How Confucius reads the Trib

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Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's increasingly touchy patriarch, has once again emerged as a victorious champion of "Asian values" in his latest battle with the Western press. The trial of the International Herald Tribune and an American academic for cont empt of Singapore's courts, which ended yesterday with a fine of £4,540, arose from an article which actually stated that some (unnamed) East Asian governments use "a compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians". Singapore took this personally .

This is the second lawsuit against the IHT in a matter of months; the first alleged that a reference to "dynastic politics" in another article implied that Brigadier-General Lee Hsien Loong was Singapore's deputy prime minister only because his father was Lee Kuan Yew. The IHT, which prints in Singapore, published an elaborate apology.

Lee Kuan Yew has become the chief spokesman for those who claim that Asia (not just what he calls the "chopstick civilisations" of East Asia) has its own, neo-Confucian values, which include respect for authority, the family unit, elders and education, plus a high savings rate, home ownership, hard work and clean living. Lee argues that the West mistakenly puts the rights of the individual above those of the community.

Evidently, such Asian values are not inborn, nor even imbibed with mother's milk or from fatherly example. The young Lee who read law at Cambridge returned very much a product of the West: a left-wing firebrand determined to throw out the British Raj. Heattacked colonialism in Western democratic terms, and told Singapore's Legislative Assembly in 1955: "If you believe in democracy, you must believe in it unconditionally. If you believe men should be free, then they should have the right of free association, of free speech, of free publication."

Even as a promising prime minister in the Sixties, "Harry" Lee (as he was generally known) was regarded by his fellow Chinese citizens as Westernised. Today's spokesman for Asian values was often called "the big banana" (yellow outside; white inside). Hecriticised Britain's military withdrawal from its Asian outposts under the Wilson government in such terms that a tipsy Foreign Secretary, George Brown, hailed him: "Harry, you're the best bloody Englishman east of Suez."

During the Sixties, Lee used laws inherited from the British to detain his political enemies, curtail opposition and tame the local press. In 1971 he suddenly and brutally moved against three Singapore newspapers, sentencing several executives of one paper to detention without trial and forcing another newspaper to close. The Singapore press was suitably terrorised and for the next 10 years rarely raised its head above the parapet dominated by Lee's People's Action Party, which then occupied 100 per cent of parliamentary seats. Lee served libel suits on many of his critics, including Malaysian newspapers that alleged corruption and Singapore election candidates who did the same.

Lee's first major shot across the bows of the foreign press came with the detention in 1977 of the correspondent of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review, Ho Kwon Ping, and a former staff writer, Arun Senkuttuvan - both Singaporean citizens butboth apparently insufficiently Asian. As editor of the Review, I had been warned by Lee the previous year that he would chop us ("Kaput!") if we went too far on matters he considered sensitive (such as defence), and that I should remember two things: that he (Lee) was a hard man who enjoyed an adversarial role with the press, and that he could hurt us, whereas we could not hurt him.

It was during this tirade that Lee first invoked the ghost of Confucius; after discoursing on the automatic loyalty and respect commanded by the emperor figure if he did his duties (maintaining the kingdom at peace, not over-taxing his people, etc), he added that what we failed to realise was that in a Confucian society, the phrase "loyal opposition'' was a contradiction in terms.

In 1993 the London Economist (whose correspondent had been denied access to government briefings and which in 1988 had decided to close its Singapore office) had its circulation cut and was required to post a US$125,000 "security bond" after it had edited out one sentence from a letter from the London High Commissioner. Time had its Singapore circulation cut from 18,000 to 2,000 for two years; Asiaweek from a claimed 9,000 to 500. In 1987 the Asian Wall Street Journal carried an article that questioned the need for a secondary stock market. Its Singapore circulation was cut from 5,000 to 400. By 1985 - 10 years after the Vietnam war and with the Cold War in Asia unravelling - Lee's anxieties for his "fragile" multiracial society, "garrison Singapore" alone in a hostile Malay ocean, the target of subversive plotters in Moscow, Peking and Hanoi, should have diminished. But he imposed ever stricter controls: regulating the length of male haircuts, behaviour in urinals, the use of chewing gum, smoking in public places.

He told me that he was determined to set things straight with the foreign press before he handed over power to the younger generation: he was drafting a new press law aimed at the pockets of owners and publishers, not editors. If any publication was deemed to be "engaging" in Singapore's domestic politics, its circulation (and its profits) could be cut to a trickle, while denying it the right to claim it had been banned.

The new law was quickly invoked against the US magazine Time, the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Time-owned Asiaweek. With all three, the issue was a new principle on which Singapore insisted: the right of reply. All had either failed to print, or failed to print word for word, an official rebuttal of an article. Then, in 1987, an article on the arrest and detention of 22 people (mostly Catholic social workers) accused of involvement in a Marxist plot to overthrow the government triggered off a reduction in Singapore circulation from nearly 10,000 to 500 and a libel suit, in which the Review admitted liability and paid damages and costs.

In shifting his attack from journalists and editors to owners and publishers, Lee appears to have made a shrewd assessment. Just as Hong Kong's business community is less than enthusiastic about democratic reforms that might reduce profits from the Chinatrade, so Lee's restrictions on the press are not yet seen as a barrier to those who still see money to be made out of Singapore's ambition to be a regional information centre. The tone has been set by Rupert Murdoch, who dumped BBC news and current events coverage and sold his satellite television channels to China.

Lee and the money men are backing the wrong horse. Asian values are being invoked by the region's remaining authoritarian and one-party states, who are swimming against the tide, as democracy gains ground in Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea. And, as the lids come off, what is emerging smacks not so much of Confucianism but of the West; opposition parties, anti-corruption campaigns, environmental pressure groups and increasingly free presses.