Think Again, Mr Lee

Posted by under Media Watch on 19 December 2002

A BLAST FROM THE PAST - Leslie Hoffman, then editor-in-chief of the Straits Times, wrote this editorial on freedom and free speech, in response to Mr Lee Kuan Yew's speech during one of the election rallies before the 1959 election.

The Straits Times, May 20, 1959

Think Again, Mr Lee

I have been a newspaperman all my working life and I have spent those 24 years on two Malayan newspapers -- the Malaya Tribune and the Straits Times.

I was born in Singapore and educated here and what knowledge of newspaper work I have, I acquired in Singapore.

It is with this background that I say that not since the Japanese conquered this island in Feb 1942, has the press of Singapore faced such a grave threat as it does today.

On Wednesday, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, secretary-general of the People's Action Party, said at a lunchtime rally at Cifford Pier:

"Any newspaper that tries to sour up or strain relations between the Federation and Singapore after May 30 will go in for subversion.

"Any editor, leader writer, sub-editor or reporter that goes along this line will be taken in under Preservation of Public Security Ordinance.

"We shall put him in and keep him in."

I have no doubt that Mr Lee means what he says.

So did the Japanese when they said no one must listen to short-wave broadcasts from outside Shonan -- as Singapore was then called -- or read any newspaper except the Shonan Shimbun, the only English-language newspaper published in Japanese-occupied Singapore.

But that did not prevent the people of Singapore from risking their lives to listen to the BBC or New Delhi, or from passing around cyclostyled transcripts of these broadcasts.

Recall Those Days

Mr Lee Kuan Yew should recall those days. He was here, as were other members of PAP central executive. So was I and numerous other newspapermen who refused to work for the Japanese.

The threat of death or imprisonment does not scare away anyone who believes in freedom -- the freedom of the individual to think, to read or to write as he pleases, within the confines of the laws of the state.

And there are laws in Singapore which ensure that sedition can be punished by the courts and that those found guilty of the offence can be sent to jail.

BUT MR LEE PREFERS TO USE THE PRESERVATION OF PUBLIC SECURITY ORDINANCE INSTEAD OF THE SEDITION ORDINANCE.

A strange choice for a man who once opposed this same Preservation of Public Security Ordinance in these words:

"What he (the Chief Minister) is seeking to do in the name of democracy is to curtail a fundamental liberty and the most fundamental of them all -- freedom from arrest and punishment without having violated a specific provision of the law and being convicted for it.

And again: "If it is not totalitarian to arrest a man and detain him when you cannot charge him with any offence against any written law -- if that is not what we have always cried out against in Fascist states -- then what is it ?"

What Indeed?

Mr Lee cannot have his cake and eat it. He must choose between democracy and totalitarianism. And so must his supporters.

His supporters, like Mr S Rajaratnam, a former president of the Singapore Union of Journalists and a former member of the staff of The Straits Times.

Mr Rajaratnam, writing in October 1955, in the Singapore Journalist, organ of the SUJ, on "The Press and Mr Speaker" had this to say:

"The press is fair game for touchy politicians. In recent months the local press has been accused of wilful distortions of weighty and lengthy pronouncements by gentlemen who are struck by the facts that they do not read as well in print as they sound.

"Believing as we do in free speech, we think that politicians are perfectly entitled to air their views on whether a newspaper or a journalist has done justice to their speeches. "But it is a different matter when differences of opinion as to sub-editing could result in a newspaper or a journalist being denied facilities which are normally obtained in a free country...

Cry of Merdeka

"It is to be hoped that when they (the Assemblymen) cry 'merdeka' (with or without a clenched fist), they mean also 'merdeka' for the press and pressmen who have no objection to having their ears boxed.

"All they ask is that they be allowed to carry on their pleasant and unpleasant duties of reporting and commenting with the greatest possible freedom.

"There will not be that feeling of freedom if a newspaperman feels that he can be kept out of the Assembly by the Speaker, whose decision cannot be questioned."

AND MR RAJARATNAM SHOULD AGREE THAT NEWSPAPERMEN WILL NOT HAVE "THAT FEELING OF FREEDOM" IF THEY ARE DETAINED IN PRISON BY A GOVERNMENT WHOSE DECISION CANNOT BE QUESTIONED.

However that may be, Mr Lee and Mr Rajaratnam should know their newspapermen better.

Threats will not prevent a good newspaperman from publishing a story which he considers should be published, or from commenting on an issue which is vital to the common good.

The Straits Times will continue to publish the news and honest opinion, whatever the consequences -- even if the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance is invoked against individual newspapermen.

Mr Lee and his comrades should think again.


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