The Darker Side of Lee Kuan Yew

For all of Lee Kuan Yew’s accomplishments as the founder and architect of Singapore, his death has unleashed reminders by many that he could be petty and uncommonly vindictive. At 91, Lee had outlived most of his critics, but not all.

There are too many episodes of that vindictiveness to be able to list them all. But one in particular, known as Operation Spectrum in 1987, blighted the lives of 22 young Singaporeans and, if the intent, as the Chinese say, was to kill the chicken to scare the monkey, it was successful. The operation intimidated a generation into staying studiously away from social causes or any other kind of agitation.

Tan Wah Piow, now a lawyer in the UK, was forced to flee the island republic in the wake of the conjured crisis. “In life, Lee Kuan Yew's sole concern was to be feared by his countrymen,” Tan said in a statement released to the press upon Lee's death. “He was so spectacularly successful in this pursuit that by the time of his death, he was left with no cohorts: only minions.”

Lee, Tan said, “will be remembered as an accomplished dictator who maintained a veneer of democracy and the grand illusion of the rule of law to his very last breath. Such was his achievement that dictators elsewhere viewed his system of control with envy.”

Driven into exile at that time were also Tang Fong Har, who now lives in Hong Kong, and Francis Seow, the former solicitor general of Singapore, who lives in Massachusetts, and several others.

Seow, in a 2011 interview with a US television channel, described being followed, having his telephone tapped, his trash rifled and his house watched because Lee had become convinced Seow was an agent for the American CIA. Seow, having turned to private law practice, was the lawyer for the 22 young professionals including Tan in May of 1987 when they were arrested on suspicion of being Marxists in the Operation Spectrum dragnet.

Ultimately, after he decided to stand for office as an opposition candidate, Seow was arrested and kept in solitary confinement for 71 days. A squad of investigators raided his law office to rifle every document in it looking for evidence of any kind of criminality they could find. He was eventually charged with tax fraud. Freed on bail, he fled the country.

Tan was described as the mastermind behind the “Marxist conspiracy” of young socially oriented Catholic lay workers, social workers, theatrical artists and young professionals. Many had been educated overseas.

Singapore’s Special Branch went after them to allegedly “nip a communist conspiracy in the bud.” They would ultimately run them through a questioning procedure supposedly formulated by the Israelis and later used by CIA officials against Muslims in the Middle East in the wake of the second Iraq War. The procedure involved sleep deprivation for up to 60 hours and beyond, being forced to stand in one spot for hours while interrogators stood behind spotlights shining in the suspects’ faces, being questioned in freezing conditions after being doused with ice water, facial slapping and other techniques. They were told the punishment would only cease when they confessed.

Eventually the suspects were forced to go onto state-owned television to confess their “sins,” which among other things included sending books to China – not receiving books from China thus raising questions in the minds of critics about what was so bad about sending books from a free trade bastion with a strictly controlled press to a Maoist state. After they were freed, the government continued to hound them. Ultimately nine of the 22 issued a statement saying they had been tortured into the admissions. They were promptly arrested again and run through the same mill until they confessed again.

The “conspiracy” has been described by historians as a myth. Seow said Lee had become convinced that they were Marxists but later decided they weren’t. Singapore’s deputy prime minister at the time, Tharman Shanumgaratnam, was quoted as saying as much in a 2001 interview. Many others have viewed the arrests as unwarranted.

“Singapore does not have the rule of law, the government has amply and repeatedly made this known since the 1970s,” wrote Gopalan Nair, an exiled lawyer now living in California in a prepared release. "The law is used by the government as a political tool to silence dissent and the people know this very well as has been the case beginning with JB Jeyaretnam, a late opposition politician who was repeatedly sued, jailed and driven into bankruptcy before he died in 2008. And then we have Chee Soon Juan, another of Lee's critics, who has suffered the same fate, once holding a highly respective and well-paid career as a university professor but now reduced to hawking his books on the street to make a living."

The rest of Tan Wah Piow’s statement, sent from exile in London, is here:

“This 'Singapore Model' is made possible only because of the particularity of Singapore: a strategically placed island city state, with unique geographical attributes such as a natural port, blessed with a diligent and industrious population, surrounded by resource-rich countries. It is not a model which can be easily replicated elsewhere, nor should it be.

“Another undoubted accomplishment of the man was his ability to propagate the myth that he alone was the founding father of Singapore. That myth may soon unravel with his passing. For someone who would rather be feared than loved, his dear family members and minions who now mourn his passing should not take exception if his death is celebrated as a great historic event which will eventually set the people free.

“The death of Lee Kuan Yew will certainly unlock the inhibitions and liberate the people from fear. Fear of political persecution crippled the citizens and residents in Singapore like no other country in the developed world to the extent that even the very rich, the very clever, and those in high political office shy away from expressing dissent. With his death, the truth about the man will emerge. Luckily the deceased can no longer wield the stick of libel law to gag his critics, as he was so quick to do in life. Those in his ruling People’s Action Party who enjoyed his patronage during the past fifty years may soon also have to mourn the eventual passing of the cozy politics of one-party dominance. Political life will no longer be as tranquil for this political class as it was before.”

“Lee Kuan Yew’s tremendous role in Singapore’s economic development is beyond doubt,” said Bangkok-based Human Rights Watch Asia representative Phil Robertson. “But it also came at a significant cost for human rights – and today’s restricted freedom of expression, self-censorship and stunted multi-party democracy is also a part of his legacy that Singapore now needs to overcome. Singapore still is, for all intents and purposes, a one-party state where political opponents are targeted and contrary views muzzled – and that too is a part of Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy that many of the new generation of Singaporeans are none too happy about. They’re asking when in the ruling PAP model does economic development reach a level that political liberalization can occur - and now that Lee Kuan Yew has passed from the scene, perhaps that long overdue conversation can finally proceed.”