'Big ideas' on law, diplomacy, and race and religion

SINGAPORE - FORMER prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's determined approach to upholding the rule of law and diplomacy was important in advancing Singapore's interests, speakers at a conference on his key ideas said on Monday.

On the rule of law, they noted how Mr Lee's single-minded development of it made Singapore more attractive to foreign investors and gave Singaporeans an oasis of safety and security in which they could enjoy their freedoms.

In diplomacy, his belief in consistency, non-alignment, international laws and standing firm in dealings with big powers expanded Singapore's influence despite its small-state status, they said.

The speakers were at a one-day conference marking Mr Lee's 90th birthday. Dubbed "The Big Ideas of Mr Lee Kuan Yew", it was organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Leading the discussion on the rule of law was former senior minister S. Jayakumar, who also held the law portfolio for two decades until 2008. Professor Jayakumar recalled how Mr Lee believed respect for laws was vital to economic success.

In commerce and banking, he stressed the importance of modelling laws after common-law countries like Britain and America, as many investors were familiar with the norms there.

"He would always advise the Attorney-General's Chambers not to re-invent the wheel," he said.

Mr Lee's idea of the rule of law, however, avoided blind application of foreign ideas and took into account societal realities here.

To build housing estates quickly, for example, he enacted land acquisition laws which favoured the state, he noted.

And on issues of race and religion, Mr Lee's instinct was always to "smack down" those who tried to stir trouble, because of his understanding of how sensitive they were to the various communities.

Mr Lee also believed the phrase "law and order" would be better rendered "order and law", since without order, the law was inoperable, he noted - especially since he felt the natural order of things in a densely populated city like Singapore was disorder.

Former chief justice Chan Sek Keong added that Mr Lee never equated the rule of law with notions like liberal democracy, human rights and freedom of speech, as some in the West did. But his version meant Singaporeans enjoyed more privileges and societal goods than did people in many countries, argued Mr Chan.

 

 

Asked pointedly by moderator Tommy Koh if he thought defamation suits brought by Mr Lee against opposition politicians after general elections were wise, Prof Jayakumar said that Singaporeans were allowed to criticise their leaders on all matters but Mr Lee drew the line on damaging leaders' integrity.

He also sought to debunk what he called a myth: that Mr Lee believed judges would be partial towards him in these cases. He noted how Mr Lee spent an inordinate amount of time going over facts and arguments with his lawyers - precisely because he knew he had to win on legal merit.

Speaking on diplomacy, Singapore's former ambassador to the United States Chan Heng Chee said that thanks to Mr Lee, Singapore had honed the art of small- state diplomacy. She recalled how in Washington, diplomats from small countries in the Caribbean, Africa and Europe would ask her about Singapore's strategy.

In part, this involved Singapore "sticking to its decisions" despite pressure from bigger countries. She cited Singapore executing two Indonesian marines during the Konfrontasi period, and standing up to US pressure on American teenager Michael Fay, who was caned for vandalism.

On the latter case, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Kishore Mahbubani added that each day Singapore proved it would not buckle in the face of the most powerful country on earth, its international space was expanding.

Prof Jayakumar said Mr Lee's small-state strategy included a strong emphasis on respecting international laws. This explained why he objected to Vietnam's use of force in Cambodia in the 1970s and his insistence that water agreements with Malaysia be honoured.

But, ultimately, strong diplomacy was highly dependent on Singapore being a success domestically, because no leader - not even one like Mr Lee - can be influential if he "leads a barren rock", said former permanent secretary for foreign affairs Bilahari Kausikan.

elgintoh@sph.com.sg


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