[New Mandala has received this contribution from Stephen Dobbs of the University of Western Australia.]

It is frankly very disturbing that Australia’s national university would bestow upon Lee Kuan Yew an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. It also seems rather odd that this important visitor and event are not mentioned on the ANU events calendar. Is there some reason (beyond security) that there is apparently a degree of secrecy surrounding this event? Is the ANU embarrassed by this choice of candidate? Given a recent report in Crikey that the Vice-Chancellor at ANU told staff they would be supported for exercising free speech it seems somewhat inappropriate to be awarding Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew with a Doctor of Laws. Lee has demonstrated a complete lack of respect over the years (and certainly no honour) for free speech and used the laws of Singapore to ensure he gets his way.

If the ANU wishes to recognise the role Lee has played in Singapore’s economic development or his success as a social engineer then by all means award him a degree in government, development or perhaps even business but not any kind of degree with the word “law” attached to it. Can there be anyone at ANU who does not know something of Lee’s total disregard for legal process and decency when it comes to dealing with his country’s own citizens?

For more than forty years now under Lee’s stewardship the Peoples Action Party (PAP) government of Singapore has manipulated and controlled the country’s legal processes as one of many measures to help ensure the status quo with respect to governance. The laws of Singapore under Lee and his successors (really no true successor while he lives on forever in the background) have been used as a very blunt instrument to bludgeon any and all political opposition, academic independence, freedom of the press and citizenry generally who are deemed to have stepped out of line. Has no one at ANU heard of Chia Thye Poh and his thirty two year detention by the Singapore state without ever being convicted of any crime?

Is it possible that no one at ANU knows just how the judiciary of Singapore is compromised by and compliant to the wishes of Lee and other senior government voices? Or does everyone really believe that all those newspapers and news journals were guilty of a crime because they were sued successfully in Singapore’s courts for hundreds of thousands of dollars by Lee and other government figures? Were they not doing what a free press is supposed to do? I think you will find that between them various news outlets such as the International Herald Tribune and others have paid out millions of dollars to settle various liable claims. Let us not forget that the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) is currently banned in Singapore and is being pursued by Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong for damages simply for daring to allow an opposition party leader to speak his mind on PAP efforts to silence dissent. Perhaps someone at ANU should read the FEER’s account (easily accessible on the web) of how the law is being manipulated by the government of Singapore to shut them up. Thailand’s king hides behind the archaic law of lèse majesté and Singapore’s leaders hide behind a tamed and obedient judiciary.

I suggest instead of rewarding Lee (with a Degree in Laws at least) the ANU honour some of Lee’s victims with this degree, particularly those who have been mercilessly pursued by him through the country’s legal system for no other crime than attempting to have a say in their country’s future. There is quite long list of these people, some former insiders who fell out with Lee and others who were never part of the Lee clique. There is no doubt that some of these characters were as disreputable as Lee would make them out to be but many others, whatever their personal faults and weaknesses, were simply citizens who wanted something more from their government.

Notable among the victims of Lee’s manipulation of the legal process are Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, and more recently Dr Chee Soon Juan. Jeyaretnam has struggled for more than two decades to create and maintain a viable political opposition in Singapore in the face of intense political persecution backed up by a complicit pro-government judiciary. From the moment he won a seat in Singapore’s parliament in 1981 he became the target of a relentless pursuit by Lee and the PAP more broadly. In fact he was already a victim of Singapore’s legal system in 1976 when he was found to have defamed Lee and had to pay a large damages settlement. His persistence and refusal to be cowed has cost him dearly. He has been publicly derided by the government of Singapore on a regular basis, imprisoned, bankrupted through endless and baseless lawsuits (baseless because in any other democratic legal jurisdiction the government’s claims would have been thrown out of court) and prevented from running for parliament on the basis of the outcome of these lawsuits.

Dr Chee Soon Juan a former lecturer at Singapore National University now finds himself treading similar political ground to Jeyaretnam. It is his interview reported in the FEER last year which has lead to its recent banning in Singapore. As leader of the Singapore Democratic Party he has been bankrupted by libel and jailed more than once for organising public meetings and speaking publicly without the proper permits. He has spoken out often on the tainted judiciary of Singapore particularly in conflicts between the government and opposition politicians. There simply is no such thing as a fair trial for anyone who enters the political fray as an opposition politician in Singapore.

On its profile web page under “Research at ANU” it states that ANU is “Home to some of the world’s finest minds … expanding the boundaries of human understanding through research of the highest quality”. I have always believed this very big claim to have some substance. However, if the ANU bestows on Singapore’s strong man Lee Kuan Yew a Doctor of Laws honoris causa degree then clearly not all the minds are as “fine” as we would wish them to be nor are the “boundaries of human understanding” being pushed too hard.