Sat, Apr 14, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Lee Kwan Yew: a ratbag to the end

It seems the Australian government-academic establishment is running out of Asian autocrats to fete. Chancellor Allan Hawke and Vice Chancellor Ian Chubb of the Australian National University (ANU) are the latest to join the Australian movers and shakers who laud distasteful people -- in their case, former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kwan Yew, who now holds an ANU honorary doctorate.

That the ANU could impugn its reputation for excellence in Asian studies and human rights law to further the ambitions of its top two officers is surprising enough. That these men should ram through the award by shelving university processes of review and then praise Lee's "integrity," "commitment to advancing the causes of peace and prosperity" and "international statesmanship [sic]" is downright contemptible. But credit where credit's due: Lee would applaud their methods.

Hawke and Chubb, no doubt, will be unmoved to hear of Lee's most recent slur against a head of state -- hardly proper protocol, one might think, for the recipient of a gong for statesmanship. Nonetheless, on April 4, Lee trotted out an attack on President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), saying that he was duping Taiwanese into believing that independence from China is possible because war would result and the US would not intervene.

The problem with this salvo was that it wasn't just personal; it was a bouquet to China and a put-down directed at millions of Taiwanese people who believe in democracy and liberty. So a personal attack on Lee for his cardigan despotism and hubris is perfectly in order -- because so much of Singapore and its neuroses are linked to Lee's person.

Lee's record on human rights is poor. He, like other autocrats in the region, demeans his people by labeling liberties of press and academic freedom as Western conceits that are not conducive to "Asian" societies. This mentality -- culturalist bordering on racist -- set up one of the more enduring intellectual hoaxes of the 1990s, namely that there exist "Asian values" (as opposed to Western or Judeo-Christian values, presumably, though his argument was never coherent). And these values, funnily enough, seem to absolve people such as Lee for oppressive behavior -- as long as an economic return is delivered.

Lee's legacy of authoritarianism lives on. This week saw the banning of a documentary about a long-time political prisoner in Singapore, Said Zahari. Suffice it to say that Singapore's credibility is shaky if it can't face up to events of 30 years ago and cites social order as a pretext for shutting down debate.

And if it wasn't clear before, it should be now: With the latest pay rise that lawmakers have awarded themselves (justification: lavishing millions of dollars on the "most talented" legislators and executive officials beats corruption), the Singaporean state can now be dubbed the world's most lucrative -- and sanitized -- protection racket. Lee, who these days goes under the risible title of "minister mentor," will himself pocket another small fortune. But even by Singaporean standards, this self-aggrandizement is so brazen that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has promised to donate his new riches to charity.

Lee Kwan Yew, his son and their supporters can keep their city-state kleptocracy and their largely pliant people. And long may he be courted by foreign academic powerbrokers and governments dazzled by his connections.

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