lee's law: how singapore crushes dissent

by Chris Lydgate

(Scribe Publications, 318 pages, $21)

Published in Australia, Lee's Law has not yet achieved mainstream distribution in the U.S. but is available from Powell's Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651.

All is not well in Shangri-La, as WW writer Chris Lydgate makes chillingly clear in this fascinating examination of hardball politics in the island city-state of Singapore.

Most Americans are familiar with the judicial severity of Singaporean society only through the case of Michael Fay, an American teenager who was sentenced to caning and imprisonment in 1994 for spray-painting 18 cars along a city street. But Lydgate's book exposes a far darker side to Singaporean justice than wayward youths being punished like English schoolboys. In this teeming, modern polis of smoked-glass office towers and spotless streets, political dissidents are jailed indefinitely without charge or trial, suspects are routinely tortured (with air conditioners!) to obtain confessions, and opposition politicians are driven into exile or bankruptcy by endless defamation suits.

One such politician is the tragic hero of Lydgate's book: J.B. Jeyaretnam, a Singaporean lawyer of Indian descent who was not merely an opposition member of Parliament but the first and, for many years the only opposition MP in Singapore (picture the U.S. House of Representatives with one Democrat).

For nearly a half-century, Jeyaretnam stood virtually alone against Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's prime minister and leader of the ruling People's Action Party since the island gained independence in 1959. Like many young nations, Singapore grew out of the crumbling British Empire but never fully embraced the foremost of its guiding principles: the rule of law. Although Singapore's judicial system apes that of Britain (and until a few years ago was subject to judicial review by Britain's Privy Council), there are no jury trials, no right of habeas corpus for political prisoners and no protection against double jeopardy (i.e., prosecutors can appeal acquittals).

Lydgate enjoyed full access to Jeyaretnam, his family and his memoirs while researching this book, but the author never becomes so enamored of his subject that it clouds his judgment. On the contrary, Lydgate indicts Jeyaretnam's sloppy political miscalculations with the same vigor that he exposes Lee's carefully orchestrated villainies. There are few victories and no happy endings here: Jeyaretnam's unwavering devotion to principle plunges him into political and financial ruin. In the course of telling Jeyaretnam's story, however, Lydgate achieves that rare thing: a foreign-affairs book that is also a page-turner.