Minister and Secretary-General of the ruling party, Lee Kuan Yew, as the source and bearer of what, despite transient and misleading appearances to the contrary must, without radical political surgery, turn out to be a terminal condition.

I may be wrong in believing that the point of no return has already been passed, for currently it does appear that a population rendered politically comatose over the years will be unable to bestir itself sufficiently – apart from surreptitiously immobilizing subway trains by stuffing well-chewed chewing gum into their doors – to cancel the blank cheque it has given to the Singapore government.

However, I am also aware that we live in times when reality keeps exploding in the faces of experts. It has more than once exploded in mine, not to speak of Francis Seow’s. There is no guarantee that one day it will not explode in Lee’s own face, or in the face of those who will inherit his creed and style of power. Gorbachev, Ceausescu, and Honecker are only the more visible among the many who, undercurrents which suddenly surfaced, ensuing in utterly unforseen, convulsive change in the sprawling Soviet empire and eastern Europe, leaving all the world’s normally voluble geopolitical pundits and pontiffs flummoxed.

Some believe that the necessary inspiration for surgical intervention to rescue Singapore from terminal risk might arise from within the republic’s own undoubtedly intelligent establishment. A good number of professionals and civil servants do know, and will privately acknowledge – looking over the shoulder, of course – what has gone grievously wrong with the once promising Singapore experiment. In the strictest privacy, they readily admit that, if there is any country in Southeast Asia which, by virtue of economic success and probably the best educated population in Asia after Japan, can afford a more relaxed style of government, tolerant of free expression and dissent – that country is Singapore. They appreciate that the people of Singapore are certainly intelligent enough to discern where their best interest lie, and run the risk of falling prey to rabble-rousing politicians with easy panaceas and quick fixes.

Indeed, they vividly recall that an earlier, less educated generation of Singaporeans had, after listening to open public arguments and debates, repeatedly rebuffed at the polls slogan-shouting demagogues who clearly did not know the social and economic priorities of a small, island nation with absolutely no natural resources to boast of, dependent on neighbouring Malaysia even for its water, and entirely dependent on the stability of export markets for comfortable living. Finally, they know that the source of the overweening authoritarianism – so entirely contra-indicated by one of the most vibrant and successful economies of Asia – issues from the increasingly obsessive fixations and bizarre values of one man – Lee Kuan Yew.

But it remains to be seen whether knowledge goes with moral courage and the will to action. I confess that, with every passing year, I have come to fear that the point of no return has already reached and passed. For Singapore’s grey eminence lords it over the republic from the top of a tower of undeniable previous achievement. He had been the superb captain of a superb team which had led a highly responsive and intelligent population out of a savage and sterile political wilderness into outstanding success and internationally recognized nationhood.

Nonetheless, one must hope, even against hope, that the daunting challenge is not evaded by intellectually honest and spiritually courageous members of the Singapore establishment. The inevitable alternative is clearly the abortion of what began as the Singapore miracle. An abortion and a treachery. For not many societies return whole from the graveyard of elementary human rights and decencies.

Admittedly, Lee is right in talking of the remarkable economic transformation we wrought in Singapore, an achievement at once collective and individual. The people of Singapore well deserve the material success for which they worked so hard. But, all the same, they have reaped a baleful harvest. Lee bakes a bitter bread. The relish of greater material well-being gives way to the acrid taste of ill-being along other equally vital, if less tangible dimensions, beyond the gauge of GNP, the only measuring rod Lee knows. As his career progressed, he revealed, in increasing measure, enormous blind spots.

“Transformation” is quite the wrong word for qualitative aberrations which have occurred in the non-economic areas of life in Singapore. On reading Seow’s manuscript, the word which leaps to mind is “transmogrification” or the grotesque metamorphosis that has overtaken the perception and treatment of the individual in the republic.

My thoughts go back to my own arrest by the British colonial authorities in Singapore in the fifties. I have already indicated that my experience as a political prisoner under a British colonial administration had nothing in common with what Seow went through. I can come to only one conclusion. The colonial Special Branch were saints compared to Lee Kuan Yew’s Internal Security outfit. The end result of our struggle for political freedom and independence turns out to be not a progression in terms of respect for human dignity, but a surreptitious regression into barbarity.

Few can appreciate how painful a contemplation from the sidelines Seow’s account is for those like me who had spent a good part of our active lives helping to launch modern Singapore. Contrary to Lee’s pretensions, Singapore is not only his baby. It’s our baby as well. But under Lee’s exclusive charge, the miracle child suffocates today beneath a pile of heavy swaddling. Small wonder therefore that a disturbing number of Singaporeans have chosen to emigrate from Lee’s utopia to less strait-jacketed places like Australia, New Zealand and Canada, According to government figures, the exodus reached 4,000 families in 1989, around 16,000 people. The London Economist observed:

His (Lee’s) statistically-inclined government may well reflect that, proportionally, the exodus from Singapore, which faces no threat from China, was not far below the flight from Hong Kong last year.

Lee himself appears to be the only person who does not seem to have got the message. In his National Day Rally speech in 1989, he affected incredulity – even turning lachrymose – that so many Singaporeans should opt out of his paradise. Nobody present could summon the gumption to tell him that to discover the reason why, all that he need do was look into the mirror.

For Lee’s entire approach to government pointedly ignores some crucial ingredients of nation-building. Full employment, well-fed digestive tracks, clean streets, and decent homes are not the be-all and end-all of good government. They are only a necessary beginning – an essential foundation from which to aspire to greater human ends. Like people elsewhere, Singaporeans also have keen nonmaterial appetites, the satisfaction of which will not brook permanent denial. For these are fundamental urges which return after every banishment.

A new and better educated generation, increasingly open to the great winds of change blowing all over the world, is bound to intensify the search for an invigorating image of desire and hope, a liberating political formula, a more satisfying life scheme and scene than are available under the present pervasive system of coercion and control. Also, in this day and age, ideas and hopes increasingly scorn border check-points and censorship laws.

A society burdened by a multitude of prohibitions must come to suffer that stifling of innovation and creativity which comes of excessive regulation. Singaporeans today have to memorise an exhaustive list of prohibitions. But they are without a comparable list of what they are free to do.

Certainly citizens of a civilized community need to cultivate that sense of order and discipline which has served Singapore’s economic success so admirably thus far. But where a sense of social responsibility goes unnourished by an equally vivid sense of individual rights, and of participation and involvement in the entire political and legislative process, there the human spirit is bound to shrivel under the deadening touch of authoritarianism. Indeed, what has become increasingly evident to Singaporeans is Big Brother’s total lack of trust and confidence in the good sense and judgment of his citizens. Hence the hectoring speeches by ministers, and worse, the ubiquitous voice of the oracle telling everybody else, including government ministers who perform under his watchful eyes, what is good for them.

The obvious danger is that if ever Singapore is faced with a serious economic downturn, as is entirely possible given the republic’s overwhelming dependence on increasingly volatile export markets, the current disturbing brain drain may be expected to gush into massive exodus. And that would be a sad end for what began as the most promising experiment in socioeconomic growth in Southeast Asia.