The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew

Attack civil liberties? No, the Prime Minister made Singapore free

Calvin Cheng
Thursday 26 March 2015 13:11
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Lee Kuan Yew, leader of 'People's Action Party' poses after winning the elections in Singapore, May 1959
Lee Kuan Yew, leader of 'People's Action Party' poses after winning the elections in Singapore, May 1959

The Western press has relentlessly trotted out the opinion that Lee Kuan Yew built Singapore’s undeniable economic success at the cost of fundamental civil liberties.

Much as I understand that it is in the West’s fundamental DNA to assert certain inalienable freedoms, as a Singaporean, I strenuously object that there has been any such trade-off.

Some of my Western friends who have never lived here for any period of time have sometimes self-righteously proclaimed, no doubt after reading the clichés in the media, that they could never live under the ‘stifling and draconian’ laws that we have. My answer to them is simple: are you the sort to urinate in public when a toilet isn’t available, the sort to vandalise public property, the sort that would leave a mess in a public toilet that you share with your others? Are you perhaps a drug smuggler? Because we execute those. Or maybe you molest women? Because we would whip you. Are you the sort that would get drunk and then get into fights and maybe beat up a stranger in the bar? Back home you may get away with it but if you are that sort, then maybe this place isn’t for you.

In short, are you a civilised person who wants to live in a civilised society? Because the things you cannot do in Singapore are precisely the sort that civilised people should not do anyway. If you are, you have nothing to fear.

Or maybe like the Western press has kept saying these few days in their commentaries on Lee, you fear that you could be locked up because we do not have freedom of speech?

Do you want to come here and insult other people’s race and religion? Maybe these are fundamental freedoms in your country, but in ours, because we have experienced deadly racial riots at the birth of our country, these are a no-no. But then again, why would you want to purposely offend others anyway?

Or maybe you want to tell lies about our public figures, accuse them of corruption when you have no evidence to back them up, or accuse them of stealing, cheating, or all manner of untruths? If so, then be prepared to be sued for libel – even if Western societies think that you can say these things about your political figures, we don’t and we are better for it. And those political opponents of Lee that have been bankrupted, allegedly because they were such formidable foes? No such thing. The fact is that every single opposition politician successfully sued for libel engaged in the type of politics that we do not want, the kind founded on vicious lies being told in the name of political campaigning.

Singapore s founding father Lee Kuan Yew dies aged 91

So wither the trade-off? How are we unfree?

I tell you what freedom is.

Freedom is being able to walk on the streets unmolested in the wee hours in the morning, to be able to leave one’s door open and not fear that one would be burgled. Freedom is the woman who can ride buses and trains alone; freedom is not having to avoid certain subway stations after night falls. Freedom is knowing our children can go to school without fear of drugs, or being mowed down by some insane person with a gun. Freedom is knowing that we are not bound by our class, our race, our religion, and we can excel for the individuals that we are – the freedom to accomplish. Freedom is living in one of the least corrupt societies in the world, knowing that our ability to get things done is not going to be limited by our ability to pay someone. Freedom is fresh air and clean streets, because nothing is more inimical to our liberty of movement than being trapped at home because of suffocating smog.

These are the freedoms that Singaporeans have, freedoms that were built on the vision and hard work of Lee Kuan Yew, our first Prime Minister. And we have all of these, these liberties, whilst also being one of the richest countries in the world.

There was no trade-off.

Not for us.

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