How the 'values' of east Asia wield a double-edged sword: US academic's newspaper article led to police interrogation

For weeks, a thick haze of smoke from forest fires has hung over the cities of South-east Asia. When Christopher Lingle, an American academic based in Singapore, wrote an article for the International Herald Tribune, criticising official inaction over the fires, the last thing he expected was visits from the police. As the threat of prosecution appeared to rise, he left Singapore and does not intend to return. Writing from Atlanta for the Independent on Sunday, he tells what happened.

ON THE basis of my expertise in European Studies, in September 1993 I was engaged by the National University of Singapore to provide its students with a Western perspective.

When a senior civil servant in the Singapore Foreign Ministry offered sharp criticisms of European values and institutions, I felt it incumbent on me to offer a rejoinder. The official had surmised that Europeans could learn much from the material success of some east Asian countries. It was asserted that recent economic gains in the region were derived from a set of 'Asian values'. Similarly, the absence of such values was identified as the source of the malaise in the West.

For a large part of September this year, Singapore, much of Malaysia and parts of Indonesia were choking under a thick cloud of smoke from Indonesian forest fires raging out of control. On October 7, I wrote: 'It is unthinkable that such a catastrophe in Europe would meet with such resounding reticence among government officials of the affected countries.

'Despite pollution levels in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur that often surpass the unhealthy level, the public is belatedly informed that a ministerial meeting to address this crisis will not be held until the end of October.

One has to wonder what Europeans might learn from this Asian remedy.

'Such inaction and refusal to comment on the internal affairs of neighbours is a defining characteristic of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean). These Asian states seem more interested in allowing fellow governments to save face than in saving the lives of their citizens or preserving the environment.'

I then went on to analyse how governments in the region are able to suppress dissent among their citizens.

'Some techniques lack finesse: crushing unarmed students with tanks or imprisoning dissidents. Others are more subtle: relying on a compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians or buying out enough of the opposition to take control 'democratically'.'

It was this last observation that apparently angered the Singapore authorities. Although I had not specified any government officials or indeed any government, the response was swift and stunning. I was twice visited by Singapore plain-clothes policemen and interrogated about the intent behind my statements. The police were equipped with lap-top computers and printers ready to produce affidavits. They confiscated about 100 documents used in my research as well as the draft of my published remarks. Subsequently I have resigned from the National University of Singapore and have no plans to return.

My immediate superior at the National University had prior knowledge of, and facilitated, the police inquiry into my published comments. Though present at both periods of questioning, he offered neither advice nor any expression of concern for my well-being, either during or after the sessions. My Singaporean colleagues were similarly mute.

In contrast, my students and expatriate colleagues were widely supportive.

One might expect that the detachment of the administrators of the National University of Singapore would put a chill on the highly visible exchange programmes with prestigious institutions such as Harvard University.

To assess the state of civil liberties in Singapore today, it is illuminating to contrast my experience there with the six years that I spent in South Africa in the mid-1980s. During this time I challenged the oppression of the apartheid regime directly in my lectures as well as in published comments in professional journals and newspapers.

Although the regime was demonised as one of the most onerous of the century, I was never censured, either by the government or the University of Natal in Durban, my employer. Indeed, I am convinced that challenges to academic or press freedom by the apartheid regime would have met solid resistance from students, staff and the university administration.

Numerous journalists, friends and family members have asked whether I expected the sort of reception that brought my name so widely into the media. Upon reflection, while there were ominous signs, I would have to say that I never expected to confront the full force of the Singapore government for such general remarks.

Nothing in my comments here or in the article that prompted the response from the Singapore government ignores or belittles the admirable economic results of various countries in the region. Indeed, those Asian leaders whose policies provided the basis for dramatic gains in living standards deserve praise.

However, my current difficulties with Singapore's government provide support for the alarm I attempted to raise in my original article.

In simple terms, the price of these material gains is that many Asian regimes feel justified in taking severe steps to silence those who question the legitimacy and the means of their authoritarian rule.

(Photograph omitted)