Singapore exile, Tan Wah Piow has sent a letter to the Attorney-General Chambers (AGC) office asking for the convictions in 1975 against him and another two individuals to be quashed in view of the conviction against former NTUC secretary-general and People’s Action Party Member of Parliament, Phey Yew Kok on 22 January.
In his letter, Tan explained to the AGC that the new, compelling and unequivocal evidence which has recently emerged in his 42-year-old case and has since made the conviction against the three unsafe.
Tan Wah Piow, Ng Wah Leng and Yap Kim Hong were accused of being a member of an unlawful assembly, committing criminal trespass and the offence of rioting on or about 30 October 1974 at about 11 am at the office of the Singapore Pioneer Industries Employees’ Union (PIEU) and charged under Section 147 of the Penal Code.
The three accused were tried at the First District Court before Judge Mr T S Sinnathuray and finally convicted after a 47-day trial which started on the 10th December 1974.
During the trial, the prosecutors presented a case of how the three accused, together with five others invaded the PIEU office and rioted, causing damage to union property while the defence argued that the riot was a fabrication by Phey, the then General Secretary of PIEU with political reasons behind the frame-up.
At the end of the trial, the court found the three accused guilty of their charges, sentencing Tan to a year’s imprisonment, while the other two were both sentenced to a month’s imprisonment.
Tan wrote that he and the other two defendants had maintained their innocence throughout the whole trial, on the basis that the entire riot was staged by trade union officials at the instigation of Phey and that none of three were present at the alleged riot.
New evidence emerges after 42 years
The former NTUC chairman, Phey Yew Kok was eventually convicted of embezzlement of trade union funds and fabrication of evidence after being on the run for over 30 years aboard. Tan wrote that Phey’s conviction is of direct relevance to the 1974 ‘Riot’ case because his criminality dated back to 1973 before he and his PIEU staff testified against Tan and the other two in court.
Tan highlighted Presiding Judge Jennifer Marie’s remarks on Phey during his sentencing: “The facts reveal that Phey, like a serial criminal, systematically and with deliberation over a period of six years, perpetrated these offences. He had no qualms in trying to evade detection and had the temerity to instigate his staff to fabricate false evidence.”
He went on to point how this revelation impinges on the credibility of Phey as a prosecution witness in the 1974 trial. Tan wrote, “This is because the trial judge, TS Sinnathuray, arrived at a guilty verdict based on the evidence of someone we now know to be a crook and a thief, and who had the capacity to exert his criminal influence over his staff.”
He noted that if Judge TS Sinnathuray was aware of Phey’s propensity to influence trade union staff to pursue his criminal enterprise, the weight that the judge would put on the veracity of the prosecution evidence must be very different.
“Likewise, the outcome of the verdict would have inevitably been different.” wrote Tan.
Tan added in his letter, “If the fact that Phey Yew Kok was plundering the trade union coffers since 1973 was known to the judge at the time of the trial in 1974, it would be reasonable to suggest that any judge looking at the matter fairly and reasonably would have found the defence credible to Phey’s criminal enterprise.”
Constitutional duty to ensure any miscarriages of the justice be rectified
AGC has since acknowledged that it has received the letter from Tan on 29 January.
Tan said, “The Attorney General in independent of the Government. He is the custodian of the rule of law, and it is within the remit of his power, as well as his constitutional duty to ensure that any miscarriages of the justice must be rectified.
The technicality of how to quash a conviction is a matter for him to initiate without having to consult the government as he is supposed to be independent.
As a last resort, he can advise the government to quash the conviction by way on Act of Parliament. If they refuse, he would have to consider his position.”
Far-reaching impact of 1974 conviction
Should the AGC quash the convictions, the impact of doing so, would not be just limited to redressing the name of the three convicted but also far-reaching on other issues.
