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  • Trouble In Paradise
  • Christopher Lingle (bio)
To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison. By Francis T. Seow. Yale Center for International and Area Studies, 1994. 293 pp.

It is not surprising that short-term visitors to the bustling city-state of Singapore come away with favorable impressions of a clean, orderly, [End Page 172] and evidently crime-free country. These impressions are the result of a carefully crafted government campaign to create the image of a safe haven for weary travelers and eager businesspeople. If Francis T. Seow is correct, however, all is not well in this island paradise. Upon finishing his book, one is left with a nagging suspicion that the much-touted orderliness of “Singapore, Unlimited” is purchased at great cost in fear and official intimidation. This suspicion is confirmed by the author’s experiences there as well as my own.

I read this book in the autumn of 1994 while serving as a senior fellow in European studies at the National University of Singapore. The day after I completed a draft of this review, I was visited by a pair of plainclothes policemen who were investigating charges of defamation and contempt of court arising out of comments that I had made in a signed column, entitled “Smoke over Parts of Asia Obscures Some Profound Concerns,” that appeared in the International Herald Tribune of 7 October 1994.

My column had included remarks on various means of repression common to East Asia, including a passage about the use of a “compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians.” Although I named no countries or individuals, state prosecutors insisted that Singapore’s founder and former president Lee Kuan Yew and members of his ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) had a “track record of suing opposition politicians when they had been defamed.” Indeed, Singapore’s attorney general insisted that “there is no other such country” where this has happened. He then cited 11 cases where major opposition political figures had been tried for libel in the courts, many of them to be ruined financially by the proceedings. In an equally bizarre twist, Lee Kuan Yew filed a libel action against me even though neither his name nor that of Singapore ever appeared in my article. I fled Singapore before charges were filed against me and have not returned. I was tried in absentia and found guilty of making statements deemed to “impugn the integrity of the judicial system.” The fine of about $7,000 was the largest ever imposed as a contempt-of-court judgment.

Whatever doubts I might have entertained concerning the accuracy of Seow’s account were put to rest by my own incredible episode. Both of these incidents provide evidence of the arrogance of officials too long in power and too far removed from the cut and thrust of multiparty politics. Aside from certain oil-rich countries, Singapore is probably the only society in the world that has achieved consistently high standards of living without developing more recognizably democratic institutions.

Anyone who believes that Singapore is a free country will be disabused of that notion by this important book. A high standard is set in the remarkably insightful foreword contributed by C.V. Devan Nair, who, like the author, played an important and laudable role in the early development of postcolonial Singapore. Nair was an advisor and [End Page 173] confidant of Lee Kuan Yew from their early days together as dissidents protesting British colonial rule up through Lee’s years as premier (he stepped down from the office in 1990 but remains senior minister in the PAP cabinet).

Seow was himself a senior civil servant whose distinguished career culminated in his rise to the post of solicitor general. The story that he and Nair tell provides authoritative and chilling evidence of the mean-spirited brutality and autocratic rigidity of Lee and the regime that he created. Lee’s hypocrisy and opportunism stand out in bold relief against the background provided by his praise for democracy and attacks on the arbitrary exercise of power during the era of British colonial rule. By recounting this record, among other things, the book casts a new and...