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Politician Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.

Singapore’s first prime minister and its current senior minister-- Lee Kuan Yew. A very controversial figure, Lee Kuan Yew formed the People’s Action Party, and won the first Singapore general election in 1959. Since it was granted independence in 1965, Singapore has gone from British colony to Asian economic powerhouse. Yet, its government is often criticized for being too authoritarian and weak on civil liberties. Lee Kuan Yew will talk about his country’s economic success, as well as the criticism about his government’s treatment of its citizens. His new book is called From Third World to First (Harper Collins).


Other segments from the episode on October 24, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 24, 2000: Interview with Lee Kuan Yew; Interview with Stan Sesser.


DATE October 24, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Lee Kuan Yew, senior minister of Singapore, discusses
the economic success of his country and the government's treatment
of its citizens

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Many Americans don't know much about Singapore, except that it's the small
island country where, in 1993 the young American Michael Fay was imprisoned
and caned after being convicted of acts of vandalism. Singapore is also an
economic success story. My guest, Lee Kuan Yew, is considered the father of
independent Singapore and is one of the more interesting and paradoxical
of state. For example, he's been praised for leading his country from
to riches through his smart economic management, but he's been criticized
creating an authoritarian government that restricts the civil liberties of
citizens and tries to regulate their lives.

Lee Kuan Yew became Singapore's first prime minister at the age of 35 in
after the end of Britain's colonial rule. Ten years ago, he stepped down
became the senior minister. He's written a new book called "From Third
to First: The Singapore Story." I asked Lee Kuan Yew what living
were like in Singapore when he became prime minister.

Former Prime Minister LEE KUAN YEW (Author, "From Third World To First"):
Fairly dreadful for the vast majority; excellent for the wealthy minority of
about 5 to 10 percent. Our people lived in shanty huts made of discarded
boxes and zinc planks for the roof. And you have a hole in the ground for
your toilet. No drainage. So it's a pretty grim existence because before
then, there was four and a half years of--three and a half years of Japanese
occupation, and then the long period of rehabilitation and a very
poverty-stricken world after the World War. So it was tough.

GROSS: But one of the things you felt it was necessary to do when you
the prime minister in 1959 was to redistribute the wealth. Why was that
important, and what do you think are the most important steps you took
redistributing the wealth?

Mr. YEW: Well, if you want to enthuse people to join you and to throw the
British out, you've got to hold out to them the expectation of some benefit.

And the benefit was we'll share all these fine things the British had. But,
of course, the more people to share, then there were fine things. So the
problem is: How do we create more fine things? And that was the beginning
our learning process.

GROSS: Is it fair to say that your approach was to try to attract
multinational corporations and get them to set up shop in Singapore?

Mr. YEW: Well, that was later on. First, we tried it do-it-yourself, DIU,
sort of, you know? We didn't realize that it was a difficult business, that
creating wealth was not a simple business of just planting coconuts or
and bananas. It's a different world. If you plant coconuts, papayas and
bananas, then you don't make much of a living. It's when you have educated
people and they know how to make use of machines and then you are able to
value, much more value than if you worked your bare hands and simple
implements, that we learned how to make a better life. And we keep on
learning how to do that all the time because the implements change with
computers, with robotics. And there is no end to this process of learning
relearning, which is sweeping across the whole world and not just Singapore.

GROSS: Well, how did you try to improve education in Singapore...

Mr. YEW: Well...

GROSS: ...and get more people into school?

Mr. YEW: That's the crucial part. I mean, do you educate your people? Do
you give them the basic knowledge and give them the zest to learn on their
own? We had a very mixed and difficult series of languages. The British
us separate, so Chinese spoke a series of their own six or seven different
dialects. Indians spoke three or four different languages. And Malays
three or four of their different dialects. We decided that all will learn
English, and that will become our common language. And so that you can get
everybody into a factory and they understand each other, and what we didn't
expect then, turned out to be a bit of serendipity, was the world decided to
use English. This was even before the Internet. And multinationals, when
they came, whether they were Germans or French or Japanese, they spoke
English, too. So it was an immense benefit to us.