Allegations against Tan in 1987
Tan was touted by the government as the leader of the Marxist conspiracy during the Operation Spectrum in 1987. His alleged leadership role in the conspiracy was supported primarily via the conviction of allegations against him in court.
So if Tan’s conviction is quashed, this would likely spur the need for a whole re-look at the arrests made under the Internal Security Act during the 80’s and raise questions of whether statements made by alleged conspiracists on telecasted programmes were, in fact, forced confessions.
The news of Mr Seow passing was first announced by Dr Chee Soon Juan, Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) on his Facebook page. He wrote, “I always enjoyed his wit when we met. He also wrote the Foreword to my book, The Power of Courage. My deepest condolences to the Seow family.”
It has been verified with family members of Mr Seow that he has died in Boston, USA, where he had been living in exile.
Seow’s life as a political dissent has been harsh and his eventual exile from Singapore was the ultimate price for voicing against the administration.
Seow had joined the Singapore Legal Service in 1956 and rose through the ranks to become the Solicitor-General in 1969, a position he held until 1971. During his career, he was appointed senior counsel to a Commission of Inquiry in the Secondary IV examination boycott by Chinese students in 1963 prior to Singapore’s entry into Malaysia. For his work, Seow was awarded the Public Administration (Gold) Medal. He eventually left the public service and entered into private law practice in 1972.
Seow was later suspended from law practice for 12 months by Wee Chong Jin, Singapore’s first Chief Justice, for breaching an undertaking given on behalf of his junior law partner to the Attorney-General, Tan Boon Teik, while in private practice. Nonetheless, he was later elected as a member of the Council of the Law Society in 1976 and eventually became its President in 1986.
In May 1986, Seow as the then-president of Law Society issued a press statement criticising the government’s amendment to the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA).
In response to this, Singapore leaders accused Seow of using the Law society as a political vehicle.
Three months later, in August, the government announced that it would tighten the legislation governing the law society, forcing Seow to step down as president from the implemented changes passed under the Legal Profession (Amendment) Act. The government also deprived the Law Society to comment on any legislation unless asked by the government under Section 38 (1).
Straits Times newspaper dated 21 May 1986
Just before the election in 1988, Seow was also detained under the Internal Security Act for 72 days, when he was accused of having received funds from the United States to promote democracy in Singapore.
He alleged that he was subjected to torture during his detention. According to his accounts, he was imprisoned in a small windowless cell, for his entire period of detention with only a raised concrete platform topped with a wooden plank for a bed. During his interrogations, he was forced to remain standing, on one occasion, for sixteen hours.
Seow was released just before the General Election 1988 where he joined Workers’ Party to form a team to contest Eunos GRC against the People’s Action Party. The WP team garnered 49.1 per cent of the vote despite the negative publicity surrounding him.
Straits Times – 19 August 1988
During the election, Seow was further charged for tax evasion. Later, while awaiting trial for alleged tax evasion, he left for the United States for health treatment and disregarded numerous court summons to return to stand trial.
Subsequently, he was convicted in absentia. While living in exile, Seow spoke at events organised by Singaporean student societies in universities outside of Singapore.
On 16 October 2007, Amnesty International issued a public statement mentioning Seow as one of two prominent Singaporean lawyers who were penalised for exercising their right to express their opinions. Amnesty International called him a “prisoner of conscience.”
Forum by SDP in 2011
On 8 October 2011, Mr Seow publicly addressed a forum by SDP via teleconferencing. The event was later investigated by the police for any violation of laws.
"We have learned that any solution to our problems require much more that the piecemeal measures attempted in the past. It demands nothing less than a fundamental change in our approach to the idea of development, a paradigm shift toward the parallel pursuit of democracy and a market economy."
So said the late Kim Dae Jung, South Korea's former president. When the country was undergoing its economic throes in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Kim knew that South Korea needed radical changes in order to resuscitate the economy. South Korea was emerging from a long period of dictatorships and a command economy dominated by the the political elite and chaebols (conglomerates owned by wealthy families).
