Founding father rules Singapore like emperor

April 29, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Sun Staff Correspondent

SINGAPORE -- Lee Kuan Yew is bristling, unable to mask his contempt for questions about the American teen-ager sentenced here to caning.

He essentially has ruled this tiny island republic for its entire history like an emperor. He has a reputation as a blunt, shrewd, ruthless man who brooks no challenge and exerts maximum control. In his office earlier this week, he immediately lives up to the that image.

Keep asking questions about the sentencing of 18-year-old Michael P. Fay to six lashes of a rattan cane, and the interview is over, Mr. Lee says angrily.

Such questions were not on a list submitted when the interview was requested weeks earlier. That list of questions had to be sent along with the reporter's resume, his passport number and a promise that Mr. Lee could see all direct quotes to confirm their accuracy before publication.

But it also is very apparent that Singapore's founding father is fed up with the entire trans-Pacific caning controversy.

"I am amazed and aghast that the media and politicians of a mature civilization go into a little tizzy over the caning of an 18-year-old in Singapore because it happened in the middle of a debate about its own crime and punishment problems," he finally says.

"Singapore unwittingly got sucked into a U.S. internal domestic debate. This is your domestic problem. I have no desire to influence the debate one way or another. I don't want to side with your liberals, because I don't share any of their sentiments. Nor do I want to be used as an example by the other side."

From Mr. Lee's perspective, just imagine the depths of his frustration with Americans' sudden interest in his city-state.

In Singapore he has been God for decades, performing some real miracles. And now he's confronted with an ill-informed debate in U.S. society, a society he considers in deep decline.

What for him is a totally insignificant matter has just gone way out of control. And Mr. Lee, 70, always insists on control.

For the past 35 years here, he has had full control as the kingpin of aone-party state created according to his own vision -- so much so that his paternalism is synonymous with Singapore.

"Nothing's done in Singapore of any magnitude without his OK or the belief or expectation that it is what he wants," says Francis Seow, a former associate of Mr. Lee's who once served as Singapore's solicitor general, then became a political opponent and is now in self-described exile at Harvard Law School in Boston.

"This is the weakness of Singapore," Mr. Seow says. "It is filled with men who are sycophants."

Mr. Lee was Singapore's first and only prime minister for 31 years, until 1990. From 1955 to 1992, he also headed the People's Action Party (PAP), the ultimate power here.

Power behind the throne

Now he's what Singapore's government-controlled press calls the "SM," the senior minister in the prime minister's office -- playing the traditional Chinese role of ruling from behind the throne.

With his lengthy reign, Mr. Lee has outlasted most Asian post-colonial political giants of his generation; among them, he is considered to have been the most effective at governing. As a result, his influence in Asia has grown dramatically -- particularly in China.

Mr. Lee cuts an intense presence. His watchword is discipline. His incorruptibility is renowned. He doesn't like ceremony. He dislikes wearing ties. He eschews small talk.

Many people here fear the reach of Mr. Lee's wrath so much that they respond gingerly when asked about him by a stranger. But even Mr. Lee's worst enemies concede that he has used his unchecked power to accomplish the remarkable here.

For more than a century a British colonial port halfway between India and China, Singapore has become a powerful trading nation -- an oasis of wealth, order and efficiency in Southeast Asia's sea of woes.

Moreover, that feat has been achieved with no resource base, against the threat of a Communist insurgency and amid a multiracial society once as poor as any other in the region.

Ask Mr. Lee what makes him proudest, and he answers as though affluent Singapore still clings to a precipice: "That we are still alive and making a living."

The trouble is, Mr. Lee's notion of proper governance is widely viewed as the world's most subtle and efficient form of authoritarianism.

Mr. Lee shrugs off such labels. "Look, I'm the product of a British law school, not a military academy," he says, referring to his days as Harry Lee at Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam College, where he earned high honors.

He stresses that Singapore has a constitution framed by the British and subject to change if Singaporeans ever voted for enough PAP opponents, which has never come close to happening.

But Mr. Seow -- also a former president of Singapore's Law Society -- says the PAP has held total power here so long that opponents face a heavily rigged game. "Everything's been configured by Lee Kuan Yew to ensure his party doesn't lose," Mr. Seow says.

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