GROSS: Now in the United States, a very controversial subject is whether
there should be Spanish in classrooms that have a lot of Latino people in
you know, whether English should be the only language in school or whether
other languages should be allowed as well.

Mr. YEW: Yeah.

GROSS: How controversial was your move to make English the language in
in Singapore? And what--you know, what reaction did you get to that? And
did you deal with the reaction?

Mr. YEW: Well, language is a very emotional subject, very emotive. People
cling on tenaciously to their mother tongue, because that's what they
to speak to their mother in, while they was still suckling at the mother's
breast. So if you tell them to drop their mother language, then you have a
lot of trouble. So what we did was, you can go to any school of your choice
to learn your mother tongue, if you wish. But you will also learn English
a second language. Or if you prefer to do better in English and you go to
school teaching you English as a first language and your mother tongue as a
second language.

Now at the first few years, during the first few years, many chose mother
tongue, first language; English, second language. But when they went into
job market, they discovered that English as a first language got better
So their parents, too, soon got the hang of it, and switched their precious
boys and girls into English as the first language, and they studied their
mother tongue as a second language. So that solved the problem without too
much trauma. It took about 20 years. It can't be done too quickly.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lee Kuan Yew. He is the
founding prime minister of Singapore; now the senior minister. He stepped
down as prime minister in 1990.

What is the rate of home ownership in Singapore now?

Mr. YEW: About 95 percent.

GROSS: And how did you accomplish that?

Mr YEW: Well, we set out in 1963, '64 to create a special fund, which we
call a central provident fund, where the worker puts in about 10, later on,
and ultimately 20 percent of his earnings, and the employer matches it. So
it's either 10 and 10 or 15 and 15 or 20 and 20. So from this fund he will
able to buy his home and save for his pensions when he retires and also for
his co-payment for subsidized medical treatment. At the same time, we made
possible because we sold these apartments to them at below-market prices.
charged them the cost of the building, but the land was given at below cost.
The land belonged to the government and it was given below cost.

So what happens is about five, 10, 15 years after they've paid the
installments, they've got a substantial asset. If you have a three-room
apartment, today it's worth about 100,000 to 120,000 US. If you've got a
five-room apartment, you would have about 220,000 US worth of assets. And
that's spread across the whole population, so that provides for stability.
mean, when you own that asset, you don't want to elect a government that may
cause your assets to drop in value.

GROSS: So it--home ownership, you're saying, gives people a vested interest
in maintaining the status quo.

Mr. YEW: Absolutely. Without that we wouldn't have been re-elected so
confidently each time. We have won nine successive elections since 1959.
And had we not done that, had we had them pay ferocious rents for small,
little cubicles and the landlords had creamed off their salaries, we might
not have seen our second term.

GROSS: You know, in terms of the economic base in Singapore, one of the
you strengthened that was to invite in multinationals and create an
environment that they would want to set up shop in.

Mr. YEW: Yes.

GROSS: What are some of the things you did to create that environment that
you thought would be welcoming to multinationals?

Mr. YEW: Well, first we--remember, when we started in 1959, we were a Third
World country. In other words, Third World standards. Now to attract
business and investments--if you want companies to sink hundreds of millions
of dollars, you've got to give them First World infrastructure and the
to match that infrastructure so that it works at First World standards. I
mean, you can buy top-rate telecom equipment, but if you don't have people
can work it properly and power--the power supply is on 24 hours and not
collapse every few hours with brownouts and so on, then you've got to train
your people. Now that was the hard part, jacking them up from Third World
Second and ultimately First World standards. It's a tough job, but it can
done, provided people are motivated and they know what is at stake.

GROSS: My guest is Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding prime minister and
current senior minister. He's written a new book called "From Third World
First." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Lee Kuan Yew, and he is the former prime minister of
Singapore. He was the founding prime minister. And since 1990 he's been
senior minister of his country. He's written a book about Singapore called
"From Third World to First."

