[Singaporean Literature]

Lee Kuan Yew's Opposition to Trial by Jury

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, 1998-1999

In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, March 5, 1977, which his biographers include in full, the man who has done more than anyone else to create Singapore explains why he rejected Anglo-American system of trial by jury for his country despite the fact he trained as a lawyer at Cambridge. In his first case he was "was assigned to defend four murderers." Fleeing the Japanese, a Dutch woman had entrusted her daughter to a Malay muslim.

She came back after the war, reclaimed the daughter. The Chief Justice, then an Englishman, pending hearing of the case, sent the girl who had been converted into Islam to a convent to be looked after, and hell broke loose. The police force mutinied. Malays and Muslims took out their knives and a lot of white men, just because they were white, nothing to do with the case, were killed. These four men were accused of killing a Royal Air Force officer and his wife and child. They were travelling on a bus from RAF Changi down to town.

Lee Kuan Yew, who had been assigned the case, explains that he did what any advocate does: He "worked on the weaknesses of the jury -- their biases, their prejudices, their reluctance really to find four Mussulmen [Muslims] guilty of killing in cold blood or in a heat of great passion, religious passion, an RAF officer, his wife and child." And he employed "the simple tricks of advocacy -- contradictions between one witness and another, contradiction between a witness and his previous statement to the police and the preliminary enquiry."

When the jury acquitted the murderers, Lee Kuan Kew reports, "The judge was thoroughly disgusted. I went home feeling quite sick because I knew I'd discharged my duty as required of me, but I knew I had done wrong." He thereupon concluded that no government in which he had a say would employ this foreign, "foolish, completely incongruous system." Pointing out that the French and other Latin nations do not use trial by jury, Lee Kuan Kew argues that it is too "alien" to the basic social attitudes of many other cultures, including those of Asia.

In his Memoirs, Lee adds more detail, but the main points still hold. Thus, it turns out that the young barrister defended four out of fourteen defendants; he brought judge and jury to the scene of the murders at night, demonstrating how difficult recognizing individuals would have been in such conditions; and although "Chinese and Indian jurors were never happy to convict if it meant sending a man to his death," the evidence weighed heavily enough upon their consciences that they did in fact convict nine of the fourteen of "causing grievous hurt," though three of his own clients "got off scot-free" (144). In the Memoirs Lee also explains in more detail why he believed his clients guilty, but the conclusion he drew from this painful experience of the jury system remained the same: "I had no faith in a system that allowed the supersitition, ignorance, biases, and prejudics of seven jurymen to determine guilt or innocence" (144).


Han Fook Kwang, Warren Fernandez, Sumiko Tan. Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas. Singapore: Times, 1998.

Lee Kuan Yew. The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times, 1998.

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