Saint Lee

They are wrong. The government is not considering a lèse majesté law. The Asian Correspondent used this term in its headline of 26 May 2015  for Carlton Tan’s opinion piece (A lèse majesté law for Singapore’s king, long live Lee Kuan Yew); The Online Citizen used it too in Tan Wah Piow’s piece of 28 May 2015 (Lèse majesté Singapore-style – the ultimate betrayal of the Singapore constitution).

Lèse majesté laws criminalise insulting remarks about the king, generally the reigning king. Lee Kuan Yew is dead. The government knows he is dead. It accepts the fact that he is dead. It even organised a huge funeral though I don’t know whether it hired professional criers for the occasion. In any case, he was never king, though he might have behaved like one.

pic_201505_24What the government is considering is blasphemy law. Blasphemy law is aimed at speech and expression that articulates or implies irreverence toward holy personages or religious beliefs. Of course, Lee Kuan Yew must first be made holy in order to shield him with blasphemy law, but I don’t think it is necessary to belabour the very obvious point that beatification is in full swing.

In a recent essay (Behind the brat looms an oppressor still), I pointed out the many ways in which Singapore is becoming a theocratic state. Adding a blasphemy law to the statute books would be completely in character.

* * * * *

Pause for a little background, shall we?

pic_201505_25The Government is looking at introducing legislation to protect the name and image of the Republic’s founding Prime Minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, against commercial exploitation and misuse.

Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong revealed this while speaking to the media at the sidelines of the National Community Engagement Programme Dialogue on Saturday (May 23).

Mr Wong said the move comes as many members of the public have raised concerns over the misuse of Mr Lee’s name.

pic_201505_26Mr Wong said: “I should make it very clear that the intent is not to restrict people from coming up with their own creative ways to pay their tribute to Mr Lee. Our intent is in line with public concerns.”

Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death on March 23 triggered an outpouring of grief in Singapore. Some also came up with creative ways to pay tribute. However, it seems not all were well-received by the public.

Mr Wong said: “The first example that you can easily see was what happened with the company that tried to do the buns, right? So again at that time there was a lot of public reaction about how this was distasteful and it was commercially exploitative and it was probably bad and not the right thing to do.

“There have been concerns of people, also of potentially printing T-shirts, selling them with his name and images, and figurines that can be sold for profits or commercial gain.”

— Channel NewsAsia, 23 May 2015, Government looking to enact laws to protect name, image of Lee Kuan Yew. Link

Wong mused about expanding the existing law that regulates the use and display of national symbols, such as the Singapore flag and anthem to include the name and representations of Lee Kuan Yew.

Mr Wong said the legislation will not restrict the public from coming up with creative expressions of tribute to Mr Lee.

He said: “There is a very clear distinction between somebody who does it for charitable reasons – somebody who does it to pay tribute without making a profit out of it – and an individual or company that’s doing this specifically for profit, for commercial gains. I think there is clear distinction and I think it is not difficult to distinguish between the two.”

Mr Wong said it is not a total ban, but a restriction where approval is required. “So there can be variations of it. We are still studying it, so there can be ways where you could put safeguards,” he added.

Mr Wong said the aim is to ensure Mr Lee’s name and image are used in appropriate ways.

— ibid.

Several people have taken issue with this hare-brained idea. Carlton Tan at the Asian Correspondent wrote:

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.

* * * * *

A more fundamental problem is this: What is the public interest at stake?

Why is this question so fundamental? Because it is one of the best tests as to whether good law is being made by parliament. Laws that seek to enrich a few businessmen at the expense of consumers (e.g. monopoly/oligopoly laws), laws that favour one ethnic group over another, or laws that exempt a few private persons from paying tax, should be suspect (and illegitimate) unless it can be convincingly demonstrated that larger societal benefits flow from them.

Lee Kuan Yew was always a partisan politician. He always represented one political ideology amongst many, and in a highly divisive way. He was by no means a unifying figure. And to beatify him would be equivalent to making the People’s Action Party’s ‘lightning’ logo as sacred as the crucifix.

How would Singapore and Singaporeans as a whole benefit from such a law? That is the public interest test. No answer is anywhere on the horizon.

If at all there is a public interest argument, it would be this:  in the same way that freedom of expression, besides being a human right, is also in the public interest, so it should be that Singaporeans in this and future generations should be able to freely debate, praise, castigate, satirise, whatever, the man, his ideas and his legacy. How else, except by reflection and criticism (and burning a few effigies) do we grow as a nation and society? Disallowing this discourse (which Wong’s law would do) is against the public interest. Allowing it is very much in the public interest.

Wong’s jumping off point was his statement that having Lee Kuan Yew on buns sold by a commercial bakery was “distasteful”. To some people, maybe. Others might have relished the chance to bite him and (after some passage through the alimentary canal) admix him with brown stuff. As always, it is a very bad idea for parliament to go around passing laws just because some people’s feelings have been hurt. For every one who felt hurt, another rejoiced.

You might even argue that any attempt by the government to pass a law raising that man to the status of un-denounceable saint would cause offence to some people too. After all, in almost all elections to date, at least 20 – 25% voted steadfastly against Lee and the PAP. Some were victims of his harsh rule and disregard for human rights, some even victims of trumped-up accusations. So, the government, going by its habit of quickly passing laws to prevent people giving offence, must therefore rush to pass a law forbidding the passing of laws that serve to beatify Lee Kuan Yew (since beatification would cause offence).

