the freedom of independence

by Kirsty Benham, student of BA International Relations at King’s College London. 

the freedom of independence

This article is in response to a BBC article, available:

Singapore, a tiny, developed, island nation in Southeast Asia has been characterized as squeaky clean, sterile, modernized, authoritarian. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but everyone seems to forget that what they say is an opinion. It’s not fact, it’s not objective, and it’s certainly not obvious. As critical thinkers, we recognize media’s biases, we accept them, we scream at them when we think we know better, because sometimes enough is enough. But not everyone watches the news critically. I admit that I too am biased; I lived in Singapore, I am English. That is why I am writing this. When the founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, passed away, the BBC unhesitatingly published an article briefly explaining his legacy. For those who are Singaporean, who have lived in Singapore, or who have travelled to Singapore, the efficiency and wealth of the nation is striking, and Lee Kuan Yew is widely recognized to have facilitated this prosperity. For those who know little about the nation, a BBC news article will be a first and possibly last taster of Lee Kuan Yew and his impact on Singapore. When I read it, all I could hear were western biased criticisms of Lee Kuan Yew’s freedom of speech restrictions, obscuring the greatness of the nation-building task he undertook.

The article’s author is unnamed, but a Singaporean would most likely not have explained Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy by alluding to his restrictions on freedom of press…six times. The seemingly influential West has made a fundamental assumption about its beliefs: that by being able to say whatever we want to say, by being free in words, we are better than everyone else. It doesn’t matter if we offend anyone, it doesn’t matter if our words create chaos or violence. I am not saying that freedom of speech is not important-freedom of speech is important. I am saying that we should all be more culturally aware, and recognize that however much democracy and debate matters in our society, it does not mean that it is the right system for every culture and society. Everyone complains about everything in politics, and yet we still claim we have a higher moral ground than states that do things differently, sometimes in authoritarian ways. We carelessly complain about states that are corrupted, and when states are not corrupted, we complain that they aren’t ‘free’ enough.

In the BBC article I am frustrated to read:

“One of Mr Lee’s legacies was a clampdown on the press.”

As if no country prefers to keep certain topics from the public realm?

Of all of Singapore’s statistical achievements, the only one stated is:

“These restrictions remain today. In 2014, Singapore stood at 150 in the Reports Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, below countries like Russia, Myanmar and Zimbabwe.” As if Singapore’s peace compares to Myanmar’s massacres?

That language such as “dissent – and political opponents – were ruthlessly quashed” can be used to paint a picture of a demonic, autocratic society, so different from Lee Kuan Yew’s vision of progress.
Lee Kuan Yew was not perfect. Nobody is perfect. Nor was he alone. No one can act alone. But his legacy of bringing together multiple ethnicities, such as Chinese, Malay, Indian, Peranakan communities, while neighbouring nations like Malaysia maintain today an unspoken Chinese/ Malay division; his legacy of founding a strong economically prosperous nation that does not fit into any of the pre-conceived economic models; his legacy of developing the omnipresent affordable public housing. We should be celebrating his legacy of founding a prosperous nation, not highlighting freedom of speech restrictions which are not unique to Singapore and do not define the nation. Oppression should not be ignored; the ends should not justify the means. But if you’re writing about a foreign country’s founding father, at least avoid drawing out your own biases and opinions in a historically symbolic topic. This isn’t about freedom of speech; it’s about giving the right cultural dimension to news, and not asking an American to write about the legacy of the Queen of England.

“Singapore’s Founding Father Lee Kuan Yew Dies at 91.” BBC News. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.


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