I think everybody's in agreement about the economic success of Singapore.
However, the country is also considered very authoritarian. In 1990, which
is the year that you stepped down as prime minister of Singapore, the Ford
Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation issued a report and they said, `What
emerges from this review is a government that has been willing to decimate
rule of law for the benefit of its political interests. Lawyers have been
cowed into passivity. Judges are kept on a short leash. And the law has
manipulated so that gaping holes exist in a system of restraints on
action toward individuals. Singapore is not a country in which individual
rights have significant meaning.'

Then in 1991, the State Department in the US issued a report and they
described political control of the press, courts and religion and
of detainees and surveillance of opposition or dissident figures as well as
surveillance of some religious leaders. Would you agree that Singapore is

Mr. YEW: It depends upon your definition of authoritarian. If you mean by
authoritarian that we are subject to the will of the people, that we derive
our authority to govern from the votes of the people, which they regularly
cast in secret ballot every four to five years--and our policies are
completely transparent. And they know what they're voting for, and they
solidly voting us in. And we used to win almost 95--or more than 95 percent
of the seats. Now at the end of the day, I'm not interested in what the
MacArthur Foundation or--what was your other foundation you mentioned?

GROSS: The Ford Foundation.

Mr. YEW: The Ford Foundation says. Look at the rating agencies. The World
Economic Forum, IMD, they're all Geneva-based, they sell their reports and
they're used by investors to decide where to put their money.

GROSS: Well, that's the whole point, though, that...

Mr. YEW: Yeah, that's my point. We have been rated as the second most
competitive economy in the world next to the United States, with the best
standards in the rule of law, administration, clean government. And
Transparency International in Berlin has rated us, for the last six years,
amongst the top seven cleanest governments in the world and the cleanest in

Now these are independent rating agencies. They are not out to crusade, to
change the world, as Ford or MacArthur Foundation hopes to change--make it a
better world. All they do is to say, `Here is the list of 80-odd countries
that we have studied, and this is the ranking.' And our rule of law, our
judges, the way we handle the confidence of the people and of the investors
and our judiciary is unquestioned.

GROSS: But I think the point that your critics are trying to make is that
the price that the people of Singapore have paid for their economic
prosperity is the price of losing a lot, in terms of human rights and civil

Mr. YEW: Ask a Singaporian that and ask him to vote again and ask him to
vote the PAP out.

GROSS: My impression is that some Singaporians would be afraid to talk the
truth about that because they are afraid that they would be punished for it.

Mr. YEW: How are they punished? Show me somebody who's been punished.

GROSS: Well, I can't name names there, but, for instance, Stan Sesser, who
wrote about Singapore for The New Yorker magazine a few years ago described
ruthless and efficient and intrusive intelligence agency that is tireless in
its pursuit of dissent.

Mr. YEW: Stan Sesser is a good friend of mine. He wrote that when he
know Singapore very well. I think he wrote that for The New Yorker, right?


Mr. YEW: Well, since then he's got to know us better. He then wrote up a
more informed piece which The New Yorker never published. And he's left The
New Yorker.

GROSS: I've...

Mr. YEW: No, no. I mean--my critics--I do not run away from them.

GROSS: Now you talk about how many times your government has been
re-elected. My understanding is that there really isn't a strong opposition
party. And I think that that kind of dissent might not be that well
tolerated in Singapore.

Mr. YEW: No. How do you get to grow if the government is honest,
efficient and spreads wealth equally? My job is to prevent dissatisfaction,
which leads to violent protests, riots and civil commotion, which would
destroy the economy. And because I have succeeded, therefore, the
has not succeeded. That's the whole purpose of government. That's what I
thought democratic governments are supposed to do. If you look after your
people, the opposition won't stand much of a chance the next time around.

GROSS: Now in your chapter about press restrictions...

Mr. YEW: Yes.

GROSS:'re describing how--if you think a foreign press reporter has
misreported a story about Singapore or slanted a story...

Mr. YEW: Yes.