One more point I’d wish to make: Mythologising Lee might be helpful to the PAP staying in power, or at least cementing the PAP ideology — so the PAP dwarfs may now believe. But adding a divisive, partisan figure to the existing law that governs the national flag and anthem will not raise the man’s status. It will only demean the flag and anthem. These unifying symbols that Singaporeans consider above politics will be raped. Two more props will go the way of so many once-neutral, non-partisan institutions. As I have argued many times before, the PAP in their desperation to entrench themselves in power will end up destroying Singapore in the process.


13 Responses to “Saint Lee”

  1. 1 Jess C Scott 29 May 2015 at 02:02

    Thanks for posting — short note that the writer of The Online Citizen piece was not Howard Lee, but Tan Wah Piow (the byline is below the title of the post on TOC).

  2. 2 Nuttyreligion 29 May 2015 at 03:31

    The only question here is: are we a religious state? Are we going backward instead of forward? Even the British empire did not impose that here! This is how preposterous the situation is!

  3. 3 patriot 29 May 2015 at 09:11


    Who says the Name Lee Kuan Yew belonged to obe man?

    There must be many, including one Indian infant in India.

    Btw, what so great about the Name? It can make many want to throw up, curse and swear. At the least it causes quite a lot to suffer heartaches.
    Families who had kins slaughtered, raped and tortured by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II will be badly haunted by two Names known as Lee Kuan Yew and SR Nathan, the Two that worked for the Japanese Imperial Army.


  4. 4 Rizzy Khaos 29 May 2015 at 09:51

    Hence why I’ve been saying we’re witnessing a birth of a new religion.

    This is indeed a blasphemy law.

  5. 5 The 29 May 2015 at 14:04

    Okay, so this is not quite apotheosis. Just hagiography. But I thought the daughter had been warned by her late father not to do exactly that.

    /// When I wrote articles that mentioned him, I always checked with him before doing so, and his reply would be, “OK, but no hagiography”. ///

    So, why is Lawrence Wong not honouring LKY’s wish?

  6. 6 Alan 29 May 2015 at 15:29

    He was a very vindictive man, certainly not gracious enough to accept the most honest mistake any person can ever make.

    WTF do we want to glorify such a person?

  7. 7 Jake 29 May 2015 at 18:13

    It is perhaps instructive to look at what was done in Turkey for Ataturk:ürk%27s_cult_of_personality

    This could be what the PAP is trying to achieve.

  8. 8 Jake 29 May 2015 at 18:20

    Would also like to add that beatifying him might lead to the opposite: creating an unrealistically perfect figure will just serve to highlight how disappointing the current crop of PAP leaders are.

    The more perfect they make him out to be, the more difficulty they will have in matching people’s expectations.

  9. 9 Qiao Zhi 29 May 2015 at 23:31

    The bankruptcy of ideas of the inept LHL govt is a source of grave concern for every thinking Singaporeans. We are in serious trouble if LHL keeps promoting such character as Wong into his cabinet.

  10. 10 Unclekachau 31 May 2015 at 15:30

    I would like to add a very important point..

    The Publick / market chooses what is acceptable or not.
    It clearly shows that when the buns were done, they were not well received. And that in itself was good enough to cause them to stop.

    It’s in someways self censorship. So I don’t see whats the point of having law when the public already chooses what it wants and what it does not want.

    The only reason why they would want to have a law is to prevent other things from happening and they are just using this as an excuse to create a law with very obscure details

  11. 11 yuen 31 May 2015 at 23:58

    I don’t think either lese majeste, blasphemy, or Ataturk-style personality culty, describes the proposed law correctly

    Quite aside from LKY not having been either monarch or head of state making the term lese majeste inapplicable, I believe insulting him in publication would already incur risk of being prosecuted for defamation, so a new law is not really necessary

    LKY is not being treated like, say, Jesus; you are free to print images of Jesus, set up statues for him in your garden or church yard, etc. Since we have not seen statues and monuments for LKY all over SG and there are no plans to provide these, he is not being treated like Ataturk either

    We are really seeing the legal creation of a government trade mark for the name, image and other PR material related to him, hence the banning of commercial exploitation – only the government can authorize their usage, with commercial usage being generally not allowed

    I point out in passing your words

    “I don’t know whether it hired professional criers for the occasion.”

    imply that it (the government) may have paid people to queue up to view the coffin and to line the streets during the procession. Maybe you would like to write another article presenting analysis and evidence for your suggestion?

  12. 12 bichunmoo123456 1 June 2015 at 11:35

    The government is pulling out all the stops to beatify him mainly for the sake of the GE spillover effect, because elections benefit from appeals to the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew, whether good or bad. We are talking about a nation of people, who, despite knowing the ills of voting for the PAP, still chose to vote for them in the majority (60% is still a majority whether the news talk about eroding support or not) because they are easily convinced that no one else can do the job, and as the saying goes, “Better the devil you know.” Think, they even reserved an empty slot in the seats for the dead man during this year’s NDP, and so, you can imagine how ridiculous this is getting. Even pressing charges against a teenager over the claim that he had the intention to hurt a dead person!

  13. 13 Qiao Zhi 2 June 2015 at 01:17

    BTW it should be ‘Saint Kuan Yew’ I think.

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