Mr Lee and Mr Chee agreed to have a fight

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?

Author: Atanu Dey


9 thoughts on “Mr Lee and Mr Chee agreed to have a fight”

  1. Brilliant.
    The Chee guy does not appreciate what he has and looks for what he does not.

    I usually tell my “liberal” American friends to stop whining about America. They don’t appreciate what they have and the false romaticism of third world and their pseudo leaders appeal them.

    The ‘evey rich person is bad, everything powerful is evil’ syndrome is what it is. So America being both rich and powerful is evil by default.


  2. But in what sense is there freedom if one is starving?

    Were the South Koreans starving when your idol assumed power? Has the political freedom for citizens increased after SK became economically independent and achieved its goals, or has it remained the same? These are the questions I’d ask.

    You’ll make a very good politician my friend. 😉


    The ‘every rich person is bad, everything powerful is evil’ syndrome is what it is. So America being both rich and powerful is evil by default.

    kaunteya, I don’t know about your “liberal” friends’ thinking, but in a democracy, there’s accountability. Holding elected people in power accountable for their decisions, and speaking out about that does not make America evil. You are seemingly making the mistake that criticism of what you love is not the same as hatred. Just like any other country, America has its faults and strengths. Maybe your friends are focused only on the faults whereas you probably are focused only on the strengths. The truth lies somewhere in-between.


  3. Correction. That should read:
    “You are seemingly making the mistake that criticism of what you love is the same as calling it evil.”


  4. @Amit: You have a point.

    Constant “criticism” of one country troubles me most.

    America is “bad” compared to which country? Russia, China, UK, France,Canada,Cuba,Sri Lanka, India?

    I find hard to keep criticizing America on the day Barak Hussein Obama gets to be on the verge of being President.

    It’s tough for me not to see how USA is in more than one ways helping my own country’s economy and also lot of others including Chinas.

    My problem is with the limousine socialists of this world. The lecturebaazes. who i usually find more on the left.


  5. Blaming America is very easy,India and others messed up countries of the world are in a mess not because of usa but because of their own foolish policies.While not being exactly pro American ,america is a thousand times better than any country u name in the world.America is high handed,but it is charitable and ethical.World without usa will fall into anarchy and chaos.Had it not been for usa we would not be blogging.


  6. America is one of the best countries in the world. Why? Because, it has always acted in the interest of American citizens, rest of the world be damned. I think the government of every country has a primary responsibility of guarding the self interest of its OWN citizens.

    People blaming the USA conveniently forget its constant endeavour to act in favor of its own citizens. If it is killing people in the middle east to secure oil for its citizens, where is the harm?

    If a leader makes policies for the maximum benefits of Indians, I would vote him to power. Non-Indians should be treated as second class citizens. Hell, they are not citizens and should not have any rights in India at all, if that is in the best interest of India’s citizens. It is not that way because we need legal immigration, technology etc. from the outside world!

    But to that extent, India has been extremely pathetic, allowing hordes of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants at tremendous costs to INDIAN CITIZENS!

    -Mayuresh Gaikwad


  7. I was never a LKY fan nor did i ever like singapore’s culture.
    Its the culture that matters, individuals rise up as leaders or are put aside b/c of the culture of the place. and its Singapores culture that brought up LKY, A man who wants dynastic rule in singapore.
    I can discuss this on and on about its dirty history its plans to have a government subsidized strip clubs for us soldiers during vietnam war.
    The long and short of it Singapore doesnt have in aggregate much to teach the world. Its only reason for a short flame blip in world history was b/c of reaction to coloniasm that the world was going through as well as a reason for Great Britain to not let that place be part of malaysia,
    All those forces are for the most part gone and newer forces are at play. and in the long run singapore wouldnt matter. They can subsidize all the cronies they want for Biotech, Nano tech, shittech but nothings going to come out, b/c the process is all about croniesm and nepotism and greater issues like passion towards what you work on is missing.


  8. If it is the alleviation of hunger that justifies the curb of free expression, then I am sure that Singapore is paying rather a heavy price now. I think, Singapore would have solved the hunger problem with the help of LKY’s leadership alone without his dictatorship.

    Atanu, I wonder how can you still give the man a clean chit when he has shown every sign ( not only visible, but sublime, blatant) of nepotism and what not. He is the grand Minister Mentor ( super-PM, anyone??), his eldest son is the PM, his daughter-in-law is the head of the biggest investment company that virtually controls every investment of the government, hin younger son is the head of the nation’s biggest corporate!!! And I dont really remember which other posts his family occpies but am sure these are the rest of the important posts in that nation.

    Going by your own post, where you described it is the power that corrupts and in this case the man’s greed in holding up every powerful position, it is dificult to all he got is altruistic intention!!



  9. Atanu,

    What would be interesting is to talk about why personal freedom and the like that LKY suppressed is at odds with development. Sure, we all know about the cost of democracy but do you think there are more?


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