When Kim was elected president in 1998, he ditched authoritarian rule and took the country on a sharp turn towards democracy. The result? South Korea's economy bounced back with a vengeance. Today, corporations like Samsung, LG, Hyundai, SsangYong, Kumho, etc. compete on the international stage with the world's leading brands.
And it's not just gadgets and cars that South Korea is exporting, the country's pop culture have found its way into the hearts of people far and wide. Korean television dramas are popular not just in Asia but places as far away as Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. The musical genre of K-pop has become a mainstay in the teen subculture all over the world with the Korean boy band, BigBang, even becoming the "gods of pop" in Indonesia. In 2012, Korean musician Psy took the globe by storm with this Oppa Gangnam Style dance video.
Somewhere in here is a lesson for us in Singapore. When I met Kim before he became president, he had repeated to me that it was unfortunate that much of Asia was still under undemocratic rule which stymied the development of our societies.
It is a view I share deeply. Innovation does not take place in the halls of government buildings and it cannot be kindled from ministerial pronouncements. Innovation thrives in a culture that not just tolerates but celebrates openness, diversity and, yes, dissent; it flourishes in an environment where people have free and full access to information.
Financial analyst Michael Schuman expressed this point perfectly, writing in Timemagazine in 2010: "Fear caused by political control doesn't foster an atmosphere conducive to free thinking. Censorship and limitations on information curtail the knowledge and debate necessary for the generation of new ideas. I'm not the only one who believes this is true. Some Koreans...argue that the country couldn't have become more innovative without democracy." It is no accident that freedom of expression and innovation are so commonly juxtaposed in the entrepreneurial world.
But even before the 1997 meltdown, economist and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugmanhad pointed out that Singapore's top-down, input-driven growth model was unsustainable: "One can immediately conclude that Singapore is unlikely to achieve future growth rates comparable to the past." This is because, Krugman explained, "Singapore's growth can be explained by increases in measure inputs. There is no sign at all of increased efficiency."
But instead of liberalising our society and encouraging the hard work of innovation like the Koreans did following the financial crisis in 1997, the PAP took the easy way out by transforming our city into a tax haven and attracting the super rich of the world. Instead of making policy adjustments to retain our local talent and investing in our people, our rulers found it expedient to bring in foreigners by the millions.
Of course, these measures generated GDP growth but it was growth that masked deeper structural problems of our economy. For one thing, labour productivity levels remained dismal even as GDP expanded. The problem persists to this day with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong lamenting that we have "maxed out" on easy ways of achieving economic growth - a tacit admission that Paul Krugman was right.
"Productivity is very tough to do," Lee acknowledges. Indeed it is. Analysts observethat it is harder now to retool Singapore's economy. The PAP has done everything - or almost everything - to kickstart the productivity engine. In 1991, it came up with the National Technology Plan to propel Singapore into the "major league of a world-class innovation-driven economy by 1995." Five years later, it launched the SME21 plan to "promote SMEs is to help them tap into global networks." This was followed by a 2001 report from Economic Review Committee (ERC) which promised to "make Singapore a knowledge economy powered by innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship." Nine years later, another committee, the Economic Strategies Committee (ESC), was formed to "make skills, innovation and productivity the basis for economic growth." Now in 2016, the government has reincarnated the ERC and ESC in the form of theCommittee on the Future Economy, or CFE, to (predictably) "recommend strategies to enable companies and industry clusters to develop innovative capacities."
In between, there were a myriad of schemes - costing taxpayers more that $20 billion - to boost productivity. They included promoting R&D, enhancing of public-private sector collaboration, upgrading workers' skills and capabilities, increasing foreign-worker levies, subsidising businesses in purchasing IT equipment, and so on. Bodies like the National Productivity Board, SPRING Singapore and, more recently, the National Productivity and Continuing Education Council were established to lead the productivity chase.