GROSS: ...on Singapore, they have to publish your reply unedited...

Mr. YEW: Yes.

GROSS: ...or else you restrict their sales.

Mr. YEW: Yes.

GROSS: And you say if don't stand up to and answer our critics from the
foreign media, Singaporians, especially journalists and academics will
that their leaders are afraid of or unequal to the argument and will lose
respect for us.

Mr. YEW: Quite right.

GROSS: Can't you also argue that journalists and academics, in particular,
will lose respect for a government that doesn't respect free speech?

Mr. YEW: That's not been the case. We have commanded respect because we
argued our case, whether it's a local journalist or a foreign journalist.
the local journalist can hit us as hard as they like, but we have the right
reply, and we take them on in the argument. And if they lose the argument,
they then lose face. And they--the next time around when the columnist
his clever, little, witty paste--little, witty piece, he hasn't got so many
plaudits around.

GROSS: What are some...

Mr. YEW: That's life, I mean.

GROSS: What are some of the publications that aren't allowed to be
distributed in Singapore.

Mr. YEW: None.

GROSS: What about Playboy, Cosmopolitan?

Mr. YEW: That's part of our puritanical past. And with the Internet,
becoming obsolete, and I--we can't stop us coming through the Internet.

GROSS: But what about on the newsstands? Are they allowed on the

Mr. YEW: No, I think there's still a certain puritanical streak in the
population. For instance, about eight years ago one of our younger
for the arts decided to free the film scene from censorship, and so he let
through what would have been previously censored. There was an enormous
protest from parents, and so he had to step back and have an R-rated for
artistic so that you're warned that you must be over 18 years old and only
those with an artistic or aesthetic sense should watch such films. And I
don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.

GROSS: Singapore has a lot of control. The government controls a lot of
public behavior. I think chewing gum was made illegal. Yes?

Mr. YEW: Yes.

GROSS: Why chewing gum? Why is chewing gum illegal?

Mr. YEW: Because our transition from Third World to First was done in one
generation, and whereas we were able to transform the physical environment
from Third World to First World, we are unable to change social habits in
short period of time. So we had a lot of young children, and not-so-young
ones, who would take the chewing gum and stick it into keyholes of people's
doors so that you can't open your door. Or you stick it at the sensitive
part of the train doors--the automatic train doors so that it will not keep
closing. It'll touch and it will reopen. Well, you can cane them for that,
but the easier thing is to ban the chewing gum, and that has brought about a
dramatic decline in vandalism of clogged locks and train doors which do not

GROSS: What is the fine for chewing gum or selling chewing gum?

Mr. YEW: I can't tell you because it's not the fine that's the deterrent.
It's the confiscation before you bring it in. We stop it at source. First,
we don't manufacture chewing gum. Next, we make sure it isn't brought in.

GROSS: Lee Kuan Yew is the founding prime minister of Singapore and the
current senior minister. He's written a new book called "From Third World
First." We'll talk more in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross
this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Lee Kuan Yew,
Singapore's first prime minister and current senior minister. We'll get a
second opinion on Singapore from journalist Stan Sesser, who covers the
Pacific Rim.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Lee Kuan Yew.

In 1959, at the age of 35, he became the founding prime minister of
after the end of Britain's colonial rule. He stepped down 10 years ago and
now the country's senior minister. In his new book, "From Third World to
First," he writes about leading his country from poverty to prosperity. His
critics acknowledge his economic achievements but point out that they've
at a price. Lee Kuan Yew created an authoritarian government which
the civil liberties of its citizens.

The one thing that's gotten a lot of attention in the United States is the
of caning as punishment in Singapore. Some of the crimes for which caning
a punishment include breaking into a house, stealing a car--what are some of
the other crimes punishable by caning, as well as prison?

Mr. YEW: Vandalism, destruction of private and public property.

GROSS: And in 1993, the American, Michael Fay, who pleaded guilty for
vandalizing road traffic signs and spray-painting cars was given the
punishment. The judge ordered six strokes of the cane and that was worked
down to four strokes and four months in jail.

