22 Jun 2006
No regrets over glint of toughness on democracy, says Lee
Wednesday June 21, 2006
By John Roughan
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who gave New Zealanders a glimpse of the hard edge of Singaporean democracy during his state visit this week, has no regrets about it.
Mr Lee, son of the city state's patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, was asked at his Wellington press conference why he is suing an Opposition politician for defamation and pursuing charges against him of speaking in a public place without a licence before Singapore's recent election.
"He's a liar, he's a cheat, he's deceitful, he's confrontational, it's a destructive form of politics designed not to win elections in Singapore but to impress foreign supporters and make himself out to be a martyr," the newly re-elected Prime Minister said of his unsuccessful opponent, Chee Soon Juan.
Speaking to the Herald in Auckland yesterday, Mr Lee did not believe the previous day's outburst had left a bad impression.
"No I don't think so," he said. "It depends what you are doing and why you are doing it. Everybody has to abide by the laws.
"If you deliberately defame somebody then there has to be consequences. If we didn't act against somebody who defamed us then it is not a matter of being generous and forgiving but the question arises if no action is taken, surely there must be some truth to it."
As for licensing public speaking, "Our main concern is race, language and religion. These are issues where you can rouse people and words cannot be taken back and you can cause riots and bloodshed."
It applied only outdoors, he insisted. "Indoors you can have any number of gatherings [and] you can publish anything you like in writing. But to organise a crowd and harangue the crowd - we thing it's wise to have precautions."
You'd wonder why they bother. Singapore has been ruled by the Lees' Peoples Action Party since its independence 40 years ago. At the latest election the party won 82 seats, opposition parties just two.
Elections are so one sided that the constitution now awards the Opposition three seats in the legislature, regardless of the election results, and there are nine seats reserved for nominees from occupational groups, including the media.
Mr Lee is only the third Prime Minister the country has had, following his father, who retired in 1990 (though he remains in the Cabinet as "minister mentor"), and Goh Chok Tong, who was thought to be a seat-warmer for Lee junior, known as BG ever since he became the youngest Brigadier General in the Army's history.
Mr Lee's political apprenticeship was longer than expected, perhaps partly due to his brush with cancer of the lymph nodes in 1992.
He is said to be arrogant and autocratic, which possibly explains the tension in the hotel room as his entourage awaits.
But when he enters he is affable, languid and surprisingly tall.
How then did he explain his party's unbroken record in power?
There have been other countries, he points out, with one party in power for a long period: Japan, Mexico.
"In our case special circumstances made us the dominant party after independence and keeping that position by a series of actions.
"One, by keeping talent and making sure we were the best qualified team. Two, we have kept ourselves renewed - same party but not the same people, new MPs, new ministers, new ideas ...
"Three, keeping a broad central view of Singapore. We are not representing one section of the population, workers against employers or any other group. We are representing the whole country."
But democracy is about dealing with differences of opinion. How does Singapore manage that?
"We have elections, many parties, news media report a wide range of views and now the internet. There are any number of blogs on Singapore.
"It's not possible for us to have unanimous views ... but on major fundamentals of the country - that you have to be self-reliant, have a strong defence, good multi-racial relations, that you have to plug into the world and globalise and earn a living for ourselves - those are broad principles which command very general support."
Singapore and New Zealand have a free trade agreement, our most comprehensive after CER with Australia, and just last month the Singapore deal was the basis of a four-way Pacific pact with the inclusion of Brunei and Chile.
Mr Lee hopes his visit to Australia and New Zealand, his first overseas since his re-election, will help bring us closer. "I think you need a population more attuned to what is happening in Asia."
Human rights, he said, "are familiar issues to Western journalists and maybe readers too, but really they don't define Asia. You need to come and learn how people live."
* Born February 10, 1952, Lee Hsien Loong is the eldest child of former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
* Studied at Cambridge and Harvard, gaining a first-class degree in mathematics and a masters degree in public administration.
* Joined Singapore Armed Forces in 1971. Rose quickly through the ranks to become brigadier-general.
* In 1984 followed his father into politics as a member of the ruling People's Action Party. Elected to the party's central executive committee in 1986. Appointed Deputy Prime Minister in November 1990. Became Prime Minister in August 2004.
* Married to Ho Ching, executive director and chief executive of the Government-owned Temasek Holdings.
The couple have one daughter and three sons, including a daughter and son from Lee's first wife.