Dear Mr Shanmugam,
I refer to your speech at the New York State Bar Association Seasonal Meeting as reported by the Straits Times on 29 Oct 2009.
You said that Singapore had a weak economy back in 1965 when our per capita GDP was US$500. ‘Weak’ as we were then, we nevertheless had the fourth highest per capita GDP in Asia after oil rich Brunei, Japan and Hong Kong.
Next, you said that foreign investment would come only if we had laws which men of commerce could trust. But men of commerce have invested in the oil fields of Russia and factories in China despite their less than ideal laws. Law or no law, as long as there is money to be made, men of commerce are willing to take risks. Furthermore, the need for good commercial laws doesn’t imply the need for laws that excessively constrain basic rights. Take Hong Kong for example. It’s commercial laws are as good as ours, yet it does not have laws that constrain basic rights like the right to demonstrate.
Next, you said that Singapore faced a severe communist threat in 1948 that threatened our existence. But the Malayan communist insurgency of 1948 never once reached the shores of Singapore but was always confined to remote towns and jungles in Malaya. The strikes and riots of the 1950s were essentially nationalistic rather than communist in nature. They arose from the hardships that the people faced in the aftermath of the war and the unfair treatment of the Chinese educated Chinese by the British. Sure, strike leaders like Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan have been labelled as communists and locked away. But these were charges that have never been unequivocally proven even until today. What is clear however is that their struggles were anti-British and anti-colonial. What is also certain is that the strike participants were ordinary students and workers. They hardly qualify as communists, so the incidents hardly qualify as communist threats. Given that there wasn’t even an armed struggle to begin with, it would be ridiculous to say that the strikes terrorised the people and threatened Singapore’s existence.
Next, you said that there were racial tensions and riots due to ideological differences between our leaders and the leaders of the Malay Peninisular which eventually led to Singapore’s expulsion from Malaya. This shows that the root of the racial riots were political in nature and once the political antagonism between Lee Kuan Yew and Tungku Abdul Rahman were disentangled, the racial tensions went away.
Next you said that we are a little red dot surrounded by two countries with whom our relationships were tense. But we weren’t the only ones in this situation. South Korea didn’t just have a tense relationship with North Korea, it actually went to war with the latter and lost many lives. Yet the South Koreans are some of the fiercest demonstrators today. Likewise, Taiwan had to face the People’s Liberation Army juggernaut. Yet Taiwan today is a much freer, more democratic country than ours. So the phrase ‘little red dot’ is no excuse for us to be authoritarian.
Next, you analogised our situation with a hypothetical situation of the US being shrunk into the size of Connecticut and sandwiched between Russia and China. This analogy is not appropriate because the US shrunk to the size of Connecticut will not have the firepower to counteract Russia or China. On the other hand, shrunk as we are, Singapore has the firepower to counteract either Malaysia or Indonesia. This should not be surprising given that Israel is able to hold its own despite being surrounded by numerous and much larger adversaries.
So while stability is not a luxury we take for granted, it is also not an excuse upon which authoritarianism can be justified.
Next, you said that speed of response is important to us. But speed of response is also important to Hong Kong. Yet Hong Kong is not authoritarian like us.
Next, you said that chewing gum is not illegal. But you neglected to mention that the sale of chewing gum is illegal. What material difference does it make whether you ban chewing gum or you ban the sale of chewing gum?
Next you compared Singapore with the US to show that we have lower crime rate achieved with a smaller police force. Why don’t you compare us with Hong Kong, which depending on the year of comparison, has lower crime rates? Yet Hong Kong is not authoritarian like us.