PM Lee Gives Great Comeback To The BBC After Being Asked Age-Old Question On Free Speech

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The BBC Interviews PM Lee

So the BBC rolled out an old chestnut when it talked to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in an interview aired on Wednesday (March 1) — free speech in Singapore.

Previous interviews the Western media conducted with his father, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, also touched on this point, and the late Mr Lee always gave a great answer to the questions.

Despite that, the perennial question cropped up again in PM Lee’s interview.

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The Interview

Conducted by veteran presenter Stephen Sackur on the BBC’s HARDtalk programme, the interview was a wide-ranging one that touched on geopolitcal issues as well as those closer to home.

Here’s a quick summary of what they talked about:

1. Freedom of Speech

The most tension-filled part of the interview involved this contentious issue, which has been used by the Western media to browbeat Asian countries like Singapore for decades. It came up as a segue from a question about free-trade talks between Singapore and the UK.

Mr Sackur said MP Tim Farron urged the UK to “raise issues of freedom of expression and freedom of the press” in trade talks.

Mr Lee’s reply to that was a good one:

I would not presume to tell you how your Press Council should operate. Why should you presume to tell me how my country should run?

PM Lee then said Singapore was “completely open”, with no “great wall of the Internet” (an obvious reference to China and its Internet firewall).

Here’s a short clip of that portion of the interview:

Mr Lee also fired back:

The world is a diverse place. Nobody has a monopoly on virtue or wisdom. And unless we can accept that, and we prosper together and cooperate together, accepting our differences…I think it becomes difficult.

He also highlighted this quote on his Facebook page, showing us how important he thinks it is:

We think Mr Lee’s comeback is incisive, and is a suitable chastisement to the Western media for their moral high horse towards Asian countries on the issue of free speech.

After all, given more egregious violations of free speech by US President Donald Trump’s administration, notably the banning of CNN, the New York Times, Politico, the Los Angeles Times and BuzzFeed from a White House briefing, we think the Western media should look closer to home for examples of the curtailment of free speech.

What LKY Said

An interview former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had with The International Herald Tribune on Aug. 24, 2007 took a similar turn on the subject of free speech.

Mr Lee was spoke to Mr Leonard M. Apcar, deputy managing editor of the International Herald Tribune, Mr Wayne Arnold, a Singapore correspondent, and Mr Seth Mydans, South-east Asia bureau chief.

He was asked whether a loosening of restrictions on free speech and freedom of the press was needed to open Singapore up to the global marketplace of ideas so the country can grow.

Here’s what he replied:

You’re giving me the classical… Western, liberal approach… I’m giving you the answer of a pragmatist.

…this is not a closed society. But at the same time, we try to maintain a certain balance with the people who are not finding it so comfortable to suddenly find the world changed, their world, their sense of place, their sense of position in society.

Imposing the western definition of political democracy isn’t the best way to run a country like Singapore. Every country has its own history, demographics, social norms, problems and beliefs; following a cookie-cutter approach isn’t practical.

Thinking that there is no better system than the western definition of political democracy could lead us to disaster.

2. Section 377A

For those who don’t know what Section 377A of the Penal Code of Singapore is about here it is:

Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.

When asked if the government would consider repealing Section 377A, PM Lee responded saying it’s about societal values and Singaporeans inherited this from British Victorian attitudes.

Mr Sackur then asked if Singapore should reflect British Victorian attitudes, to which PM Lee replied that Singapore society is not ready for the statute to be repealed.

He added that if a referendum on whether to remove 377A were held, he believes most Singaporeans would want to keep it.

Would PM Lee’s beliefs differ if his children or grandchildren were gay?

To that, PM Lee replied:

If I remove it, I will not remove the problem. Because if you look at what has happened in the west, in Britain you decriminalised it in the 1960s, your attitudes have changed a long way but even now gay marriage is contentious. In America, it’s very contentious. Even in France, in Paris, they’ve had demonstrations in the streets against gay marriage.

The perception of the people will not change, if the law doesn’t change first. But Mr Lee thinks otherwise, as he revealed upon being pressed for a personal view on the matter:

My personal view is that if I do not have a problem, this is an uneasy compromise, I am prepared to live with it until social attitudes change.

Essentially, it isn’t very different from what Mr Lee has been saying for years, since 2013 and possibly further back:

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What LKY Said, Part 2

We couldn’t help but compare the way PM Lee and Singapore’s founding father answered the question:

In the International Herald Tribune interview in 2007, the late Mr Lee said:

Like gays, we take an ambiguous position. We say, O.K., leave them alone but let’s leave the law as it is for the time being and let’s have no gay parades.

