BBC HARDtalk interview highlights Singapore’s international vulnerability on international norms

I watched BBC’s HARDtalk featuring an interview between veteran journalist Stephen Sackur and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with great anticipation.
I have always enjoyed Sackur’s succinct and “no holds barred” style of questioning. His research is always meticulous and I was interested to hear a dialogue between one of the most famous journalists of our age and our very own Prime Minister.

Sackur has a reputation of not pandering to the interviewee. He has interviewed subjects ranging from infamous dictators to glamourous movie stars to Nobel laureates. His demeanor is always unflappable and inscrutable. Based on my previous experience of watching the programme, I knew that the odds were high that he would talk about Amos Yee and Section 377A. On both these fronts, my punt proved accurate.
Apart from the incessant drinking from an ornate tea cup that looked suspiciously empty (thereby coming across as exceedingly nervous), I thought that PM Lee handled what must have been a difficult interview credibly as a whole. He had to have known that Sackur would inevitably bring up media censorship and civil liberties. Yet, he still decided to give the interview, which he knew would be broadcast to an international audience. He also had to know that Singapore sits on the precipice between being highly liberal from a trade and globalisation perspective (in line with most other developed countries) but yet highly controlled from a political front (which has striking similarities with the more despotic regimes in the less developed world) – in other words, a unique democracy which provides much fodder for uncomfortable questions.
PM Lee’s decision to grant the interview raises certain questions and issues, which we cannot ignore. As a small country that is heavily dependent on international trade and global economies, Singapore is by force a necessary participant in world affairs. Indeed,
Indeed, Mr Lee acknowledged that fact in the interview. Like it or not, Singapore has to ensure that its reputation on the international stage does not fall on the wrong side of acceptable international norms. While Singapore does not seem to want to embrace more liberal freedom of speech, it wants to ensure that it is not viewed in the global arena as a pariah state. The fact that the PM gave this interview shows that he is cognizant of the fact that no matter what the government might say, international opinion does count – and especially for a country like Singapore!
The timing of the interview is also curious – being right after the tumultuous developments that took place in Europe, China and the USA in 2016 (aka Brexit, Terrex and Trump). Is the Government feeling the heat of changing traditional power bases and seeking softer ways of reaching out to wider potential opportunities? It this the Government’s way of reaffirming its commitment to relationships with all of the world’s major powers? The PM certainly took the opportunity to highlight Singapore’s continued relationships with each of China, the UK and the USA.
Many people have commented that PM Lee skirted the issues of gay and press rights by not giving a direct answer. But can an answer be given in this case? The Government’s official position on these issues is indefensible from a democratic standpoint. But yet, it holds fast to these positions. In this stalemate, is there a choice apart from deflection? If the PM tries to defend the Government’s stance, it risks falling into the “pariah state” category. If he doesn’t defend the position, then he will be forced to agree that Singapore needs to be more progressive in these areas which is another spot the PM does not want to find himself in. This leaves the only tenable option – deflection, which is exactly what he did. While disappointing, it really comes as no surprise. What did come, as a bit of a surprise, was the old and tired defensive means of deflection by the PM, which Sackur honed in on and pressed upon.
On 377A, the PM stated he did not see it as his role to influence public values. This argument runs thin in the face of the very essence of modern democracy. What are elections and election campaigns for apart from influencing public opinion?
Besides, isn’t the PAP led Government a very paternalistic government? Having been in power for over 50 years (the entirety of our existence as an independent country), how can the PM (with no trace of irony) say that it does not seek to influence public morals? Lest we forget, isn’t the proliferation of the so-called “Asian values” coined by his father?
The PM said that he was sure that the majority of the population is against the repeal of Section 377A. Has he done any studies? On what basis is he saying that apart from his declaration?
A second bite at the deflection cherry was when the PM said that Section 377A was inherited from the UK statute book. A weak argument quickly demolished by Sackur when he pointed out that Singapore did not want to be Victorian England!
The PM further implied that the issue of gay rights has always been contentious and cited gay marriage in the UK and the USA as examples. These are, with all due respect, lousy examples. In Singapore we are not talking about gay marriage, we are talking about decriminalisation. Secondly, is something not worth discussing just because it is contentious? How does the PM justify the decision to operate casinos in Singapore then? This was something that most Singaporeans objected to. It was a moral issue and no less contentious. Yet, the Government pressed on and did it anyway. How does that decision stack up?
Perhaps the Government saw economic gains in a casino which pushing for gay rights does not provide. But that is short sighted in the least! All the major MNCs and banks of the world all support LGBT equality now. In the long term, Singapore will have to address the issue as it will affect foreign investment and talent attraction, which will have direct effects on Singapore’s economy.
Another point of contention was when Sackur brought up the detention of Amos Yee. Here, the PM tried to turn the issue back on Sackur by arguing that Sackur was not restricted to asking him any questions. True to “no nonsense” Sackur style, this was brushed off by “that’s not really the point”. Clearly, media heavyweight BBC was not in the same position as a local defenceless blogger criticising the Government and comparing Sackur with Yee is at best, an extremely weak and hollow retort.
The PM then tried to use the Middle East as an example. i.e. the West does not seek to impose its standards on the Middle East because the Middle East has a commodity that the West wants more than civil liberties and human rights. While I see the logic of that argument, let’s not be under any illusions, Singapore DOES NOT have any natural resources where it can have such a strong bargaining power.
The truth of the matter, however, is that in the negotiation of any trade agreement, what can Singapore get away with? Up to now, I think Singapore has managed to find an acceptable balance. The persecution of Amos Yee and his bid for asylum, which has hit the world radar, however, is something that needs to be managed. The Government colossally mishandled that situation which the PM did nothing to alleviate in the interview by his Government’s “one trick pony” approach to this issue.
The Government should never have prosecuted a teenager – end of. He should have owned up to that at the interview so that he can move forward. A valuable opportunity was lost in that inability to change tact.
Overall, the interview highlighted Singapore’s international vulnerability and the Government’s recognition of that fact. PM Lee is definitely intelligent and polished, which will reassure the international political arena. However, re the Section 377A and media rights questions, it is manifestly clear that the Government is unable or unwilling to relinquish its paternalistic hold on power. It still wants to hang on to old ways in a changing world. Will this have repercussions for the future? Are they too short term?

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