And yet, for nearly two decades, productivity gains continue to elude us, and we have produced few innovative enterprises that are able to compete internationally. Such a scenario does not paint a bright future of our economy. In fact, Nomura's Global Markets Research predicts that the failed productivity drive will be a drag on economic growth until the end of this decade.
We have tried everything except the one that is key: Freeing our society from authoritarian rule. It is clear that the anachronistic paradigm of undemocratic, one-party dominance - where debate, a free media, and a fair election system are non-existent - is the proverbial albatross around Singapore's neck.
And because we have taken the easy way out all these years, we are ill-prepared to weather the global economic storm that is about to descend upon us. There is gloom in our housing market, our dollar continues to weaken even as we spent $40 billion of our reserves trying to prop it up, our oil-rig builders Kepple and Sembcorp Marine are under severe strain from cancelled projects; our flagship shipping company Neptune Orient Lines collapsed under unsustainable losses and was sold off; household debt of Singaporeans soared to become one of the highest in the world and, perhaps most frighteningly, China's economy seems on track to becoming the epicenter of the next global economic meltdown - an economy of which we are the biggest foreign investor.
Assuredly, we will not be able to avoid the upheaval. The question is, when we emerge from it, will we divest ourselves of the many excuses we have put up to defer from opening up our political system, or will we continue down the dead-end alley of authoritarian rule?
To judge only by appearances, the outpouring of grief by a million-and-a half Singaporeans at the funeral of their country's founder and long-time prime minister Lee Kuan Yew last week resembles that of Americans at the funeral of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. But, it also mirrors North Koreans' weeping with unfeigned grief in 2011 over their deceased "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il, about whom the less said the better, and of Russians' in 1953 over the body of Josef Stalin, who had repelled the Nazi invasion and built a superpower with a safety net but terrorized, imprisoned and murdered millions of innocent people in many countries, including his own.
So much for appearances. Lee Kuan Yew was truly quite a bit more like Stalin than like Roosevelt, but, since Singapore is a tiny city-state and world-capitalist entrepot, he also resembled New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, under whom that world city, too -- it's only about 15% larger than Singapore -- became cleaner, safer, more prosperous -- and more sterile, unequal, and unjust not only for many of its African-American and Latino-American citizens but also for the one-third of its residents who are poor immigrants and whose lives, like those of one-third of Singapore residents, are glimpsed by most of the rest of us only when we see them at work.
Like Giuliani and Stalin, Lee was clever, disciplined, effective, prescient, racially divisive, vicious, vindictive, and a control freak. He cleaned the streets and waterways, selected the shade trees, imposed a somewhat robotic examination-driven meritocracy in education, and secured the comforts of investors, and tourists, and tiny Singapore's 70,000 resident millionaires (in U.S. dollars) and 15 billionaires by importing more than 1.5 million virtually rights-less migrant workers to keep wages down and instill fear and cultural sterility in generations of Singaporeans. And how did he instill it?
"I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens," Lee said. "Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn't be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn't be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters -- who your neighbor is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think." (The Straits Times, April 20, 1987)
Many ordinary people kissed his feet for that. Welcome to human history and to the downside of human nature.
At least New York's Giuliani was curbed by state and federal leaders and an independent judiciary, under a Constitution that had been crafted in open debate among brilliant founders. Lee abolished all curbs, and he virtually wrote and interpreted the constitution by himself. "We have to lock up people, without trial, whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists. If you don't do that, the country would be in ruins," he said in 1986 while imprisoning and cruelly abusing Catholic Church social-justice workers who were certainly opposed to his practices and whom he also claimed but never proved were Communists.
