Lee Kuan Yew ran the island-state of Singapore, someone said, with a mixture of charisma and fear. Having worked there as a correspondent for the ABC in the mid-1980s, the remark seems apposite to me.
Lee’s brilliance as a politician and statesman is undisputed, but the country he forged, improbably, out of a remnant of the British Empire in Asia was a place that seemed to miss some essential inner purpose. Others have suggested that––mirroring Lee himself––it lacked a sense of humour, a sense of fun. There is something in this, although in my recollection Lee knew how to smile (usually as he skewered less talented opponents).
Actually I think the aspect of Lee (and Singapore) that’s often missed is the “big fish in a small pond” phenomenon. While Singapore’s international profile, under his leadership, went far beyond its physical size and natural endowments (aside from a hard-working population), it could never be a pond big enough for Lee’s personality.
Which is why, in part, he enjoyed his visits to Australia, where he made a habit of handing out gratuitous––albeit generous and sincere––advice about Australian lackadaisicalness. Our taste for irony, I sense, matched his (irony is not an abundant commodity in Singaporean discourse, in my experience); our willingness to indulge mediocrity, in the hope that it might turn up a nugget, on the other hand, was a sinful luxury for a man of his temperament.
Lee used to say, “We don’t go in for any –ology in Singapore. We try something: if it works we keep it; if it doesn’t, we drop it.” The big question left begging in this exposition of the politics of pragmatism is: Who decides whether the something works? Not the Singaporean voter, in a virtual one-party state. Not the Singaporean fourth estate, where press freedom is rated among the lowest in the developed world. Not the Singaporean judiciary, where… I had better not go on, given that a Lee (his son) is still in charge there.
Lee undoubtedly enjoyed the freedom of the bigger Australian pond of public opinion.
I remember attending a press conference he gave in Sydney ahead of the 1978 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (the CHOGM made infamous by the Hilton Hotel bombing). He was in one of those moods that day, handing Australia and Australians a right serve. Lee had a habit of punctuating his remarks with long pauses, giving the impression he had come to the end, before launching forth again. Our ABC cameraman mistook one of these pauses for an opportunity to change the film magazine on his camera. As he did, Lee delivered the most quotable part of his tirade, and we missed it.
Now Lee was not a person to interrupt or contradict, if you wanted to get out of the room with your skin intact. There was only one thing for it. When he finished, I piped up: “Prime Minister, what exactly did you mean when you said…” Lee immediately rose to the bait and obligingly (though unknowingly) covered our mishap. My ears are still burning.
Later, as a correspondent in Singapore, I made just one visit to observe parliamentary proceedings (once was enough). In those days, the sole Opposition MP was the aging leader of the Workers’ Party, J. B. Jeyaretnam. Arrayed against this lonely voice of dissent, on the other side of the chamber, were the cookie-cut-out MPs of the ruling People’s Action Party: chips (small, small chips) off the Lee Kuan Yew block. Question Time consisted of a stream of “Dorothy Dixers” to ministers whose words would be reproduced, as though holy writ, in next day’s Straits Times.
Then came Jeyaretnam’s turn. His question was to the Prime Minister. I don’t remember the substance of it, but Jeyaretnam was no sabre-tooth tiger, just a nagging Tamil lawyer who got under Lee’s skin. It was a quaint piece of theatre, a voice drowned out by its own irrelevance. But for Lee Kuan Yew, the mosquito had to be squashed. Here was the “big fish” arrogance in purple display, as Lee launched into a savage and personal attack on the old man. It went on, and on, and on. It was painful to watch and listen to. Crush the insect.
(Jeyaretnam lost his seat in parliament because of a conviction for allegedly falsifying party accounts. The Privy Council in London overturned the conviction––one of the few occasions a Lee opponent has obtained victory in the courts––notably, outside Singapore.)
Sometimes Singapore, under Lee, imagined it could be a bigger pond––until it considered the implications. A campaign was launched with much fanfare to make it the “Communications Hub of Asia”. The ABC was sufficiently excited by the slogan to envisage using Singapore as a clearing-house for news stories from its bureaus all over Asia: flying them in and then sending them on to Sydney by satellite. “OK,” said the Singapore government, “but first you must deposit $250,000 (1980s dollars) with us as a bond, which, of course, would be forfeited if we found you were moving unhelpful news reports.” The communications hub was more like a speed hump (our office telephones, we knew, were habitually tapped.). The ABC no longer supports any presence in Singapore.
But the “big fish” of Asia paid a price for his confinement in this small pond of his own creation. I wonder whether he was not, at times, a very lonely man.
This thought goes back to the day I attended Singapore’s foundation day celebrations. As a foreign correspondent, I was invited to watch the parades and fireworks from the VIP area in the national stadium. Once the show was over, the guests, clutching cool drinks and finger food, milled around making the usual polite conversation. My ABC colleague and I caught sight of Lee and his wife standing in the middle of the room completely isolated from the throng. Occasionally a daring guest (presumably someone from out of town) would dart up and snap a photograph of the couple, before retreating. Nobody approached within two metres of the Lee presence; an invisible cordon sanitaire surrounded them.
We decided this “un-Australian” situation should not be allowed to continue, so we walked up and introduced ourselves. They were, it seemed, pleased to rejoin the human race for a moment––even if it meant talking to Australian journalists. “You put on quite a show,” my colleague remarked, referring to the night’s festivities.
“Umm,” said Lee wearily. “They pale after you’ve seen as many as I have.”
I somehow failed to find the obvious headline in the Straits Times the next day: “PM Considers National Fete Boring”. Obviously their reporter had been out of earshot. But Lee knew we Australians would understand, and find his honesty refreshing. For a brief moment, the bubble was broken, and he was swimming free: the acne-scarred countenance; the severe crew cut; the lowered eyes; the leaping shoulders; the darting eyes; the ordinary man; the extraordinary man: the salmon poking out of the teapot.
Walter Hamilton reported from Singapore for the ABC in 1985-86.