MM Lee: Lucky Indonesians

MM Lee’s defence of Suharto irrational

By Choo Zheng Xi

In another Singaporean first on the world stage, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was the first foreign dignitary to visit the ailing President Suharto in hospital in Indonesia.

In glowing comments on Suharto’s reign, MM Lee attempted to put a gloss on the ailing dictator’s shortcomings: (Read the Straits Times).“Yes, there was corruption. Yes, he gave favors to his family and his friends. But there was real growth and real progress,” Lee was quoted as saying.

He then attempted to tell Indonesians how privileged they were to have grown up under his rule:

“I think the people of Indonesia are lucky. They had a general in charge, had a team of competent administrators including a very good team of economists.”

MM Lee wasn’t lying. After all, Indonesia did grow economically, so Indonesians could consider themselves lucky.


I guess you could consider yourself lucky if you weren’t Chinese Indonesian.

Suharto was the architect of state encouraged pogroms against the Indonesian Chinese population. When he came to power in 1965, he slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Chinese on the pretext of rooting out communism. Festivals like Chinese New Year were banned, Chinese characters were outlawed, and Indonesian Chinese were forced to change their surnames to mask their ethnicity: hence Teos became Tjio, Chans became Tjhans.

Or you would consider yourself lucky not to be an opposition politician.

For convenience, Suharto banned all political parties except three. All other parties were forced to disband, or merge with the easily manipulable establishment parties. The former President of Indonesia, Megawati Soekarnoputri, was one of those Indonesian politicians unlucky enough to be on the wrong side of Suharto’s politics: he sent thugs to attack her party headquarters in 1997 and banned her from running for elections in the same year.

The communists were even less lucky.

They were just systematically exterminated. Suharto never bothered with preventive detention, the way MM Lee did. He just killed the lot. Hundreds and thousands of them, on a scale which prompted even the complicit CIA (which was funding Suharto’s murderous anti-communism) to call it one of the ‘worst massacres of the 20th Century’.

You also wouldn’t be too lucky if you were one of thousands of Acehnese, East Timorese, or West Papuan unfortunate enough to be subject to Indonesian military brutality. An estimated 200,000 East Timorese were killed in the Indonesian invasion of East Timor after the Portugese left the territory. That was a systematic extermination of almost a third of the population of that country.

The truly lucky which MM Lee might have been referring to, those well and truly blessed by the Suharto years, are undoubtedly his family and friends.

In its Global Corruption Report of 2004, Transparency International (TI) ranked Suharto number one on its list of corrupt dictators. His loot amounted to anywhere between $15-$35bn, and he shared his wealth with members of his family, including the infamous Tommy Suharto.

Tommy was unfortunate enough to have a crime pinned on him. He spent around a year in jail on a reduced sentence for ordering murdering a judge before being released conditionally. Not bad, considering his sentence was supposed to run for ten years.

Of course, we will never know how lucky the luckiest man of them all really is: Suharto still hasn’t been brought to trial, the missing billions he allegedly embezzled is still sloshing around the region. Lucky us.

MM Lee’s sentimentalism, diplomacy’s loss

A controversial former backbench Labour member of the United Kingdom, George Galloway, was famous for his chumminess with the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In a speech in 1994, he went as far as to laud his resilience in the face of international sanctions: “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability”.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is not an eccentric backbencher. He is a senior member of Cabinet, and a respected authority on regional affairs. His spin on Suharto’s reign will be damaging to our relations with members of the international community who do not share his rosy view of the Suharto years, as well as to his international credibility.

This will inevitably be painted as the concerns of the human rights obsessed West.

That is rubbish, because nearer our doorstep, I can only imagine the revulsion our very Asian East Timorese counterparts feel at his comments. One can only surmise that he has calculated that the feelings of a newly independent nation of one million people doesn’t factor on Singapore’s diplomatic radar. This attitude would be ironic, considering the long odds which Singapore initially faced at independence.

Was his courtesy call on Suharto official government business, and was he then expressing the sentiment and well wishes of our Cabinet?

I suspect that somewhere in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and government press offices, there are some bureaucrats working to do serious damage control.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum: Speak no ill of the dead.

Before Suharto dies then, let me try to set the record straight. Suharto is a corrupt, cruel, murderous albeit economically successful dictator. And watching a senior member of my government’s Cabinet attempting to rewrite history makes me angry.

Read also: “Mr Lee, Suharto is the luckiest dictator on earth!” by Martin Manurung.


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