… we’ve got to go the way the world is going. China has already allowed and recognized gays, so have Hong Kong and Taiwan. It’s a matter of time. But we have a part Muslim population, another part conservative older Chinese and Indians. So, let’s go slowly. It’s a pragmatic approach to maintain social cohesion.

Years later, Mr Lee’s response in his book “Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going” showed that he was prepared to be accepting:

That’s life. They’re born with that genetic code, that’s that. Dick Cheney didn’t like gays but his daughter was born like that. He says, “I still love her, full stop.” It’s happened to his family. So on principle he’s against it, but it’s his daughter. Do you throw the daughter out? That’s life. I mean none of my children is gay, but if they were, well that’s that.

3. Terrex Issue

Hong Kong’s seizure of nine Singapore Armed Forces Terrex infantry carriers in Dec 2016 was also brought up, in the context of Sino-Singapore relations.

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For a more on the saga, read our our story on China not wanting to return the Terrexes (though they were eventually returned).

PM Lee said on relations between Singapore and China:

I would not say we have major problems. We have had some issues and some incidents. The military vehicles were an incident which happened to both of us and we had to handle it.

When asked if the incident has since created a sense of distrust between the two countries, PM Lee replied by saying that the “delicate” matter was handled with care and the outcome was satisfactory.

4. Trans-Pacific Partnership

The wide-ranging Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal might still be on despite the withdrawal of the US, Mr Lee said — provided the remaining 11 countries can come to an agreement.

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However, Mr Lee said he was “not sure” this would happen as such a consensus would be “not so easy” to achieve.

One reason would be that Japan had agreed to some concessions that were dependent on US involvement, but now that the US was gone, those concessions may also need to be renegotiated.

5. Caught In The Middle

One highlight of the interview was the discussion over how Singapore was trying to play both sides in its relations with the US and China.

Mr Lee said that Singapore is “friends with both, and the relationships are in good working order”.

But “the real worry” is if US-China ties worsen, he said, as then Singapore will be “coerced to choose between being friends with America, and friends with China”.

Let’s take a look at Singapore’s ties with both countries.

5a. Ties With the US

Singapore’s ties with the US, which is under the new Trump administration will also be of concern,

Mr Lee said Singapore is watching the “direction” and “political tone” of the US carefully, but reiterated the “very deep relationship” we have with the US.

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They are our biggest investor. They are one of our major export markets. We have a defence relationship. We have a security relationship talking about counter-terrorism. Americans are very welcome in Singapore and Singaporeans feel very comfortable in America. Those will continue.

Mr Lee also said he does not believe the Trump administration is planning to pull back from Asia or the world, noting that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson know the region, with Mr Tillerson having visited Singapore when he was with Exxon Mobil.

So I think the officials in the administration are not unfamiliar with Asia or with its significance.

He noted Singapore’s long-standing military cooperation with the US, and said that the Republic has this cooperation with the US as it believes that US presence in the region has brought stability and prosperity.

However, it may strain ties with China, whose superpower status is steadily emerging.

5b. Ties With China

Sino-Singapore ties have been fraught recently, as can be seen from the Terrex issue and several articles in Chinese state newspapers that were critical of Singapore.

Mr Sackur asked Mr Lee about China’s perceived unhappiness with Singapore, ostensibly due to the Republic’s close ties with the United States.

Mr Sackur suggested that Singapore’s ties with China could also be strained by the Republic’s position on an international tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea.


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China claims almost all of the South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion worth of sea-borne trade passes every year. A number of Asean countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam, have competing claims to parts of the sea. In July last year, the tribunal ruled that China’s claims over the sea were illegal.

Mr Lee said Singapore’s stand was to respect the international court’s decision — a stand that Mr Sackur suggested could be taken by China to be a “betrayal” of Sino-Singapore ties.

5c. US-China Ties

Commenting on US-China ties, Mr Lee said “close and sustained attention” was needed towards the relations between the two superpowers.

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It is not just a matter of making strong statements. You have to… communicate convincingly and to a certain degree, openly with the other side, and develop that strategic understanding so that there is no miscalculation.

However, he said, the US has lots of things to worry about besides China.

Food For Thought

We think PM Lee handled himself well in the interview, and gave whoever was watching the interview much food for thought.

The interview will go down in history as one of the great ones, where like his father, Mr Lee held his own against a Western media outlet determined to rehash old narratives of Singapore and free speech.

We’re proud to have him as our PM, and it’s just another reason why he’s the coolest PM around.

Featured image from BBC News

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