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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

In Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore, prosperity rides on rails of repression

By Chou SEE Ahlek

As the United States' domain in Southeast Asia is whittled away by forces of national liberation, President Ford has summoned U.S. allies to Washington for consultations. Today Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore, visits Harvard after meeting with Ford last week.

In keeping with his reputation as a statesman and intellectual of international repute, Harry Lee (as he was known in his undergraduate days at Cambridge University) conscientiously seeks to associate himself with prominent sectors of Western intelligentsia and academia. Every now and then, eminent Western academics, ranging from Herman Kahn to Gunnar Myrdal, visit Singapore especially to meet him. When he can, and more recently, when he dares (perhaps because of unpleasant and embarrasing demonstrations) he ventures abroad to Cambridge, Harvard or Yale.

The Republic of Singapore, an island city-state of 2.1 million people (75 per cent of them of Chinese ethnic origin), became an independent nation in August 1965 after two turbulent years as a constituent state of the Federation of Malaysia. Established in 1819 as a port and later as a major military base for the British Empire. Singapore has grown since independence to be the world's third busiest port and one of its major oil-refining centers, with an economic base of manufacturing, shipbuilding, commercial and financial services, and a per capita GNP of over $1000 per year. It has sustained high, though now declining, rates of economic growth (over 10 per cent annually since 1967, a real rate of 6 per cent last year), and has undertaken a program of rapid industrialization with heavy foreign investment and government participation maintaining a generally impressive level of "political stability."

The People's Action Party (PAP), a professed "democratic socialist" party, dominated by Western-educated professionals and intellectuals and led by Lee, swept itself into the government of colonial Singapore in coalition with left-wing forces that had broad working-class support. The left-wing split off in 1961 to form the Barisan Sosialis, which the British and the PAP then systematically destroyed by massive arrests of leaders and intimidation of members and supporters, leaving the country today effectively a one-party state, with the media, labor unions, universities, armed forces and neighborhood associations tightly controlled by the PAP government.

The architects of Singapore's development in the last decade are a technocratic elite, directed by the PAP leadership. Lee Kuan Yew has led his trusted team of talented and brilliant senior cabinet members in ruthlessly creating a totalitarian city-state which is oft-cited in the West as a showcase of successful capitalist development and a paradise for foreign investors. Accompanying this experience is a meritocratic-elitist ideology which is summed up in Lee's claim that Singapore will perish if a jumbo-jet containing 300 of Singapore's top leaders were to crash.

A combination of carrot and stick measures has been responsible for the "success" of Singapore and the continued power of its ruling party. Since the government leaders are aggressive defenders of private enterprise and the free market system, and particularly anxious to integrate the nation into the world capitalist economy as a "global city" and regional headquarters for multinational corporations and foreign capital in Southeast Asia, most of the carrot has been offered to Western and some Asian businessmen, while the stick has been exclusively applied to the working class of Singapore.

Foreign business has been attracted by a comprehensive array of "investment incentives" including tax holidays, government subsidies and free repatriation of profits, and above all, an abundant, cheap, docile and increasingly skilled labor force of Singaporeans and temporary migrant labor from neighboring Malaysia. The acquiescence of the labor force to low wages and strict industrial discipline is obtained, on the one hand, by the government "delivering the goods" to the people in the form of public housing, social services and jobs, and on the other by repressive labor legislation.

Singapore's economic dependence on the multinational corporations has hit it hard in these days of stagflation. The consumer price index rose 40 per cent in 1973. Tens of thousands have been laid off, while many more have had to accept shortened work weeks and other wage cuts. The state of the world capitalist economy has also provided the multinational corporations with an excuse to reduce operations in Singapore and move to greener pastures in other countries offering even lower wage rates and other investment incentives.

While there have been signs of unrest among workers, one disadvantaged group is rarely heard about. They are the Malays, Singapore's indigenous population who now comprise 15 per cent of the population, and are systematically discriminated against in education and employment, despite the existence of "special privileges" which go only to a few. Malay youth are never called up to serve in the armed forces, for example--a supposedly compulsory duty--and hence are denied advantages in employment and other privileges which go to national servicemen. They perform many of the society's more menial functions and are to be found in the ranks of gardeners, chauffeurs, office peons and other low-paid jobs.

