MANY people believe third world democracy will grow along with economic development, that an educated middle class will demand a role in government. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who has brought this small island to the cutting edge of Asian development, has proved such theorists sadly wrong. Six young social activists sit in prison, with no charges except ``subversion,'' no evidence, no right to trial, no judicial sentence, and no chance of getting out until the prime minister decides they are no longer a political threat. They were detained in the spring along with 16 others - mostly clergy and lay people.
The government charged they were part of a communist conspiracy to subvert church and other organizations and use them to sow discontent and organize actions against the government, using violence if necessary.
An Asian diplomat called the arrests ``a house cleaning measure to put away any community leaders that could be effective opposition candidates and to discourage people from taking up strong positions against the government.''
Answering demands the detainees receive due process of the law, Lee said, ``It is not a practice, nor will I allow subversives to get away by insisting that I [have] got to prove everything against them in a court of law on evidence that will stand up to the strict rules of evidence ...''
Francis Seow, former president of the Singapore Bar Association, told me that two accused women whom he represents had been assaulted and intimidated with threats to arrest their husbands. ``One woman was slapped, interrogated in an extremely cold room, made to go without sleep for 72 hours, and forced to stand for hours without shoes.''
After confessions extracted by such abuses and by threats of continued detention, 16 were released, but with restrictions on their residence, employment, and public movements and bans on participation in political or other associations. The six still in prison are serving one- or two-year renewable detention orders.
Lau Teik Soon, People's Action Party (PAP) member of parliament and acting dean of the national university's faculty of arts and social sciences, defends the government. He explained, ``Politics, conflict of interests, and contending viewpoints will engender heat, friction, conflict, disunity .... We are not thinking in terms of anyone taking over. It is enough to start widespread conflict. Singaporeans trained in America and the United Kingdom come back and talk about democracy.'' But, he asked, ``Will foreign investors come if the situation is politically unstable? Conditions must be favorable for them to make money.''
This economy is built on trade and high-tech manufactures with a per capita income of $7,000 and the third highest standard of living in Asia after Brunei and Japan. Over 80 percent of the people live in government housing which they can buy with social security savings. Infant mortality is lower than in the United States. Among the poorest 5 percent of households, 85 percent have refrigerators, 82 percent have TVs, 56 percent have phones, and 6 percent have VCRs.
But, this country is also increasingly repressive. Some say that Mr. Lee, who has been prime minister for 28 years, uses a Leninist party with a capitalist program to run a Mandarin dynasty.
The press is controlled, and last week the government banned the Far Eastern Economic Review, an international business magazine that ran an interview with a priest who had edited The Catholic News and fled the country in fear after the arrests. Public meetings can't be held without official permission, and political parties can't call rallies except three weeks before elections. Opposition leaders have been followed by secret police and subject to legal harassment, with candidates ordered to supply their past 12 years' tax returns. A businessman said people were hesitant to discuss politics.
Though the ruling PAP has a commanding majority, with 77 of the 79 seats in Parliament, Lee is worried by a 13-point drop in 1984 that cut its popular vote to 63 percent. It represented a protest against restrictive policies and also against the social engineering that led to a measure - since withdrawn - to offer financial incentives to college graduates who had babies in an effort to thereby produce a higher quality population.
Lee worries about threats to the rule he hopes to hand over to his son, Brigadier General Lee Hsien Loong, 35, now minister of trade and industry.
Devan Nair, president of Singapore until he was forced out by Lee several years ago, told me the opposition hadn't contested 30 seats and that, ``If you extrapolate those figures across all the constituencies, there is a chance that far more than two would have come in.'' The next election will probably be held in 1988.
The government, which has gerrymandered to limit opposition victories, now indicates it will require candidates in three contiguous districts to run as a slate and pool their votes. This would wipe the opposition out of parliament as a win in one district was vitiated by losses in two others. The irony is that most of Lee's critics think he has done a good job with the economy and don't propose an alternative. A Catholic activist told me, ``We don't want to overthrow the government. We recognize what they've done for the nation. We were merely proposing alternative views on issues we thought were not taken care of.'' She said she and her husband would probably move to Australia for fear of arrest in a future sweep.
They will be among an increasing number of graduates who are remaining overseas after completing their studies or who are emigrating after their return. The most creative people want more than consumer comforts; they want liberty. Lee may yet learn that squandering human capital is never good business.
Lucy Komisar, a New York journalist specializing in foreign affairs, is the author of ``Corazon Aquino: The Story of a Revolution,'' published by George Braziller.