Like many a silver-tongued, anti-colonialist, anti-racist firebrand who turns his colonial masters' noble rhetoric against them but wound up employing their tactics against those he was leading, Lee very tellingly foreshadowed his own transformation from tribune of the oppressed to autocrat of the oppressed during a 1956 debate in the colonial assembly by condemning Singapore's British oppressors a bit toodeliciously:
"Repression, Sir is a habit that grows," he taunted Singapore's British chief minister David Marshall in the island's colonial legislative assembly. "I am told it is like making love -- it is always easier the second time! The first time there may be pangs of conscience, a sense of guilt. But once embarked on this course with constant repetition you get more and more brazen in the attack. All you have to do is to dissolve organizations and societies and banish and detain the key political workers in these societies. Then miraculously everything is tranquil on the surface. Then an intimidated press and the government-controlled radio together can regularly sing your praises, and slowly and steadily the people are made to forget the evil things that have already been done...."
That is precisely what Lee did as prime minister. When Lee and his wife Kwa Geok Choo read law at Cambridge, they developed a love-hate relationship to British imperial ways. He even took the English nickname Harry, and, late in the 1960s, when he was becoming Singapore's strongman, British foreign secretary George Brown told him, "Harry, you're the finest Englishman east of Suez."
As if acting out his own prescient taunt to the Brits about the delights of their repression, he used a terrified parliament and judiciary and press to smear, bankrupt, imprison, harass, and exile other potential founding fathers. Of J.B. Jeyaretnam, another silver-tongued but more principled member of the opposition in independent Singapore's first parliament, Lee said: "If you are a troublemaker...it's our job to politically destroy you. Put it this way. As long as J.B. Jeyaretnam stands for what he stands for -- a thoroughly destructive force -- we will knock him. Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one."
And, with incredibly petty vindictiveness, Lee's government pursued Chee Soon Juan, who was fired in 1993 from his teaching job at the National University of Singapore after he had joined an opposition party, and who was repeatedly imprisoned and bankrupted simply for joining an opposition party and for holding small street demonstrations to air criticisms that state-controlled media wouldn't publish. When Chee, who couldn't pay his huge bankruptcy penalty, was prohibited from leaving the country to address a human-rights conference in Oslo, Thor Halvorssen, President of the Human Rights Foundation, published an open letter to Lee's son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, noting that:
"In the last 20 years he has been jailed for more than 130 days on charges including contempt of Parliament, speaking in public without a permit, selling books improperly, and attempting to leave the country without a permit. Today, your government prevents Dr. Chee from leaving Singapore because of his bankrupt status.... It is our considered judgment that having already persecuted, prosecuted, bankrupted, and silenced Dr. Chee inside Singapore, you now wish to render him silent beyond your own borders."
Another one-time founding father of Singapore, its former solicitor general Francis Seow, had to flee the country after declaring that its Law Society, which he headed, could comment critically on government legislation. Seow was arrested and detained for 72 days under Singapore's Internal Security Act on allegations that he had received funds from the United States to enter opposition politics. "[T]he prime minister uses the courts ... to intimidate, bankrupt, or cripple the political opposition. Distinguishing himself in a caseful of legal suits commenced against dissidents and detractors for alleged defamation..., he has won them all," wrote Seow, who, convicted and fined in absentia on a tax evasion charge by Singapore's courts, lives in exile in Massachusetts, where he has been a fellow at the East Asian Legal Studies Program and the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.
It took the undergraduate Yale International Relations Association and the faculty's Council on Southeast Asia Studies to embarrass Singapore into letting Jeyaretnam's son, Kenneth, and Chee come to New Haven to speak in 2012. (Seow did not respond to the invitation.)
Lee's racism was almost quaint, trading on 19th-Century notions that his British colonial masters had held: "Now if democracy will not work for the Russians, a white Christian people, can we assume that it will naturally work with Asians?" he asked -- not rhetorically -- on May 9, 1991, at a symposium sponsored by the large Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.
