Lee Kuan Yew honors an old friendship
November 21, 2000
Singapore Window received reports of demonstrations against Mr Lee in Sydney.
In Hong Kong, students of the Chinese Univeristy have organised a signature campaign against the conferment of a doctorate by the univeristy on Mr Lee.
In September, 1998, after publication of the first volume of his memoirs, The Singapore Story (Singapore Press Holdings, 1998), Lee spoke about the former Australian prime minister. He commented that "without Bob Menzies" the outcome of the fallout between Malaysia and Singapore in the 1960s "might have been disastrous for us". Singapore's inaugural prime minister went so far as to imply that Menzies' influence over Malaysian leader Tunku Abdul Rahman might have helped to save Lee's life and that of colleagues in the Singapore People's Action Party.
The story is told in The Singapore Story. In August 1965, at the moment of Singapore's (peaceful) separation from Malaysia and its proclamation as a separate nation, Lee sent a message to Menzies. He declared that, without Australia's "staunch support for democratic practices" he and his government "would have been scrubbed out". Lee pledged he and his colleagues would ensure "that Singapore will remain a non-communist nation so long as we are in authority" and "always work on terms of honor and friendship with Australia".
Nearly four decades later it is evident both commitments have been met. Yet it should not be overlooked that, from time to time, there have been disagreements.
Lee's current visit to Australia coincides with the Australian publication of the second volume of his memoirs, covering Singapore's story between 1965 and 2000. From Third World to First (HarperCollins, 2000) contains a chapter entitled "Ties with Australia and New Zealand". Maybe the 76-year-old is mellowing with age. More likely, despite his occasional harsh public judgments, Singapore's founder has always had a soft spot for Australia.
In any event, Lee looks back on his involvement with Australia's political leaders with a certain contentment - with some exceptions. Prime ministers John Gorton and Gough Whitlam cop some flak. Lee had a good personal relationship with Malcolm Fraser but regrets his government's failure "to open up Australia's economy to competition". He is supportive of the policy pursued by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating that recognised that Australians "might have been an offshoot of Britain and Europe, but their future was more with Asia".
On John Howard, Lee is somewhat ambivalent. He is critical of the Howard Government's diplomacy leading to the plebiscite on independence for East Timor. But Lee acknowledges Australia's important role in leading "InterFET troops into East Timor" once the self-determination process was in danger of disintegrating. In Lee's view, the events in East Timor "confirmed the obvious, that Australia's destiny is linked more to Asia, than to Britain on Europe".
Unlike Howard, Lee regards a nation's geography as more significant than its history. Geography is permanent; history, by its very nature, is a changing phenomenon.
Since stepping down as prime minister 10 years ago, Lee has become a spruiker-at-large. His position as a former prime minister gives him greater freedom of speech than that enjoyed by heads of government.
Not that, as prime minister, Lee was always a paradigm of diplomatic virtue. For example, he once rowed with (then opposition leader) John Howard over Asian immigration. In mid-1988, Howard had publicly suggested the rate of Asian immigration to Australia should be slowed down. The following November Lee visited Australia. Asked about the Coalition's policy on Asian immigration, Lee replied that it could cause Australia serious economic harm. He described Howard as a "friend" who was in no sense a "white racist". Rather, he concluded that his (then) policy must have been motivated by the "potential for votes".
In April, 1994, Lee returned to Australia. At a function in Sydney he acknowledged "the Australian economy is picking up", but added: "Australians must be weaned from welfare dependency and become self-reliant and competitive."
There is nothing wrong about criticism among friends - provided it has a two-way dimension. Lee is a determined, dogmatic man. This largely explains his success in overseeing the building of Singapore, a nation virtually without resources except of the human kind, into a vibrant economy with a democratic tradition. It's just that Lee tends to view critique as a one-way street.
His advice, gratuitous or otherwise, is invariably listened to and often respected. Yet Lee does not like to hear views from the West that Singapore's economic miracle might have been even more noteworthy shorn of its authoritarian ethos. Which is not to claim that citizens of Singapore experienced the violations of human rights suffered by their counterparts in, say, China or Vietnam. But it is to suggest Singapore might have been even more successful if it tolerated more dissent, especially in recent decades.
Australia's security and economic relationship with Singapore is closer than with any other nation of South-East Asia - despite the occasional disagreements. To this extent, Lee's promise to Robert Menzies lives on.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.