Glimpses of Lee Kuan Yew

Author: Jerome A. Cohen, NYU

Seldom has the death of a great Asian leader commanded as much appreciation in the West as the passing of Lee Kuan Yew. The mind numbs at the number of well-earned tributes to the man who led Singapore to become a successful and influential nation-state.


Despite the huge disparity in size and political-legal culture between Singapore and mainland China, many observers have emphasised the seductive attraction that ‘the Singapore model’ has held for Chinese communist leaders who are searching for a formula that will enhance China’s phenomenal economic development without sacrificing the Party’s dictatorial control.

Other writers have featured Lee’s intellectual brilliance, self-confident personality and deep understanding of world politics, which he freely dispensed to political leaders of various countries eager to bridge the gap between East and West.

A few early post-mortems have even transcended the natural tendency, in the wake of his departure, to minimise the costs of Lee’s accomplishments, especially his authoritarian policies and practices.

This essay will provide a bit of grist for the historian’s mill by offering an account of some fragmentary personal contacts that I had with Lee a generation or two ago.

It all started with Richard Nixon’s election to the American presidency in early November 1968. Immediately afterward, Lee turned up at Harvard University, invited by the newly established Kennedy Institute of Politics, not for the usual photo-op preferred by most world leaders but for a residence of over a month. While a law school professor, I had chaired the Institute’s just-completed confidential study of the need for a new American policy toward China and so Institute director Richard Neustadt asked me to share some of the responsibilities for hosting Singapore’s prime minister.

We knew that Lee, who had an outstanding record when a law student at Cambridge in England, had not come to us for an academic sabbatical that would merely recharge his powerful batteries. He made it clear at the outset that he was with us for work and that his work was to understand the forces that were then roiling America’s volatile society, so that he might better chart Singapore’s course.

Earlier than most statesmen, he sensed that the United States, then wracked by the Vietnam War, was on the verge of changing its Asia policy — especially its relations with China, despite the ongoing madness of the Cultural Revolution. A year prior to his election, Nixon — although the arch anti-Communist — had hinted at the need for a more open approach to Beijing, if only to better balance Soviet power. Lee had decided that, by staying in one place in America, studying the media and tapping the ideas of the Boston-area foreign policy and political community, he could best anticipate Washington’s new direction.

Lee did work hard at Harvard. He did not seek to make many speeches but took advantage of every occasion to learn. I invited him to give a lunch seminar to law students interested in Asia and we had a frank, relaxed conversation that covered both Asian affairs and American politics. Lee asked as many questions as he answered and showed none of the arrogance of which he had already been accused.

I liked him. And so my wife —Joan Lebold Cohen, a specialist in Asian art — and I asked him to dinner at our house with a few of our Harvard colleagues. Again, the conversation was lively, informative and friendly. Perhaps because we were new to diplomatic entertaining, we had found it unusual to receive advance written instructions from Lee’s staff that there should be no smoking in the prime minister’s presence, that the room should be set at a particular temperature and that certain foods should not be served. But it was a convivial evening.

The following summer, in 1969, Joan and I visited Singapore briefly as part of an Asian research tour. Prime Minister Lee proved a thoughtful host. He reciprocated our hospitality by inviting us for a small roundtable dinner with Singapore’s legal elite, including the attorney general, the minister for law, the solicitor general, one or two law professors and his wife — herself a leading lawyer.

Several topics dominated the conversation. Knowing that I was advising Senator Edward Kennedy, who despite his youth was already expected to contest Nixon’s re-election three years hence, we discussed American political developments since Lee had returned from Harvard. Lee, who during his stay had been disturbed by the university’s anti-Vietnam war, anti-government atmosphere, expressed anxiety about the wisdom (or lack thereof) and influence of America’s youth. After his return, Lee began requiring long-haired young Westerners who turned up at Singapore’s airport to submit to haircuts before entering the country. He wanted to limit the risk of contagion among their local counterparts!

That evening Lee also scorned the Malaysian government’s recent announcement requiring all students to study the Malay language. With more verve than I had seen him show at Harvard, he asked rhetorically what good purpose could be served by such a requirement. If Malaysia was to get on with its modernisation, he said, it should be insisting that every student master English. He dismissed Malay as merely a passport back to the jungle.

The only other thing I recall from that evening was the conversation I had with the Attorney General, Tan Boon Teik, as he drove us to our hotel after dinner: ‘I liked the way you talked up to the PM,’ he volunteered. That highlighted the fact that no one else at the table had dared a word during my long exchange with Lee.

Four years later, in 1973 and largely as a result of Nixon’s spectacular 1972 China trip, the world had begun to change, as Lee had anticipated. Some of my former Harvard law students wanted to take part in the new era. A cluster of them, having found jobs at the famed international law firm Coudert Brothers, asked me to help Coudert establish offices in Hong Kong and Singapore. Hong Kong’s British colonial government had already allowed the entry of a Canadian law firm, but newly independent Singapore had not yet permitted any foreign firms to set up shop.

As in most of the Asian capitals attractive to foreign law firms, the local bar strongly opposed their entry in order to maintain its monopoly on law practice. But the Singapore government, guided by Lee’s determination to speed the modernisation of the country, expected the arrival of major international law firms experienced in facilitating foreign direct investment to raise the standards of law practice. They were to provide better training and more jobs for the country’s younger lawyers and bolster multinationals’ confidence in Singapore.