Race riots among Chinese, Indian and Muslim Malay residents of Singapore in the 1950s had taught him to impose "harmony" through strict allocations of resources and services along race lines: All Singaporeans carry ethnic identity cards, and Lee even invoked genetics to justify his enforced racial harmony and service distribution:
"The Bell curve is a fact of life. The blacks on average score 85 per cent on IQ and it is accurate, nothing to do with culture. The whites score on average 100. Asians score more ... the Bell curve authors put it at least 10 points higher. These are realities that, if you do not accept, will lead to frustration because you will be spending money on wrong assumptions and the results cannot follow," he said in 1997, in an interview for the book Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas.
"If I tell Singaporeans -- we are all equal regardless of race, language, religion, culture, then they will say, "Look, I'm doing poorly. You are responsible." But I can show that from British times, certain groups have always done poorly, in mathematics and in science. But I'm not God, I can't change you...." That was in 2002, in the bookSuccess Stories.
And in 2011, in his book Hard Truths, we read:
"People get educated, the bright ones rise, they marry equally well-educated spouses. The result is their children are smarter than those who are gardeners. Not that all the children of gardeners are duds. Occasionally two grey horses produce a white horse but very few. If you have two white horses, the chances are you breed white horses. It's seldom spoken publicly because those who are NOT white horses say, 'You're degrading me'. But it's a fact of life. You get a good mare, you don't want a dud stallion to breed with your good mare. You get a poor foal. Your mental capacity and your EQ and the rest of you, 70 to 80% is genetic. "
Lee dropped his nickname "Harry" while touting his ways against Western criticisms of his mounting offenses against basic freedoms and his -- and China's -- embrace of top-down, state capitalist control of all society. In 2012 The Economist magazineexplained that state capitalism was pioneered by Lee, "a tireless advocate of 'Asian values,' by which he meant a mixture of family values and authoritarianism."
Liberal, it wasn't. "I had my own run-in with Lee some years ago," former Harvard president Derek Bok told me, "when the government in Singapore jailed the young head of the Harvard Club for 'consorting with the wrong people.' I wrote in protest to Lee and was surprised to receive a letter of several typewritten pages from him trying to persuade me that Asian values are different from those in the United States. Nothing in that experience [with Lee] would tempt me to try to establish a Harvard College in Singapore."
Lee's concoction of "Asian values" was meant partly to deter Westerners from criticizing repressive regimes. And as those regimes try to ride the golden riptides of global finance, communications, labor migration, and consumer marketing, they're turning to ancient Confucian, Islamic, and even Western colonial traditions to shore up and legitimize their control against huge new inequalities, degrading labor practices and consumer marketing, and criminal behavior.
Here's a short but devastating summary of the legal scholar Jothie Rajah'sAuthoritarian Rule of Law, about Lee's governance, that will require 15 minutes and a strong stomach to read.
"Singapore is improving," its apologists sometimes insist. But Reporters Without Borders now ranks it an abysmal 151of 180 nations in press freedoms -- down from 135 in 2012. The Economist magazine's rigorous Democracy Index ranks it with Liberia, Palestine, and Haiti. Human Rights Watch calls it "a textbook example of a repressive state." Two years ago, a five-part Wall Street Journalseries documented its abuses of migrant Chinese bus drivers, a paradigm of how it treats the rights-less migrants who are one-third of its population. The country's 2014 Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, is 0.478, one of the widest in the world.
Alternative views come only on a few brave websites, such as Online Citizen andTremeritus and in the Yale-NUS bubble, which Singapore is taking care to accommodate: When the government tried a few months ago to ban "To Singapore With Love," a documentary on leftist activists who had fled the country to escape certain imprisonment and worse, Yale-National University of Singapore College obtained an exemption to show it "for educational purposes" and decided not to use it only after the filmmaker Tan Pin Pin protested that if it couldn't be shown everywhere in Singapore, it shouldn't be shown anywhere.
