The NY Times of 30th May reports (“Power and Tenacity Collide in Singapore Courtroom” — Thanks, Naman) on the clash between two personalities — one powerful and famous, the other powerless — in a Singapore courtroom. Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, 84, met his political adversary Chee Soon Juan, 45, in court where the former is suing the latter for libel. In a newsletter published in 2006, Mr Chee had accused the Singapore government of corruption. Mr Lee takes charges of corruption seriously and refused to let Mr Chee’s accusation go unchallenged.
I suppose the court would figure out if Mr Chee’s charge is true or not. If the charge is false, I would be much relieved because I would hate to find out that the man I have very high regard for — Mr Lee Kuan Yew — has feet of clay.
Why do I admire the man so much? Perhaps because of what he achieved. Here’s the NY Times:
“The final test is what Singapore was when I became prime minister in 1959 and what Singapore is now,” Mr. Lee said. “We had less than $100 million in the kitty.” Today, he said, “global financial services assess Singapore to have sovereign wealth funds of over $300 billion.”
Singapore is just a few million people. LKY worked the miracle of transforming a third world resource-poor mosquito-infested swamp into a wealthy first world nation state admired around the world for efficiency, lack of corruption, order and cleanliness. He didn’t make pretty speeches about scaling the commanding heights of the economy. He just did it and did it within a generation. Not just the phenomenal infrastructure of the tiny place, not just the rich stock of human capital, Singapore has also amassed $300 billion in reserves. Under LKY’s guidance, Singapore’s reserves have multiplied 3000 times. How great is that?
Lee says that Singapore has $300 billion in the kitty. Chee says that it does not make up for
the silencing of political opponents, the closing down of independent media “and all your shenanigans, including making sure that I’m not allowed to speak during an election rally.”
Speaking strictly for myself, I value political freedom and the freedom of expression. A civilized human existence requires freedom. But in what sense is there freedom if one is starving? Isn’t one willing to sell one’s soul for a piece of bread when starvation threatens one’s life? What would you give up in exchange for not seeing your child starve to death? I know that I would give up a lot of my highly prized freedom of political expression if in the process I could at least see my children not starve.
Mr Chee says that $300 billion in the bank (and of course all other goodies that Singapore enjoys) is too high a price to pay for the lack of political freedom and the muzzling of the press. Perhaps the restrictions on the press and on political opposition were wholly unnecessary and Singapore would have been what it is today even otherwise. Perhaps it was merely to satisfy LKY’s personal whims and fancies that political opposition was curbed and which actually did not serve any instrumental purpose. But I doubt it. When a country is poor, the squabbling for resources does push to the fore the most opportunistic criminals to enter the policymaking circles.
I know that no one reading this is actually starving. When one is sitting comfortably with a full tummy, it is easy to see how valuable it is to have the freedom to speak your mind. It is clearly better to have political freedom than not to have it, all else being equal. But how would one rank these two: one, a very full stomach but limited political freedom; two, a very empty stomach but unlimited political freedom.
At which point does the benefits of political freedom of the few outweigh the material concerns of 500 million others? How many million people is it ok to condemn to a pitiably poor life so as to guarantee that a few people have the right to make fiery political speeches?
And often times, the only political speeches made are ostensibly on behalf of the starving millions. If those starving millions did not exist, these politicians would have little to make speeches about. So it would seem that if by banning idiotic political speeches, one achieves a level of prosperity such that it makes political speeches about poverty completely irrelevant and inconsequential, it would be a good thing.
I think that there is a hierarchy of needs, as Maslow pointed out. Only after the lower level needs are met can one attempt to satisfy needs higher up. I will secure air before I start worrying about food and water. I will not worry about free speech if I am in imminent danger of keeling over from hunger. I would trade in a lot of pretty political speeches in exchange for a decent shot at living a comfortable life. If I were in the bottom 300 million in India, I would happily trade in my situationally useless right to political freedom in exchange for the life of an average Singaporean.
All the above with the usual disclaimer that your mileage may vary.
Why do I stress so much on the starvation bit? Because I know how it feels to starve for 2 days. If it feels that awful to starve for just 2 days, I wonder how it must be to chronically starve — as do an estimated 200 million in India. I know that I could not handle it and I would make a deal with the devil himself to try to avoid it. That is what I fear: that millions of people at the edge of starvation are quite capable of making deals with the devil. Don’t believe me? Well, then, how do you think the communists get elected in India?