Mr. YEW: Yes. It ran down to four strokes because President Clinton
to my prime minister, who decided that he had to respond to show respect for
President Clinton, but we could not cancel all the caning, because then we
would be unable to contain the other crimes committed by thousands and
thousands of others who will not have the privilege of having the American
president intervene on their behalf.

GROSS: Some people consider caning a pretty barbaric approach...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: punishing. Why do you support it?

Mr. YEW: Well, you know, people like Amnesty International believe that we
should be kind to all wrongdoers, because it's really--they are the victims
society and you shouldn't hang them, and you should be--send them to prison
order to rehabilitate them. Well, it's not led to a kinder, gentler world.
We have found that if we don't--if you--let me put it very simply.
we put illegal immigrants into jails and don't cane them. We will soon have
to build so many jails that there would be more jails than tourist hotels in
Singapore, because for the simple reason that the food that they get in
jails is Michelin three-star compared to what they would be getting in their
home countries, so we will be just inundated. So when we cane them, six of
the best, and then send them packing off...

GROSS: Six of the best whacks, you mean?

Mr. YEW: Yes, six of the best whacks on the bottom--we reduce the inflow of
such economic migrants. It's harsh, but which is harsher, to have them come
in an inundate us and ruin what we are doing in Singapore? Surely we have
right to protect what we have created.

GROSS: Well, you're caning illegal immigrants. You're also caning your own

Mr. YEW: Yes, of course. No discrimination.

GROSS: The impression that I get from your book is that you think that the
United States and some other Western countries put too much of an emphasis
human rights.

Mr. YEW: I wouldn't say put too much of an emphasis on human rights. I
mean, the whole purpose of human civilization surely must be to improve the
standing of human beings, whatever they are and whatever society they live
But if you expect, all of a sudden, because you are interested in human
rights, to make societies which are so far behind in history, in
to behave up to your standards, then you are creating a problem for them and
for yourself, because they can't behave that way. I mean, you look at what
has happened in the Moluccas or in East Timor and West Timor. It's hell
broken loose, and it's just complete loss of human values, striking out
because--I don't know, their world must have collapsed, and I don't
what benefit they get out of it, but in that situation, can you apply human
rights? I think what you've got to do is to apply law and order, restore
order, never mind human rights. Just stop it, and to stop it, you need
And the other nations must be encouraged to use their armed forces and their
police to stop it.

GROSS: My guest is Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding prime minister and
current senior minister. He's written a new book called "From Third World
First." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding prime minister and
current senior minister. I want to just get back to something we were
about earlier, which is certain things that are illegal in Singapore. What
are the laws against homosexuality in Singapore?

Mr. YEW: Well, we are with British 19th centuries law on homosexuality
is on the statute book. But we have not prosecuted anybody for
for the last 40, 50 years. What is on the statute book, and if you molest
somebody and try and make him a homosexual, particularly if he's a minor,
the law will be enforced. It's a question of judgment. Once we conclude
homosexuality is also a DNA problem, then you've got to approach the
punishment in a different way. And if you have consenting adults, well, God
bless both of them. But let's...

GROSS: God bless both of them only if you find DNA evidence, or...

Mr. YEW: No, no. Only if they do not inveigle and draw in innocent, young
boys who are not with that inclination.

GROSS: Why not just take the law off the books? I mean, for example, you
say, `Well, you know, these laws aren't being used to persecute people,' but
say you're a homosexual who's also a political dissident. You might think,
`Well, this would--you know, convicting me of homosexuality would be a handy
way of getting me into prison so I can't protest things I oppose in the
government.' So you never really know where you stand when there's a law on
the books that's not really being used, but it could be used.

Mr. YEW: Well, we've not had any dissident or any opposition member who's a
gay or a lesbian, so the question doesn't arise. Really it's not an issue,
not even with the opposition. And if the opposition raises it, they may
lose votes with the conservative parents.