While many Singaporeans are wonderfully astute and fair, owing partly to the very rigor and probity that Lee Kuan Yew demanded, many others are marinating inressentiment, a curdled bitterness that, unlike clean indignation, blames Singapore's ills on its critics. The ruling party seems to have hundreds of on-demand trolls who descend upon critical posts, hurling insults, as hundreds did at me when I posted an account here in Huffington Post of Singapore's long, close, but secret collaboration with Israel in building up its own military. My Wikipedia page was also altered beyond recognition then by voluntary "editors" whose monikers identified them as Singaporean.
A commenter on another post I'd written questioning Yale's joint venture in founding a new liberal-arts college with the National University of Singapore exhibited the bitterness:
"I don't see why we need to have a partnership with an institution that has produced the talents who... have morally and financially bankrupted their once great nation," she wrote. "Call us authoritarian all you want but we are a prudent state while yours is a once great nation that is a banana republic on its way to fascism. And your nation owes us and other authoritarian regimes A LOT of money. All made possible in part by the notables graduates of Yale and other Ivies. I suggest that debt slaves adopt a more courteous attitude toward their creditors instead of name calling and stereotyping. Btw, Feel free to come grovel for a job once this comes to pass."
The hypocrisy here is worth noting: Much of this commenter's account of what American and global capitalism are doing to republican virtues and prospects is true, but any suggestion that similar things are happening in Singapore generates such excruciating discomfort among its elite apologists that they denounce critics in ways they wouldn't dare to denounce their own country's leaders.
As Singapore flourished as a world-capitalist entrepot, its investors and advisors, including some members of Yale's governing corporation, paid little attention to the repression and its festering costs. And Lee, in semi-retirement as "Minister Mentor" (his son Lee Hsien Loong is now prime minister and his daughter-in-law Ho Ching is CEO of Temasek, one of Singapore's two sovereign wealth funds), began sounding wise and avuncular, at least to journalists such as Thomas Plate (writing for Singapore's government-controlled Straits Times) and Fareed Zakaria (who was a Yale Corporation member at the time).
Like Giuliani and Stalin, Lee certainly had truths to impart to liberals: Because democracy is messy, its public virtues and beliefs do need assiduous cultivation. "You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, schools," Lee said in an interview for Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas. He might have added, rightly enough, that most people even want some authority in their lives. Beyond that, a little island with no natural resources has scant wiggle room. Unlike the sprawling U.S., Singapore certainly has had no blunder room. That makes Lee's iron grip seem admirable.
But Lee also had many truths to disguise, and, for that, he needed apologists. Thomas Plate, the journalist who became a Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University and author of the Giants Of Asia book series, of whom Lee Kuan Yew was the first, assured readers of his long account of the man's thinking in the Straits Times newspaper that Lee "hated... uninformed debate," because he preferred "free, frank speech" among leaders who are well informed and able to debate and govern, over the idea that everyone has a right to speak, no matter how ignorantly or dishonestly.
A veteran Singaporean government manager told me that he considers this distinction "cringe worthy" because Lee had no use for free, frank speech even among his peers. Remember, he crushed his fellow founding fathers. A Singaporean studying at Yale e-mailed me that "Plate is too uncritical about a supposed zero-sum game between 'truth-telling' and 'equal' speech. Liberal democracy believes in the wisdom of crowds, that people refine their political thinking through the act of participating in politics. But the crowds are going to remain dumb if they don't speak. (Funny how dumb has that double meaning)."
It's not so funny. Elites in the United States and at Davos, unnerved by the western civic decay that they themselves have caused, are dancing desperately up Singapore's garden paths seeking elegant reassurance from Lee Kuan Yew's achievements that ultimately, "the people" can and must be ruled. But global elites can barely rule themselves.
Let's hope that they'll grasp the point of the joke about Lee that tells of two dogs swimming in the waters between Singapore and Borneo, but in opposite directions. The dog headed towards Borneo asks the other one why he's swimming to Singapore. The answer: "Ah, the shopping, the housing, the air-conditioning, the health care, the schools. But why are you going to Borneo?" The dog swimming away from Singapore answers: "Oh, I just want to bark."
