Lee's Law: How Singapore crushes dissent
Scribe, $33 pb, 333 pp
Singapore and Malaysia have a lot in common beyond a shared border and a shared colonial heritage. Both countries have been dominated for decades by one strong leader – Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Dr Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia. Both have a weak Opposition and a muzzled media. Both have an internal security act inherited from the British, and which is used to detain people without trial. In both countries, the common law system has been bent into ugly new shapes to silence dissent. Each of these books traces the fate of a man who dared to challenge the leader but failed, crushed by an adversary with superior tactics, greater political strength, and, above all, more sway in the courts.
In the case of Singapore, we have indefatigable opposition campaigner J.B. Jeyaretnam, with his trademark mutton-chop whiskers and sonorous voice, which, once heard, can never be forgotten. Chris Lydgate describes it, almost lovingly, as
a stately Victorian bass, with a crusty accent almost extinct in modern Singapore; dry, forceful, eloquent, creaky like an old cabinet, polished by the echoes of a thousand dusty courtrooms, laden with the cadences of an advocate, a campaigner, even a preacher.
When Jeyaretnam won the seat of Anson for the Workers’ Party at a by-election in 1981, he became the first opposition MP elected in Singapore in eighteen years. He had already fought and lost against Lee Kuan Yew’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) in four previous elections. More ominously, he had also fought and lost against the PAP in two libel suits, and been forced to sell his house to pay the costs and damages awarded against him. Worse was to come. Lee Kuan Yew described Jeyaretnam as ‘a thoroughly destructive force’ and Lee saw it as his job to destroy him politically. Lydgate illustrates Lee’s take-no-prisoners approach with a revealing quote from a series of interviews conducted with Singapore’s ‘senior minister’ in 1997:
Nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul-de-sac … Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle-dusters. If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no other way you can govern a Chinese society.