GROSS: You know, I've noticed that every time I ask you about a criticism
your country, especially those having to do with what is perceived as human
rights violations, you laugh. And I'm wondering...

Mr. YEW: Well, because I think it is absurd. Because if you are right, if
the reports you read about is right, then Singapore must be a hell of a hole
to be in. But as I told you, we've got one million out of four million who
are foreigners happy to come to Singapore, willing to work there and wanting
to stay on. Now you tell me if that's right or wrong. Something must be
going on right. I mean...

GROSS: Well, let's put aside a question of right or wrong and--yeah.

Mr. YEW: No, let me put the democracy and human rights thing in
If you look at the Philippines and you say, `Well, people's power,
You have overthrown a dictator, you've had an election. All's fine.' Well,
they're exporting hundreds of thousands of maids and construction workers
over the world. They can't find jobs. Let's have some balance. I mean, in
Kosovo, because it was Europe, you bomb the Serbs into submission. But in
East Timor and West Timor, because they were Asians having voted and being
assured by the United Nations that they could vote freely, tens of thousands
were massacred or brutalized, and the whole place was razed to the ground.
Now you tell me what's human rights. These are double standards, are they

GROSS: Well, I think your point in terms of Singapore is that you've been
able to accomplish what you have economically because of the tight controls
that you've had, that you couldn't--you feel that you couldn't have done one
without the other.

Mr. YEW: I'm not prepared to tell you whether we could have done it by
gentle. If I spent all my time saying, `Please, ladies and gentlemen, let's
do it this way,' we might never have got started. I look them in the eye
I say, `Look, you are hungry. I am supposed to feed you. Now let's get a
move on. You start learning, send your children to school. You start
working. Let's do it better. Let's make a better place out of Singapore.
We'll build you houses, you'll own them. We'll have schools, we'll have
hospitals. We'll have parks. We'll have all the things that you want.'
now they own their homes, they've got 80 or 90 percent with computers. The
Internet penetration rate is about 30 percent of all homes. And all homes
wired by optic fiber broadband. All we are waiting for is broadband across
the Pacific, and we can have broadband streaming into Singapore. Now you
me that's right or wrong? Surely that means a different Singapore. But we
must have a Singapore that's ready to accept that broadband, and I think it
ready. It will change, but it will not become a Western society all
It will not stay what it is, but it is not going to become Americanized.
not possible.

GROSS: When you say won't become Americanized, what are some of the things
that you think of as American that you don't think your country will partake

Mr. YEW: Well, I am your guest, and I am speaking to American, so I would
it in...


Mr. YEW: ...a very circumspect way. I was staying in a very posh hotel in
New York not too long ago, and out in the cold--this was nearly winter,
November--were beggars huddling in doorways. And some, of course, were
blowing trumpets with a hat out. You have an under class. It's a highly
competitive society, and winner takes big prizes, losers get nothing. Well,
we are a different society. We like to make sure that nobody is
And if there are beggars out in the streets, we take them and put them into
proper homes, check their backgrounds--and some of them are professional
backgrounds--and we punish them. You know, some deliberately inflict wounds
on themselves, make them fester into sores and then go out and knock on the
car windows and say, `Please help me.' Well, that's unacceptable.

The government and society owes an obligation to see that everybody gets a
chance to make a decent living. But you can only do that if you accept
responsibility for winners and for losers. You know, what I see of American
society is winners do very well; losers do very poorly. And I think that
that's not acceptable in my part of the world.

GROSS: Lee Kuan Yew, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. YEW: Thank you.

GROSS: Lee Kuan Yew is the founding prime minister of Singapore and the
current senior minister. His new book is called "From Third World to

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Journalist Stan Sesser discusses the government of
Singapore and the reasons why it works well for that country

Earlier in our conversation, I quoted some criticisms about his
government's suppression of dissent. The quote was from a 1992 article in
New Yorker by Stan Sesser, a journalist who writes about Asia and is
based in Bangkok. He's a former senior fellow at the Human Rights Center at
the University of California at Berkeley. Since Lee dismissed Sesser's
criticism, we wanted to give Sesser a chance to respond, so we called him
played back that excerpt of the interview.