Singapore's role as "middleman" in the region, has frequently, and correctly, been seen as an exploitative one, leading to recent boycotts of its commercial facilities--for example, by the Malaysian pepper export trade. This "shrinking of the hinterland" may well be a long-term trend, but the government feels it may be able to forestall by always keeping a few steps ahead of her neighbors so that they will have to continue to be dependent on Singapore's "sophisticated" commercial and financial services.

"Survival" is one of the government's favorite words, as are "pragmatism" and "ruggedness." It continually impresses upon the people of Singapore their isolation and uniqueness as a tiny overcrowded island of predominantly Chinese people in a Southeast Asia which is predominantly Malay and Indonesian, thus playing on racial fears and chauvinism to win a measure of nationalistic support. A "garrison state mentality" is inculcated in the manner of Israel, which is a conscious model to those who call themselves "nation builders." The mind-set is reinforced by compulsory military service for males in an armed forces which receives as much as 30 per cent of the annual government budget. For 1972-1973, 42 per cent of the total budget was allocated for defense and internal security.

To many citizens and outside observers, Singapore closely resembles a police state. There is an absence of democratic freedoms such as freedom of the press and freedom of assembly and organization. After closing the Eastern Sun and Singapore Herald newspapers by cutting off finances, and arresting the editors of the Nanyang Siang Pau, the government implemented a new Press Act in 1974. Under this new Act, the government controls over 75 per cent of the voting power in all newspaper companies.

Other publications, such as student papers, need government licenses that are frequently withdrawn. All this is not surprising. The New York Times of November 26, 1973 reported that Lee Kuan Yew had stated that he would be the judge of what is fit to print in Singapore. Any criticism of government policy is regarded as "anti-national." For example Newsweek's Singapore correspondent has been found guilty of contempt of court for implying that the Singapore court system was not independent of the Government.

The Government in fact equates the survival of Singapore with its own survival, and those who oppose it run the risk of police harrassment and political detention without trial. There are scores of political prisoners in Singapore's jails--union leaders, students, workers and intellectuals--some of whom have been there for as much as 13 years. Lee is reported to have admitted. "We have over 100 political detainees, men against whom we are unable to place even an iota of evidence." The latest mass arrests were carried out in August 1974.

All students entering college-level institutions must be cleared politically by the Internal Security Department. Nevertheless the Singapore government recently found it necessary to crack down on the leadership of the University of Singapore Students' Union which had become active in supporting popular causes, such as opposing increases in bus fares and labor retrenchment.

It was Lee Kuan Yew himself, 19 years ago, while in opposition to the colonial Singapore legislature, who lamented, "Repression is like making love--it's 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 and in the scope of the attack." The year before, in 1955, Lee had asked, "If it is not totalitarian to arrest a man and detain him when you cannot charge him with any offense against any written law--if that is not what we have always cried out against in Fascist states--then what is it?"

On September 30th, 1974, in an after dinner speech to the delegates of the Commonwealth Press Union in Canberra, Australia, Lee unabashedly boasted, according to the Far Eastern Economic Review, "Well, in addition to all the conventional pressures we learned from the West, we also have special inquisitional instruments, ancient modes of torture, specially graduated to inflict pain more excruciatingly than that the journalists inflict on the politicians, plus, of course, interest added for grave injury done to the public good. We have also modernized these ancient forms with the addition of electrical and electronic gadgetry, stereophonic sounds to amplify the terror, and low sound waves to give sensations of an earthquake... In this way we can transform a bold and fearless critic into a willing and compliant sycophant."

Increasingly, more people in the West are beginning to critically reassess Lee. In November 1971, when he was to receive an honorary doctorate from an English university, the London Sunday Times published an editorial under the telling title "Doctor of Law and Master of Injustice," it said.

"Mr. Lee...may call himself a democratic socialist, but his interest in reasoned argument is a narrow one--confined, in fact, to argument which he agrees with. Singapore has a one-party parliament, which should enable a Prime Minister to liberate responsible dissent outside. Not at all. Free speech has been virtually extinguished by the well-known social democratic device of imprisonment without trial. The Singapore press is in chains...

...He (Lee) abolished the jury system...When the law was changed, he silenced the attempt to debate it in Singapore. On his instructions the newspapers were forbidden to publish, when it mattered, the critical resolution of the special meeting of the Bar, and its memorandum.

A good many English liberals, somehow overlooking this appalling record, have been captivated by Mr. Lee's fluency, his intelligence, his manifest stature as an international statesman."

Chou See Ahlek is a pseudonym for a Harvard student from Singapore who asked that his name not be used for fear of political repercussions.

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