Former president criticises suppression of dissent
Globe and Mail.
March 29, 1999
By Marcus Gee
IN the Singapore of the early 1980s, Lee Kuan Yew was the captain and Devan Nair his loyal lieutenant. Mr Lee, independence leader, then prime minister and now senior minister of the tiny Southeast Asian city-state, laid down the law. Mr Nair followed it. As head of the national trade union congress, then president of Singapore, he loyally parroted the "LKY" line on the importance of social order, the dangers of Western-style democracy and the evils of littering.
Then, in 1985, came a shocking break. Mr Lee told Singapore's parliament that Mr Nair had resigned because he was an alcoholic, a charge Mr Nair now calls a baseless slur. Three years later, he left Singapore for good after publicly quarrelling with Mr Lee over the arrest of a well-known government critic. Then he dropped from sight.
For the past few years, Mr Nair has been living quietly in Hamilton, Ontario. He has given no interviews and made few public statements. "I thought it was unseemly for a former president to go whacky-whacking his country," he says.
Those days of silence are over Mr Nair has decided to speak out against the continuing suppression of legitimate dissent in his country. And so, last week, he sat down in the sun-lit drawing room of a friend's house near Hamilton to talk about Lee Kuan Yew, how they drew apart and what he thinks of Mr Lee's Singapore today.
Now 75, Mr Nair is a compact man with a mischievous smile. Sipping a glass of water, he speaks in a plummy baritone that commands attention.
Mr Nair got to know his "captain" when the two were fighting to free Singapore from British colonial rule in the 1950s. A teacher whose father emigrated from India, Mr Nair taught Shakespeare while he was a member of the Anti-British League, an irony he still savours. When the British threw him in jail as a subversive, holding him for a total of five years, Mr Lee was his lawyer.
The two remained close after Singapore won its freedom from Britain. Together, they fought off an attempted communist takeover, weathered Singapore's ejection from the neighbouring federation of Malaysia and transformed their country from a run-down sea port to an economic dynamo bristling with skyscrapers. "I supported him because he was an eloquent champion of the dreams I had for Singapore," Mr Nair says.
But as Singapore grew prosperous and stable and the communist threat faded, Mr Nair began to have doubts about his captain's iron-fisted methods. Perhaps sensing his ally's doubts, Mr Lee asked Mr Nair to leave his power base as head of the trade union congress and move into the presidential palace. As Mr Nair puts it, "He kicked me upstairs."
Being president, he says now, was "the silliest job in the world. All you had to do was cut ribbons." His frustration grew.
But before he could speak out, Mr Nair found himself at the centre of a rumour-mongering campaign that labelled him a drinker and womanizer. He says he was neither, and he suspects that Mr Lee had government doctors slip him hallucinatory drugs to make him appear befuddled. "Lee Kuan Yew decided: This man is going to be a threat, so I'd better begin a total demolishment of his character. He's very good at that."
A case in point: the recent battering of Singapore's most determined dissident, J. B. Jeyaretnam. Singapore doesn't lock up its critics any more; it sues them, instead. Mr Jeyaretnam has faced countless libel suits from Mr Lee and other members of his government. If the party doesn't pay the damages in the most recent suit, the government hints it will ask the courts to shut it down, a move that would oust Mr Jeyaretnam from parliament.
That, says Mr Nair, is an outrage. Mr Jeyaretnam has shown "indomitable courage and dignity in the face of the vilest persecution."
Why didn't Mr Nair challenge his leader at the time? That question has haunted him ever since. "I was prone to hero worship and he was our captain," he says, lowering his head. "Even when I began to feel uneasy, loyalty to the captain superseded all other feelings. That was my weakness."
Mr Nair is not bitter. He gives Mr Lee credit for making Singapore a wealthy, stable place, an accomplishment in which he is proud to have shared. But how much greater that accomplishment would be if Singapore were a wealthy stable democracy. To him, Singapore today is a soulless place whose only ideology is materialism. Whether he could have changed that, Mr Nair wishes now he had spoken up earlier.