Chapter 5. Calibrated Coercion: The State Strategy of Self-Restraint
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Calibrated Coercion: The State Strategy of Self-Restraint 93 93 5 C H A P T E R Calibrated Coercion: The State Strategy of Self-Restraint China’s crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests is such a taboo topic that the merest hint of a mention online is sufficient to trigger the country’s famed internet firewall. However, as a statesman who has been in the game longer than most — indeed, longer than 100-plus current members of the United Nations even existed as sovereign nations — Lee Kuan Yew is often granted the latitude to comment on other countries’ most sensitive matters. Thus, at a closeddoor meeting with China’s then-premier, Singapore’s elder statesman went ahead and shared his opinion on Tiananmen. “I said to Li Peng, ‘you had the world’s TV cameras there waiting for the meeting with Gorbachev, and you stage this grand show,’” Lee later told Time magazine . “His answer was: ‘We are completely inexperienced in these matters.’” Lee related his own experience with (admittedly smaller) student protests in the early years of his government: “When I had trouble with my sit-in communist students, squatting in school premises and keeping their teachers captive, I cordoned off the whole area around the schools, shut off the water and electricity, and just waited. I told their parents that health conditions were deteriorating, dysentery was going to spread. And they broke it up without any difficulty.”1 It was not the only time that Lee chided a fellow authoritarian leader’s excessive use of state violence. In 1998, Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamed moved to neutralise his erstwhile deputy, the charismatic and popular Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar’s arrest under Chap5 (93-116) 93 Chap5 (93-116) 93 4/2/12 2:53:26 PM 4/2/12 2:53:26 PM 94 Freedom from the Press the Internal Security Act and his beating in custody, from which he sensationally emerged with a black eye, sparked protests the likes of which had not been seen for decades. A few months later, Lee met Mahathir at Davos in Switzerland. He related the conversation to The Straits Times. “‘Why did you arrest him under the ISA?’” Lee recalled asking Mahathir. “And he told me he did not know that Anwar was going to be arrested under the ISA. The Police chief had acted on his own authority. It never should have been that way, it should have been a straight-forward criminal charge.” As for the physical assault on the jailed politician, Mahathir pointed out that he would not have obtained any benefit from ordering the police chief to beat up Anwar. “I agreed,” Lee told The Straits Times, “but these are things that have been done and I am afraid he has paid very dearly for it. My sympathies are with him.”2 In his accounts of conversations with the leaders of China and Malaysia, Lee did not join the international chorus of condemnation against their use of excessive state violence. Instead, his criticism was grounded in realpolitik: why use physical force when subtler means could get the job done with less political cost? Tanks and men with guns may be a quick way to silence critics, but they also tend to create martyrs and provoke outrage in those watching from the sidelines, unleashing forces that will be even harder to tame in the long run. Lee understood that a state must calibrate its coercion if it wants to consolidate its dominant position. Calibrated coercion is an important feature of Singapore’s approach to managing the media. Draconian powers remain in the statute books. Yet, the government has often left these on the shelf and reached for less visible tools to prod the media this way and that. Over the decades, there has been a shift away from flamboyant punishments such as imprisoning journalists and banning publications, towards more behind-the-scenes controls that create the conditions for selfcensorship . Economic sanctions are favoured over those that violate the integrity of the individual. In addition, controls are targeted at limited numbers of producers and organisers of dissent, rather than at the mass of ordinary citizens. Obsessed with the goal of aligning the press with the PAP’s vision, there were moments when Lee was sorely tempted to dispatch civil servants to The Straits Times to take over the day-to-day running of the newsroom. Lacking neither the power nor the conviction, he nonetheless demurred...