Thailand may well be the international centre for honorary degrees (thanks to the prolific honours bestowed on the king) but others are keen to get in on the act. Last week I received the following invitation:

The Chancellor, Dr Allan Hawke, would like to invite the academic staff of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific to a special ceremony at which he will be conferring the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, on Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Minister Mentor and former Prime Minister of Singapore. The ceremony will take place at 11am on Wednesday, 28 March, in the Great Hall of University House and will be followed by a reception in the central courtyard. Guests are asked to be seated in the Hall by 10.45am. The ceremony is a special occasion to honour Mr Lee’s achievements and further the University’s relationship with Singapore. The Chancellor hopes you will join him for this event. If you have your own academic regalia, you are welcome to join the Chancellor’s Academic Procession – please indicate this in your reply and we will advise arrangements for gowning and processing.

My question is … why? In response to my email enquiries I have been told that the award is being made to Lee Kuan Yew “on the grounds of his service to the development of Singapore, his international statesmanship and his friendship with Australia”. Under the ANU guidelines for honorary degrees I assume the award is being provided on the basis of “outstanding creative achievement by the person as a scholar in any field of scholarship, letters or the arts; or outstanding creative contribution by the person in the service of society”.

At least one of my colleagues at ANU has also wondered out loud about this. Andrew Leigh writes:

On March 28, ANU will give an honorary doctorate to former Singaporean PM Lee Kuan Yew. I have rather mixed feelings about this. True, he presided over significant growth from 1959-90 (Singapore is now richer than New Zealand). But his regime was a pretty autocratic one… Lee Kuan Yew also abolished trial by jury, and incarcerated one opposition MP for 32 years. Singapore certainly isn’t as bad as China on the democracy front, but I hope the ceremony doesn’t gloss over his political record when talking about the many good things he’s done for his country’s standard of living.

When a similar honour was bestowed in 2000 by the Chinese University of Hong Kong it was met with vigorous protest. Here is a brief extract from the CU protest web site:

Legislative Councillor and Chinese University council member, Cheung Man-kwong, opposes the plan. “It will be a shame to CU. Mr Lee is an exemplary model of someone who is good at using the law to suppress people. He is an important leader in Asia but an academic institution should avoid conferring a honorary degree to someone known for his autocratic style.” Another petition organiser said: “Public order laws, press freedom, and academic freedom are areas the police state of Singapore encroached upon one by one in its 35-year-rule. When a Hong Kong university confers a doctorate degree to Lee Kuan Yew, the value of this society is changing for the worse. The basic premise of right and wrong is being compromised.”

I am sure that there are many at the ANU (and elsewhere) who know much more about Lee Kuan Yew’s record than I do. I would be interested to hear their thoughts on this honour.

[For an interesting overview of honorary degrees see Wikipedia. Interesting background includes: “In 1996 Southampton College at Long Island University awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters to muppet Kermit the Frog. Although some students objected to awarding a degree to a puppet, Kermit delivered an enjoyable commencement address and the small college received considerable press coverage.”]