Singapore isn’t a monarchy, but if the ruling party has its way, it may soon become one. And the king will be none other than the late Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee is Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, a highly controversial figure who is nonetheless widely respected by Singaporeans.
With this law, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) hopes to make him less controversial and more widely respected—by fiat if not by rewriting our history. Yet if Thailand’s experience is anything to go by, the plan is more likely to backfire. It is in any case, ill-conceived and legally unsound.
Last Saturday, May 23, Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong mooted the idea of introducing a law that will criminalise the commercial exploitation and misuse of Mr Lee’s name. According to Mr Wong, this law will not penalise those who seek to “pay tribute to Mr Lee without making a profit out of it”, only those who use his name or image for profit. But while people may still use Mr Lee’s name, they must first seek the approval of the Government.
It remains unclear how commercial exploitation will be defined and who will be affected by this law. Will political cartoonists who sell books with Mr Lee’s image be banned? Will websites that use non-copyrighted images of him be banned if they display advertisements? Who must apply for approval? Is it anyone who wishes to use Mr Lee’s name or anyone who wishes to use it for commercial purposes? Must academics who write books about Mr Lee apply for approval if they earn royalties?
Mr Wong’s vague assertion that “there can be ways where you could put safeguards” is of little assurance. What safeguards are these and will the Government write them into the law or merely give verbal assurances that count for nothing?
If anything, the Government has failed to even specify the reason for this proposed law. Although Mr Wong claims that the Government’s “intent is in line with public concerns”, he has not been forthcoming about what these public concerns are.
Nonetheless, Mr Wong raised the possibility that this may be a populist measure aimed at people who found the naming of a bun after Mr Lee distasteful. He also said his ministry was looking into treating Mr Lee as a national symbol, equivalent to the national flag, by incorporating him into the Singapore Arms and Flag and National Anthem Act. Mr Lee’s name and image would then have to be accorded the same respect as the national flag, much like a king in a monarchy. The laws which govern the use of the flag will then also govern the use of Mr Lee’s name.
Section 4(1) in the Singapore Arms and Flag and National Anthem Rules states: “No person shall treat the Flag with disrespect.” Subsequent sections specify that the flag must take precedence over all other flags and must be displayed prominently above all other flags. It must also not be displayed in a damaged or unclean condition, and graphics or words cannot be superimposed on it.
Not only will this represent the end of memes, it will arguably give the Government exceedingly wide scope to prosecute anyone it deems to have treated Mr Lee with disrespect—or in essence, lèse majesté.
Lèse majesté is the crime of violating the dignity of a sovereign. Under monarchical rule, the sovereign was the state and to demean him was to demean the state. Under that logic, and given the centrality of the king to the life of the state, it was of paramount importance that his reputation be protected. However, there are very few monarchies left. The handful that remain keep the lèse majesté law on the statute books but rarely enforce them, and when prosecutions do take place, defendants are often acquitted. Lèse majesté is only regularly enforced in Thailand where it is used against political enemies, both to throw them in prison and to undermine their claim to loyalty to king and country.
If the point of it is to protect Mr Lee’s reputation, there is no legal basis for this. Common law only recognises the reputations of living persons. Dead persons do not have a reputation to damage. Some states in the U.S. pass laws to protect the memory of the dead, but these laws apply equally to all persons. No one is made a king out of it.
If the move is meant to protect the financial interests of his family, they may apply for a trademark just as Sarah Palin did. If they succeed, they can then enforce their claims through civil action rather than spend taxpayers’ money.
If the move is meant to give the PAP a monopoly over the use of Mr Lee’s name and image for their political benefit, it would represent an abuse of Government power to serve a political party’s interests.
Perhaps the only plausible state interest here would be that Mr Lee’s reputation is so inextricably bound up with the state’s that if the state is to be protected, his reputation must be too. This is exactly the logic that governs lèse majesté. But as much as he ruled like one, Mr Lee is not, and never was, Singapore’s king. He was always the people’s servant, whether he thought of it that way or not. The nation may be embodied in the flag, but it is not embodied in Mr Lee. Mr Lee dies but the nation lives on. Mr Lee is just a man. He is not a king.
But even if Mr Lee was a king, this attempt at sacralising him is bound to backfire, as Thailand’s experience shows.
In “Kings in the Age of Nations: The Paradox of Lese-Majeste as Political Crime in Thailand”, David Streckfuss, a scholar living in Thailand, explains that when the king became central to the Thailand’s national identity, different state factions sought to justify their positions through the king and as a result, the monarchical institution itself became increasingly desacralised.
A similar thing has already occurred in Singapore. As we have witnessed, competing factions in Singapore have sought to appropriate Mr Lee’s legacy for their own ends.
The PAP portrays him as the founder of principles we must continue to abide by—of meritocracy, pragmatism, multiracialism, etc. They hope to strengthen the public’s trust by reaffirming these as the values it stands by.
Opposition groups emphasise Mr Lee’s concern for the poor and his ability to connect with the people, and they contrast it with the PAP’s elitist attitude and its disconnect with the ground. When suggestions were made to build a monument of Mr Lee, to name our airport after him, or to preserve his house, most people appealed in some way or another to the question of “what would Mr Lee do”.
Such jostling over the legacy of a central public figure in a nation’s history is natural, healthy even, but it contradicts the aim of putting Mr Lee on a pedestal, far removed from the undignified contentiousness of the common people. Rather than a towering figure to be revered, he becomes a condiment to be sprinkled on every political dish that is served. Instead of achieving kingliness, his name will be enslaved to politics.
The PAP wants to enshrine Mr Lee as a king. If it succeeds, Singapore will be the world’s newest monarchy. Mr Lee will be our king but we will be his master.
Long live Lee Kuan Yew!
This article was first published on the Asian Correspondent.