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Lee Kuan Yew – giant of a repressive decade

by: Siew Kum Hong/

I consider myself a child of the ’80s. Born in 1975, I first became conscious of the world around me in the 1980s.

Even by Singapore’s standards, there were a lot of changes in that decade. Many of these changes have gone on to become integral and fundamental to what Singapore is today.

Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) were introduced in 1988. Much of the foundation of today’s transport system were laid, with the AYE, BKE, ECP and PIE being opened throughout the decade and the MRT being officially opened in 1988 (after a soft launch in 1987 with just five stations – I still remember my dad taking me to ride the train from Ang Mo Kio on its first day!). Even the hotly-debated topic today, the Elected Presidency, was first mooted in the 1980s.

Echoes from the darker events of the ’80s still resonate today as well. The much-hated graduate mother scheme has reared its head again in the pre-campaigning for the Elected Presidency, with questions have been asked whether Dr Tony Tan had supported or opposed it. The likes of Teo Soh Lung and Vincent Cheng, as well as others involved in social enterprise Function 8, have continued to raise questions about the 1987 so-called Marxist conspiracy.

One man dominated the landscape through all these developments and events: Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He was the Prime Minister through the entire decade, stepping down only in 1990. Mr Lee’s dominance of the 1980s was all the more reinforced with the retirement of his colleagues from the First Generation leadership throughout the 1980s, starting with Toh Chin Chye in 1981, continuing with Goh Keng Swee in 1984 and culminating with S. Rajaratnam in 1988. In comparison, Mr Lee took another 21 years more to leave the Cabinet, which occurred only this May in the wake of the General Elections.

What then were the 1980s like? If we had to identify one single theme from the decade, what would it be?

Unfortunately, I would have to say: repression. The scars of the 1987 detentions lasted for 30 years; it is only in recent years, that the former detainees have felt able to tell their own stories and ask the questions that have cast such doubt on the government’s official account. The treatment of Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam, the first opposition politician to win a parliamentary election in post-independence Singapore, left a sour taste, with Mr Jeyaretnam being disqualified from Parliament despite a strongly-worded judgment in his favour by the Privy Council. The actions against Mr Francis Seow sent a warning signal to other would-be dissidents, while the muzzling of the Law Society and hence the legal profession continues today.

These events from the 1980s, followed by the defamation suits in the 1990s and criminal prosecution of the civil disobedience activists in the 2000s, did much to silence dissent and instill the much-discussed climate of fear in Singapore. It is only this year, that this climate of fear has been reduced, if not dissipated.

Mr Lee was a driving force, if not the main player in the government, in all of these events. So as I looked back at the 1980s, I could not help but think of Mr Lee. He was truly a giant in Singapore’s history. Sadly, he was also the dominant figure in this repressive decade.

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This article is part of a series where contributors were asked for their personal take on who shaped the decades.