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Singapore's Harry Lee and the Press

LEE KUAN YEW, the Chinese prime minister of Singapore, is one of the most frustrating of Southeast Asia's statesmen. On the one hand he has turned Singapore into a prospering showcase for free-enterprise economics, a city-state that lauds freedom and is bitingly contemptuous of the communist debacle on the Chinese mainland.

On the other hand, he has done it with a kind of papa-knows-best autocracy, and a particularly heavy hand with the press that has garnered him a bunch of adverse criticism around the world.

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As he moves toward the end of a remarkable career, his bequest is an antagonistic relationship with the foreign press that clouds his other achievements.

Distrustful of the Western media, Mr. Lee has in particular fought bitterly with the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Dow Jones-owned Far Eastern Economic Review, based in Hong Kong. Prime Minister Lee imposed circulation restrictions on these publications in Singapore after they failed to carry to his satisfaction corrections of articles he believed to be inaccurate. For a while Time magazine was similarly restricted, along with Time Warner's Asiaweek.

With its former circulation of 5,000 copies a day restricted by the Singapore government to 400, and tough new legislation pending against foreign publications with a circulation of more than 300 in Singapore, the Wall Street Journal has decided to withdraw from the Singapore market altogether. ``What the government of Singapore wants,'' said the Journal, ``is for the foreign press to practice self-censorship.''

Lee is unrepentant. Although 75 percent of Singapore's 2.5 million people are Chinese, its citizens include Malays, Indians, and other minorities. Lee argues that the multiracial fabric of Singapore is too fragile to permit the foreign press to operate unreined. As he told a meeting of American newspaper editors in 1988: ``Singapore's domestic debate is a matter for Singaporeans. We allow American journalists in Singapore in order to report Singapore to their fellow countrymen. We allow their newspapers to sell in Singapore so that we know what foreigners are reading about us. But we cannot allow them to assume a role in Singapore that the American media plays in America, that of adversary and inquisitor of the administration.''

In many ways his hostile attitude toward the press contradicts his democratic background. He studied law in Cambridge, became a barrister in England, and returned to Singapore to craft a political career which won him an intimate and cordial relationship with many leaders in the West. He admired the US commitment to South Vietnam; was scathingly critical of communism.

He has presided over a miracle of free-enterprise development in Singapore, and though many of us miss the charm of Raffles Hotel and the romantic world of which Somerset Maugham used to write, it is hard to remain unimpressed by Singapore's high-tech development.

But though Harry Lee, as his friends call him, is at home in the salons of Washington and London, and has warm friendships with American congressmen, bankers, and government officials, he can be tart-tongued about America and its press. ``While the US model of the press is good for the United States,'' he says, ``as a universal standard its applicability has not been proven.''

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He argues that the ``marketplace contest of ideas'' has not served such countries as Sri Lanka and India well and that a wildly free press in the Philippines ``confused and befuddled'' the people before then President Marcos declared martial law. Nobody can argue that the standards of the American press are a panacea for every country in the world. But it is sad that Lee has imposed on Singapore his own restrictive view of the merits of a free press.

As George Chaplin, then the editor of the Honolulu Advertiser, protested to Lee at the 1988 meeting with newspaper editors: ``Despite your explanation and rationale, the central fact is that you exercise censorship with an iron hand, starting with the local media and then, of course, going to the publications from outside ... it seems to me that smacks of the very communist powers that you abhor.''

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