[Singaporean Literature]

Lee Kuan Yew on the Opposition of Civil Liberties and Stability, Security, and Economic Progress

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

As the authors of Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas (1998) point out, Lee rejected "the notion that all men yearned for democratic freedoms, prizing free speech and the vote over other needs such as economic development. Asian societies, he contended, were different, having evolved separately from the West over the centuries" [126]. Lee also argued, "somewhat controversially," that "notions of absolute rights to freedom for individuals would sometimes have to be compromised in order to help maintain public order and security." He was therefore willing to suspend the right of habeas corpus, "or an open and fair trial, for known criminals or political agitators" on the grounds that "witnesses were too cowed to come forward to testify against them.

In his May 1991 address to the Asahi Shimbun symposium, Lee argued that Asians "want higher standards of living in an orderly society. They want to have as much individual choice in lifestyle, political liberties and freedoms as is compatible with the interests of the community." He granted that once a country has attained a certain level of education and industrialization, it "may need representative government . . . to reconcile conflicting group interests in society and maintain social order and stability. Representative government is also one way for a people to forge a new consensus, a social compact, on how a society settles the trade-off between further rapid economic growth and individual freedoms." [147]


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

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