For dogs, barking is almost as important as breathing; in humans, it means speaking up in ways that nourish the arts and the best political solutions, which emerge from the wisdom of crowds. Without that, a society experiences demoralization, decadence, and brain drain. Liberal democracy may be implausible, but it's indispensable and irrepressible, and, ultimately, it's the only way to affirm human potential and dignity. Stalin never learned that, and the Soviet Union paid the price. New York's Giuliani never learned it, either but, thanks to constitutional democracy, others have replaced him. We can hope that, sooner or later, Singapore and China will learn it, too.
I have a serious question. Is the GRC electoral system a good one for Singapore’s political development? If it is, why is it we have nurtured very few leaders who can stand on their own in the last 25 years?
Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong, Lee Hsien Loong and Chiam See Tong: all these household names started with spectacular victories in their own single wards before the GRC system was introduced.
The original purpose of the GRC or Group Representation Constituency idea was to ensure representation for the minority races in Singapore’s Parliament. That meant about 25 per cent of total Parliament seats for non -Chinese Singaporeans.
But today, the GRC system forms the major part of our electoral system with only 13 single wards or SMCs left. Some 76 wards come under 16 GRCs, some of which have as many as six seats!
The GRC system served the dominant party well until the 2011 GE. Then, for the first time, one GRC fell to the opposition. Was it an aberration, a one-off event? Or has the GRC defence moat been over-run?
The defence strategy of the Peoples’ Action Party has been to make a full minister lead the charge in each GRC. The electorate would hesitate to vote against a minister and so the whole GRC team would emerge victorious.
Each GRC fortress was defended by a moat in the form of a full minister who had fought his way through several SMC battles. This strategy enabled the PAP to romp home to victories in all GRCs until 2011 and, in the process, pull into Parliament all sorts of other untested new candidates.
Well and good till then. But the GRC system has outlived its strategic purpose even for the PAP. As stalwarts like Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong move off centre stage, the younger ministers who originally came into Parliament via the GRC umbrella are not always able to hold their own.
The opposition is now mounting challenges in old fortress GRCs like Marine Parade and Tanjong Pagar. ESM Goh has had to stay back and fight another round in Marine Parade even though his younger colleague Tan Chuan Jin has been there for some years. Ask yourself why.
Given the relative weakness of several moats around GRCs, the PAP should really examine their relevance and usefulness.
By all means retain 10 three-or-four member GRCs, each with two minority candidates. That will facilitate the entry of up to 20 non-Chinese MPs into Parliament. This would represent over 25 per cent of the new Parliament with 89 seats (for instance). The majority of wards (or at least 49 wards) would then revert to SMCs which could see one-on-one battles.
There would be two benefits of such a system:
It will allow new political champions to emerge in their own right rather than through the protective umbrella of GRCs. It will be good for the political development of Singapore.
It will stem the emergence of the GRC system as the Achilles Heel of the PAP. GRCs led by 3rd generation or 4th generation leaders, who have never stood for election in an SMC, are not the fortresses they are perceived to be.
The other parties have equalled to the game. One heavyweight candidate, or two, in a GRC can swing the whole GRC away from the incumbents. When the moat is over-run, the GRC will fall. And with it, not one but four or five Parliamentary seats.
The GRC system raises the stakes. Good people get washed out (or swept in) with the weak and average. It is not equitable to the candidates. All are put in the same boat. One leak, and everyone is in the water. A lot is left to chance.
It is also not fair to the voters. I’m forced to vote for four or five people, out of which only one will represent me.
The core rationale behind the GRC system may also not apply that much in today’s Singapore. Who is to say that a minority candidate will not be elected in a straight contest against a Chinese Singaporean? I have greater faith in the judgement of Chinese Singaporeans!
This commentary first appeared on the writer’s Facebook page. He also posts on his Manologue FB page.