(Soundbite of interview)

GROSS: Stan Sesser, who wrote about Singapore for The New Yorker magazine a
few years ago described a `ruthless and efficient and intrusive intelligence
agency that is tireless in its pursuit of dissent.'

Mr. LEE KUAN YEW: Stan Sesser is a good friend of mine. He wrote that, but
he didn't know Singapore very well. I think he wrote that for The New


Mr. YEW: Well. Since then, he's got to know us better. He then wrote a
informed piece, which The New Yorker never published, and has left The New

GROSS: Stan Sesser, was that an accurate description, and what was the
subsequent piece that you wrote? What did you say in that piece?

Mr. STAN SESSER (Journalist): Well, the article was about Singapore
an art scene because it felt it had to create an art scene to draw the
business community to work in Singapore. So it set out to buy an art scene,
but at the same time didn't lessen its censorship, and that was a
contradiction. How do you build an art scene and at the same time censor
everything--vet all plays, censor all movies? And that's what the article
about. It was killed when the former editor, Tina Brown, decided that it
wasn't timely enough because she was very in to running articles that were
very timely, and killed for that reason, not really for the content.

And I think that like anything else that would be accurate about Singapore,
the article was not favorable and not unfavorable, but expressed the
contradictions that are so apparent in Singapore in government.

GROSS: As your first article did so, I think Lee Kuan Yew was implying you
had a change of heart. That wouldn't be true?

Mr. SESSER: No change of heart. No change of heart. My change of heart
come when Singapore changes, and it hasn't changed at all.

GROSS: Now Lee Kuan Yew's main point, I think, is that yes, certain
may be respected in Singapore, but most people own their own homes. Most
people are prospering. And unlike most other post-colonial countries in the
region, there aren't constant revolutions or civil wars or ethnic fighting.
People aren't fighting in the streets. What's your observations about the
trade-offs in Singapore between an authoritarian government and economic

Mr. SESSER: Well, this is what the government of China is trying to do, the
idea that if economic prosperity comes to a country, people won't care about
civil liberties. Unfortunately, there's some truth to that, but there's a
middle ground. Look at Taiwan and look at South Korea. You can have
democracy and you can have economic prosperity at the same time. And you
don't need a dictatorship, you don't need a crackdown on civil liberties.
Taiwan has certainly had tumultuous periods in its history recently, and so
has South Korea, but they're flourishing democracies, and people can belive
what they want and say what they want and be critical of the government and
also own their homes and send their kids to good colleges. So you don't
to have dictatorship. It's not the only alternative.

GROSS: What's your impression of how Singaporians feel about the trade-off
between an authoritarian government and economic prosperity?

Mr. SESSER: I think they're very happy with it, which is one of the great
ironies. Because the government is so fearful of its political opposition
that it's essentially nullified the opposition, not by throwing people in
like happened in Malaysia, but simply by bringing libel suits and various
harassments and driving the opposition to silence.

GROSS: So when Lee Kuan Yew says that Singaporians must approve of what
done because his government keeps getting re-elected and he says, `My job is
to prevent dissatisfaction, that's why there's no opposition,' is he being
completely accurate there?

Mr. SESSER: Well, he's made certain that there's no opposition. The
government controls the electoral process, and they can do various things,
like various civil suits against opposition leaders for--it's a very
complicated thing, but they're very clever. They don't throw people in jail
for political purposes. They just find some tax law or something else and
silence them that way. But I still think that even if there were complete
freedom in Singapore and freedom to criticize the government, that Lee Kuan
Yew's political action party would still get re-elected time and again,
because Singaporians do not want to imperil their prosperity. That's very
true. It's a conservative Chinese society. It's been made more
by having Big Brother, the government, watch their every move. And people
not--the opposition has never really gotten itself together or been allowed
get itself together--can't hold demonstrations, whatever--and I think people
are--would be hesitant to throw the government out. I think they do, in
value their economic prosperity more than they would value civil liberties.

