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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The day Lee Kuan Yew lost his cool with students

The day Lee Kuan Yew lost his cool with students

One of the most memorable incidents relating to the Undergrad during my time as a student concerned then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Undergrad‘s Editor Kishore Mahbubani. The student union had invited Mr Lee to give a talk to the student body on 4 June 1969. As expected, it was a big event; the largest lecture theatre available on campus was booked, and it was packed to the brim. Students, and some lecturers, were sitting and standing in every available inch of space. Mr Lee arrived on time and seemed a little tense. That was understandable. Our closest neighbour, Malaysia, had just experienced the May 13, 1969 racial riots following a general election. Singapore was still adjusting to its exit from the Federation of Malaysia in August 1965 and the withdrawal of the British armed forces which started in phases from 1967.

During the question-and-answer session, many students and even lecturers stepped up to question Mr Lee on the hot topics of the day, namely the pushing through of the Abortion Bill, the abolition of the jury system and the issue of certificates of suitability for students intending to pursue higher education in Singapore. The essence of the Abortion Bill was to allow unwanted pregnancies to be terminated more easily at a time when the Singapore population was considered to be growing too rapidly, with birthrates significantly above replacement levels. As for the jury system, it was considered ineffective to allow ordinary citizens to decide on complicated criminal cases before the courts of law. The certificate of suitability had been introduced in 1964 by the Federal government in a bid to prevent students from agitating for causes in a way that could threaten the security and stability of the country. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, it was well—known that the socialist clubs in some schools were very strong forces that were fighting against the idea of Singapore’s merger with Malaya to form Malaysia. By the time I was applying to university, that was a done deal. The bill was passed and until the 1970s, students who wanted to apply to the University of Singapore and Singapore Polytechnic had to apply for and be given a certificate of suitability.

The question—and—answer session became heated as some questioners persisted with their queries to Mr Lee even after he gave brief answers. Eventually, Mr Lee got up, rolled up his shirt sleeves and pushed the chairman of the session — one of the student union leaders — off the rostrum. He took over the forum and lectured us firmly on how we were students studying on taxpayers’ money, and we should not be telling him how to run the country and resolve its problems. He seemed exasperated with the crowd and stormed out of the hall soon after admonishing us.

Of course, the outburst became the talk of the campus. Kishore Mahbubani, who was then the Editor of the Undergrad, reported the incident in a piece titled, “A question of decorum”. In his write-up, Kishore wrote that Mr Lee “committed an unfortunate act of arrogance" by physically pushing the chairman off the rostrum, and that there was no excuse for resorting to physical force. He also questioned Mr Lee’s abrupt manner in answering the questions.

The report and commentary in the Undergrad reflected, to a good extent, the relationship that young firebrands in the university had with the Prime Minister of the day. It was a love-hate relationship. Here was a young, talented leader who was grappling with the running of a small, independent state with few resources and friends. His style was decisive, with his two deputies — Goh Keng Swee, the economic czar, and S Rajaratnam, the ideologue and Foreign Minister — giving him good support. But his style was abrasive, as he suffered no fools and took a tough line on anyone who stood against him. He probably saw the university student leaders as being too big for their boots.

A few days after the incident, on 13 June, Mr Lee summoned all freshmen to a talk at the National Theatre. He also met with the Union's Executive Committee and the Freshmen Orientation Committee. At the talk, he reminded the students that they were at the university for learning and education, and said he could not and would not allow organised disorder.

What happened next has never been fully disclosed. By August, Kishore had resigned as Editor, and shorn his head. It was rumoured that his scholarship was on the line, and that his resignation was not a voluntary one. It was reported that he had said it was pointless for a student to take an office if the student union was unable to provide sufficient protection for its office holders. Was Kishore’s shorn head a sign of protest against his involuntary resignation? We never found out.

The supreme irony, if one could call it that, is that Kishore went on to become not only one of Singapore's preeminent diplomats but also Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

When I talk to younger Singaporeans about this and other political events in my student days, they are usually quite amazed at the political fervour, courage and conviction of that generation. They tell me that, sadly, campuses have become politically sterilised since. A close friend, Steven Ooi, tells me that when he was at NUS in the mid-to-late 90s, he hardly ever heard any of his varsity mates talk about politics or heard of the union actively taking on the political establishment. According to Steven, we have reached a point where most Junior College students don’t even know who their Member of Parliament is, and when you ask them what GRC (Group Representation Constituency) stands for, the most common answer is “Grass Roots Committee”!

--- Marbles, Mayhem and My Typewriter: The unfadable life of an ordinary man / Mano Sabnani


In other words, Singaporeans are lectured on being apathetic after having been actively encouraged to be so.
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