“Everybody knows that if you impugn our integrity, we must clear our name. How can it be otherwise?”

Source: The New York Times
By David Ignatius Published: September 28, 2002

SINGAPORE— Why is one of the world’s most successful politicians also one of the most litigious? That’s the paradox of senior minister and former leader Lee Kuan Yew, the man who built this island nation into a world-class economic success but still battles critics as if his life depended on it.

If you were to ask political and business leaders in Asia which living statesman they most respect, Lee probably would nearly top the list. By tapping Singapore’s brainpower and work ethic, he created a jewel of the global economy. Yet in defending his personal reputation he remains as combative as when he first became prime minister of a poor and primitive Singapore at age 35.

Perhaps he is an example of what Orson Welles tried to explain in “Citizen Kane.” Great men and women, no matter how far they rise in life, never entirely escape the fears they had when they were young. Lee’s fear may be that Singapore will be seen as just another corrupt Southeast Asian country rather than as the island of legality and clean government it became under his stewardship.

There is a picture of him in his autobiography with a broom in hand, sweeping the streets of Singapore in an effort to persuade his fellow countrymen to keep the country clean. It was taken in 1959, the year he became prime minister. The ramshackle buildings and dusty streets in the picture are long gone, but mentally Lee still has that broom in hand.

Singapore’s problem is a bit like China’s. When does a country become rich and successful enough to loosen its grip on media and citizens and operate more like a modern democracy? When is it stable enough to stop worrying so much about social control?

Lee perplexes me. He is probably the smartest politician I have interviewed in more than 25 years as a journalist. Yet I find his behavior toward the press appalling, not least in the courtroom combat he launched during the 1990s against the newspaper I edit, the International Herald Tribune. He waged similar legal jousting with the Far Eastern Economic Review, now owned by Dow Jones. Those legal fights were destructive for all sides, yet Lee remains ready to rumble when he feels his reputation has been tarnished.

His latest dustup with the press came last month after Bloomberg News published a commentary by the columnist Patrick Smith. The article alleged that Lee had engaged in nepotism when the top post at a government investment firm was given to the wife of his son, Lee Hsien Loong, who is Singapore’s deputy prime minister. Lee’s lawyers threatened to sue, and Bloomberg quickly issued a public apology and agreed to pay damages and costs.

Another victory for Lee? Maybe. But I suspect that such sensitivity sits uneasily with Singapore’s hard-won reputation as a modern, progressive nation. It makes people wonder whether there is something wrong, and in that sense may hurt Singapore more than it helps.

So on a visit here this month, I asked Lee to explain why he was so thin-skinned. If someone told George H.W. Bush that his son’s elevation to the presidency was an example of nepotism, he would just laugh it off, I said. Why did Lee respond so sharply?

Lee’s answer was revealing, because it showed his fear that Singapore could lose what he has worked so long to build. “That’s different!” he said, dismissing the comparison to the Bush family. “This is a hard-won premium that we command,” he said, noting that Transparency International ranks Singapore as the least corrupt country in Asia. “Everybody knows that if you impugn our integrity, we must clear our name. How can it be otherwise?” he said.

“We are the best paid of all ministers in the region, but not the most well off. That’s because we run it differently. Our people know that. If they doubt that, we are out.”

But why take it so seriously? No columnist is going to change what people think of Singapore.

“One Patrick Smith, followed by dozens of Patrick Smiths,” Lee replied. “If he gets away, everybody gets away. More calumny is showered on us, and where do we end up?”

Where you end up, in relaxing controls on public debate, is with the kind of open and democratic society we have in the West. That doesn’t mean opening the gates to calumny and abuse. America has libel laws, too, after all, but they deliberately provide a lower standard of protection for public figures, to foster a more open debate. By reacting as he does whenever falsehoods appear in the press, Lee may be inhibiting Singapore’s march into that kind of future.

Lee told me last year that efforts to control information were counterproductive in the Internet age. “I don’t think we can stop it now,” he said. “I don’t see any alternative. You either use the Internet or you are backward.” Lee reiterated that determination to become a more open society in our conversation this month.

“We have been changing,” he said, noting that articles appear now in the local press that would never have been published two years ago. Bravo. But the real milestone will be when someone publishes a defamatory article about Lee’s family and he, like former President Bush, just laughs it off.