The government, of course, did not wish to disregard the objections of the local lawyers. Lee himself had practised law for years before entering politics, and his wife and brother continued to operate one of the more lucrative local firms. Lee artfully made change gradual, with Coudert leading the way and other foreign firms admitted as the market for services developed.

Singapore’s legal profession actually had little capacity to resist change, for by then the limited influence and prestige it had inherited from the colonial English system had been significantly eroded.

One of the hallmarks of Lee’s relentless drive to secure and maintain power was the increasing subjection to his will of lawyers as well as legislators, prosecutors and judges. His ‘preventive detention’ without trial of political lawyers and other democratic dissidents was only one of many tools he used to repress not only legal institutions but also the media, civil society and opposition parties. When in 1969 Lee, displeased with some jury verdicts in capital cases, completely abolished the jury trial — one of the common law’s most hallowed institutions — lawyers who complained were threatened.

In May 1988 I made my last visit to Singapore on an emergency basis at the request of international human rights organisations. Reverting to his penchant for detention without trial, Lee had been locking up a number of Catholic social activists and reformist lawyers. The activists and lawyers had been trying to educate the public about Singapore’s exploitation of its most disadvantaged citizens and foreign workers, as well as the need to strengthen labour laws and regulation.

Relying on his time-tested formula of twisting legitimate dissent into an alleged threat to national security, Lee’s administration improbably denounced the group as part of a London-based ‘Marxist conspiracy’ determined to overthrow the state. This unproven charge enabled the government to invoke the notorious Internal Security Act, which echoed the British colonial regime’s most repressive legislation, to arrest its critics without having to expose any relevant facts to the scrutiny of the courts or the public.

When Lee was reportedly also about to detain the principal defence counsel, Francis Seow, the international human rights community became more gravely concerned than ever. Seow, a feisty former solicitor general and president of the Law Society, had been unsuccessfully resisting Lee’s dictatorial moves for many years, but had not been intimidated by previous efforts to inhibit and silence him.

I was working and residing in Hong Kong and since two international human rights organisations knew of my previous contacts with Lee, they asked me to fly to Singapore in an effort to dissuade Lee from arresting Seow. I quickly arranged an exciting day’s visit. In the morning I went to court to watch Seow vainly attempt to obtain judicial relief for his clients’ unlawful imprisonment by invoking the city-state’s liberal constitutional protections before unsympathetic judges.

I then lunched with my old friend, Tan Boon Teik, who was still the attorney general. He politely heard all my arguments about why it would be disastrous for Singapore’s reputation in Western legal and human rights circles if the government again blatantly violated the nation’s constitution and undermined the rule of law by arresting the defendants’ legal defender. As expected, he told me that everything would turn on the hour meeting I was scheduled to have with Lee beginning 4 pm. I knew it would be an uphill struggle.

Lee could not have given me a more cordial reception. As I left him at 5 pm, I thought that perhaps my trip had not been in vain. Yet, when I returned to my hotel to watch the 6 pm television news, I learned that Francis Seow had been detained shortly after 4 pm for supposedly cooperating with an American diplomat to promote US interference in Singapore politics.

I rarely get angry but I did believe that Lee’s reception had been genially abusive. When, after my return to Hong Kong, the BBC, virtually the sole Western press agency allowed free access to Singapore at the time, telephoned for my views on Seow’s detention, I attacked Lee’s action for what it was. Friends in Singapore soon reported that the interview had been aired many times that day and infuriated Lee, an inveterate Anglophile. I was subsequently advised to wait a reasonable period before planning another trip to the city-state. Although I was told over a decade ago that, while all had not been forgiven, another visit would be acceptable, I have never returned.

It will now fall to historians to do the research required to strike a balanced and comprehensive perspective of Lee’s complex career. This task has been hampered until now by the harsh restrictions that Lee and his followers have imposed on free inquiry and expression within their realm. Yet, fortunately, an impressive body of scholarship is already emerging concerning the achievements and shortcomings of Lee’s distinctive and successful effort to coat Singapore’s economic and social progress with the veneer of legitimacy that skillful manipulation of the ‘rule of law’ can confer upon an authoritarian and often arbitrary government.

Much of this scholarship has been done by Singaporeans who, unable to pursue their research at home, have nevertheless managed to make major contributions from abroad. Outstanding among this group is Research Professor Jothie Rajah of the American Bar Foundation, whose 2012 book Authoritarian Rule of Law successfully reveals ‘a configuration of law, politics and legitimacy that may have far-reaching consequences for theory and politics worldwide’.

Rajah’s stunning study of Singapore implicitly illuminates Beijing’s ongoing struggle to develop a legal system appropriate to contemporary needs. Despite China’s continuing reproduction of Western-style legal norms and forms, in practice President Xi Jinping seems intent on resurrecting and applying the spirit of traditional China’s unique blend of hierarchical Confucianism and cruel legalism.

Xi must frequently regret that his Communist Party predecessors committed the People’s Republic to respect the formal restraints on government of at least 26 international human rights documents. By contrast, Lee, although a proud Cambridge-trained lawyer, was too shrewd to commit his country to the main human rights covenants. Underneath its formal Western legal façade, his Singapore bears important traces of imperial China, which used law as an instrument of government control unconstrained by notions of individual rights — including the right to an independent defence lawyer.

In 1988, I had a glimpse of how such a system operates and it wasn’t pretty.

Jerome A. Cohen is Professor of Law at New York University. He is the Co-director of the NYU US–Asia Law Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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