Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

The unique blessing for Singapore that is Mr Lee Kuan Yew

Country may yet attain the new golden era that he wished for young Singaporeans

As the daily throngs of Singaporeans of all races and ages paid their last respects to Mr Lee Kuan Yew last week, I found myself counting the ways we've been blessed in Mr Lee's Singapore.

The most profound is a blessing I share with so many Singaporeans: In our personal lives, and not just as a country, we each went from Third World to First in a single generation.

In my case, I went from a rented, wooden shophouse with communal toilets in Kampong Kembangan to a three-room HDB flat in Chai Chee, then a five-room flat in Bedok South, a Pine Grove HUDC flat and now a landed property in Upper Thomson.

When we moved to Bedok South in 1977, my sister recalls my mum saying: "This new flat is thanks to Lee Kuan Yew."

My mum, who is 90 this year, brought up six children on her own, with help from some uncles, when my dad was taken ill and later died at age 51 when I was 14.

My dad came to Singapore in 1937 from Kerala, India, when he was 20 - he couldn't find a job there, he said - and never left, even when Singapore was about to fall to the Japanese. He went back only after the war to marry and bring my mum out in 1947.

What is it that made my Indian Singaporean family's success possible? I would cite the powerful combination of two of Mr Lee's core values: multiracialism and meritocracy.

I managed to win government scholarships because I was never discriminated against in getting access to opportunities, and I could compete purely on merit. I was incredibly fortunate to go to two overseas universities that I could otherwise only have dreamt of.

These same factors also explain how I got to be editor-in-chief, and why I've stayed in the profession for close to 30 years.

My Chinese Singaporean wife and our two happily bi-cultural "Chindian" kids are similarly blessed. So I give thanks daily and can say, with only a little exaggeration, I owe it all to Mr Lee.

But my personal blessings are just the start of what I really want to say: the biggest blessing is Mr Lee himself.

Had the stars not been aligned for us, a man so unique would not have been born in a small island one degree north of the Equator, and at precisely the right moment in our history.

Thus we've been blessed with a leader with the guile and guts to take on colonialists, communists and communalists. Along with his like-minded team, he also had the sheer brass to build a conscript army, navy and air force from scratch - imagine that - to make sure this city-state never gets seized as a glittering prize by any captor.

Of course there were some mis-steps along the way, but that can't take away his record of exceptional governance.

All of this most people know, especially after the crash course in Singapore history we've been given last week. The only value I can add is to recount some media-related episodes to illustrate Mr Lee's unique skill in coming up with unique solutions.

For six months from October 1993, I spent many days on a hard bench in a Singapore court fighting charges of breaching the Official Secrets Act (OSA). I was then editor of The Business Times and was hauled up for publishing the "flash estimate" of quarterly economic growth ahead of its official release.

Like most people, I was initially flummoxed by why the authorities would take five young professionals to court over this. The then Attorney-General (AG) prosecuted the case himself, even though it was being heard in a subordinate court.

In the midst of the long-running case, I was one day invited by Mr Lee, then Senior Minister, to lunch at the Istana, together with two other editors. If not for the OSA case, this wouldn't have been unusual, as he occasionally invited editors to lunch, to discuss issues and float a kite or two.

But that particular lunch was a touch surreal for me. Mr Lee of course made no reference to my OSA case, and I resisted all temptation to bring it up and was probably quieter than usual. Before we left, I thanked him for lunch, he nodded his acknowledgement.

At the conclusion of the case, we were all found guilty and fined - I paid $4,000 - not least because the AG told the judge we were "honourable men with honourable careers" and he was not pressing for jail sentences. We went back to our jobs and our careers never suffered.

But one important thing had changed: Communicating information in breach of the OSA would henceforth not require proof of mens rea, or intention to commit the act. This was what the AG argued and won.

Why was this such a big deal? Because for several preceding years, Mr Lee had seen how his good friend Margaret Thatcher had lost case after case involving breaches of the British OSA.

One infamous case was the Spycatcher affair, where a former MI5 spy, Peter Wright, published an autobiography in Australia spilling a load of explosive British secrets. The Thatcher government failed in 1987 to persuade an Australian court that the book should be barred from publication. The UK law lords later ruled that the British press could publish extracts.

The ignominy was complete when the European Court of Human Rights found the UK government's actions had violated the right to freedom of speech. Meantime, the book went on to become a best-seller - I still have my copy.

The conclusion I came to was that our case had been used - brilliantly, I concede - to establish a local precedent for a "strict liability" OSA offence.

Put simply, I now tell our journalists that if the Singapore equivalent of the Pentagon papers were to fall off the back of a lorry, we the media cannot publish them because we would have no defence if taken to court. It's similar to having sex with a minor and being inescapably guilty of statutory rape.

This move was also prescient as we are now in the WikiLeaks era. Mr Lee could see then that governments and diplomacy can't function if everything can be leaked with impunity.

I can think of no better example of how his unique practical intelligence shaped particular aspects of public policy.

Another example is the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, a piece of legislation so canny that only Mr Lee could have devised it. By limiting ownership of a newspaper company by any one person or entity to no more than 3 per cent - it was later raised to 5 per cent - he made sure there would be no Rupert Murdochs in Singapore.

He knew too well the power a press baron could wield to make or break an elected government, and he was determined to have none of it in Singapore. He made sure that political leaders are never beholden to unelected media owners, and wanted the media out of the political process. Foreign colleagues who have worked for capricious owners tell me how smart a move this was.

Many foreign reports this past week have cited these tough media strictures. But an even bigger beef seems to be that he used defamation laws to silence and even destroy his political opponents. This mis-characterises the man and his methods.

Mr Lee's obsession - and he had many - was to ensure that both the media and politics operate within the bounds of the law. So long as critics and opponents avoid defamation and contempt of our courts, they have considerable leeway to say what they want. Even a cursory look at the social media space will show this to be true.

But that said, the combination of Mr Lee's unique media policies, and the robust application of defamation and contempt laws, has led to Singapore being ranked No. 150 (out of 179 countries) for press freedom by the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.

In a 2010 open letter, the group urged the Singapore Government to "put a stop to the libel actions... against Singaporean and foreign media... and refrain from suing journalists over their articles and comments".

Going by Mr Lee's mantra - Do the right thing, and never mind what people think! - that open letter must have been given very short shrift.

The press freedom index is of course patently wrong. It is a travesty that Singapore is ranked one below Russia and one above Libya, putting us in the category where journalists get routinely murdered.

As Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in a 2010 speech at Columbia University that critiqued the ranking, the methodology is suspect as the scores depend crucially on who is chosen to be asked, and how that selection is made. None of this is made transparent. Obviously, the chosen ones are virulent critics.

Besides, if indeed we are No. 150 for press freedom, my colleagues and I must be superhuman to put out the newspapers that we do. Whatever Reporters Without Borders may think, I am proud of the editions we published last week, in all four languages, and I dedicate them to Mr Lee.

And to the noisy minority here who cannot see the travesty, I should at least point out for the record this line in the group's report: "The (press freedom) index should in no way be taken as an indication of the quality of the media in the countries concerned."

Talking of the noisy minority, I'm most proud too that Singapore's silent majority has come out in force this past week to show they have imbibed what Mr Lee stood for, and are hugely appreciative of what he's done for them and for this fortunate country, tiny though we are.

So rest in peace, Mr Lee. Singapore may yet attain the new golden era you spoke of in 2007 when you were 84. You told young Singaporeans: "You're a generation that is especially blessed... If there are no wars or oil crises, this golden period can stretch out over many years."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.