GROSS: What are some of the civil liberties that the people of Singapore
had to give up under the Lee Kuan Yew government?

Mr. SESSER: Well, you can't--my goodness, wow, we can start from A to Z,
basically no demonstrations are allowed for any reason whatsoever. Any
demonstrator would be immediately arrested. Gays are harassed constantly.
Sodomy is punishable by life imprisonment. Their censorship of movies,
scripts of plays have to be cleared in advance. And basically no one can
anything--oh, the press is totally muzzled; it's government owned. No one
say anything critical of the government. And everyone feels the government
looking over its shoulder. Even when they're on the Internet, people are

GROSS: How often are those sodomy laws actually put into practice? The
impression I had from Lee Kuan Yew is that there are certain laws that are
the books that, you know, aren't really used to punish anyone.

Mr. SESSER: There was recently a case in Singapore which was quite
remarkable. A wife got divorced from her husband and was so angry at her
husband she turned him in for having oral sex with her. And oral sex, even
a heterosexual relationship, is a crime in Singapore. This went all the way
up to the appeals level, and the appeals court ruled that oral sex in
Singapore was legal only when it was preliminary to sexual intercourse. If
you have oral sex and stop right there, you're breaking the law.

Now this is the sort of thing that's on the books in Singapore and, you
is the government peering into everyone's bedroom and arresting them for
sex? No. But on the other hand, if they ever need laws to turn against any
opponents, they have hundreds and hundreds of laws on the books. They don't
have to throw them in jail for political reasons. They can throw them in
for oral sex or whatever else.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Stan Sesser. He writes about Asia and is
in Bangkok. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Joining us by phone from Bangkok is Stan Sesser, a journalist who
writes about Asia. We're talking about Singapore. Earlier, we heard from
country's founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew.

As a journalist, what are some of your observations of press restrictions in
Singapore for foreign journalists who might be inclined to be more critical
Lee Kuan Yew than Singaporian journalists would be?

Mr. SESSER: Well, I think that, first of all, the first problem that
facing is the problem of domestic dissent. And their major concern is
the press in line. So Singapore, just this year, got the idea that the
economy, globalization, which Singapore wants to be a big part of, requires
competition in the media. So Singapore declared that the government-owned
company that publishes all of Singapore's newspapers could now have
competition, but from only one source, from the government-owned TV station,
which is now free to run a newspaper. So there is no press freedom at all,

and in the past when a foreign publication has gotten out of hand, as The
Street Journal Far Eastern Economic Review and a couple of others did, if
feel that the criticism was too serious, they barred that publication from
circulating in the country.

GROSS: What do you think other countries can learn from Singapore's
and failures?

Mr. SESSER: Well, Singapore is a very unusual place, because it's a place
where the government totally runs the economy in a way very similar to the
Communist governments ran the economy in previous years. But unlike
governments, this government is very smart. Their policies have worked, and
worked probably more successfully than free enterprise works. I don't think
any other country could duplicate this. For instance, when the Asian
downturn hit a couple of years ago and all the other airlines were cutting
back their flights, Singapore Airlines, in the middle of this downturn with
one flying airplanes, hugely expanded their flights and bought new
And now that the Asian economy is recovering, Singapore Airlines is dominant
in Asia. They're very, very smart, but they're so smart that I don't think
that there's another country that could duplicate that.

GROSS: Because the leaders might not be quite as smart.

Mr. SESSER: Right. Right. I mean, it's--and also, they learn from their
mistakes. If they do something that doesn't work, they admit it and try
something else. They're very, very good at that. So Singapore is unique.
Any other government trying what the Singaporian government has done would
so heavy-handed that it would arouse lots of opposition, and they couldn't
with the economy what the Singaporian government has done.

GROSS: Stan Sesser is a journalist who writes about Asia. He spoke to us
from Bangkok. Earlier we heard from the senior minister of Singapore, Lee
Kuan Yew.

(Credits given)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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