Thursday, April 09, 2015

Michael Barr twisting Lee Kuan Yew's words?

After the passing of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), the media around the world was featuring various people to talk about him. One of them is Michael Barr, Associate Professor of International Relations at Flinders University who wrote  Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs Behind the Man (USA: Georgetown University Press, 2000). Barr was interviewed by BBC and Telegraph. His 2011's article is widely shared on Facebook timeline.

Barr has also published an interview on New Mandala. In the article Barr wishes "that those of [LKY] devotees who know better could find the honesty to recognize his failings so that more casual followers of public affairs would have a chance of reaching a more balanced perspective" (emphasis added). Many have considered Barr a fair scholar on LKY.

My friend recently recommended me a book co-edited by Barr: Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-War Singapore (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2009). I was surprised when I came to the following passage:
"Yet the words of the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew make clear that he never believed in a Marxist conspiracy. In a private meeting in the midst of the crisis [LKY] dismissed the supposed Marxist conspirators as 'do-gooders who wanted to help the poor and dispossessed'. [LKY] even declared that he was not interested in 'Vincent Cheng and his group', but he was more concerned about the 'involvement' of 'several priests'. Yet 20 people, none of them priests, were detained for several months, and two more for several years."
(229, emphasis added)
Barr' statement asserts that LKY knew that he was not actually countering Marxists through the infamous Operation Spectrum. The footnote to LKY's statement states:
"Report of Lee Kuan Yew's words in ISD notes of a meeting between the PM and Catholic Church leaders on 2 June 1987 at 3pm at the Istana. This document is marked 'SECRET' but was released to the court as Exhibit 85(d) during the government's legal action against the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1989." (244)
I am surprised that Barr made this assertion because that is not what LKY said in the Far Eastern Economic Review. Here is the original sentence:
"Lee commented that the Singapore Government was 'dealing with a new phenomenon---do-gooders who wanted to help the poor and dispossessed, getting perverted along the way to Marxism,' as in the Philippines."
(From Far Eastern Economic Review, October 1989, vol. 146, p.16. Emphasis added)
It is clear from the original passage, LKY indeed saw his government as countering Marxists, who started out as "do-gooders". This coheres with LKY's memoir where he stated that the 1987 operation was counter-Marxism:
"The [Internal Security Department] considered these pro-Marxist English-educated activists an incipient security problem, and in 1987 recommended that they be detained. I accepted the recommendation. I did not want a couple of pro-communist cadres including Tan [Wah Piow], on whom we had hard evidence of links with the [Communist Party of Malaya], to rebuild their influence using innocent but disaffected activists. Their new united front included a Roman Catholic who had given up becoming a priest to dabble in liberation theology."
(Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to the First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 [Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2000], 137)
Whether the detainees were involved in Marxist conspiracy is besides the point. The fact is that Barr's assertion that LKY has never believed in a Marxist conspiracy is a distortion of LKY's words to mean the opposite.

Barr shrewdly quoted only the portion from the source that can be manipulated to support his false claim. 

In his post on New Mandala, Barr asked LKY devotees to be honest in recognizing the former Prime Minister's failings. I do not know why Barr did not do the same in his article. He twisted LKY's words and presented to us a statement that is completely opposite from the original source. Only Barr knows why he did that.


Blogger said...

Please read carefully before making accusations. Michael Barr's footnote references "Lee Kuan Yew's words in ISD notes of a meeting" not an article from the Far Eastern Economic Review.

You misquoted an irrelevant passage to support your false claim. I suggest you retract it.

Sze Zeng said...

I don't see reason to retract.

There are a few possibilities:
a. FEER misquoted E85(d). Barr referred only to FEER, hence we couldn't say that Barr twisted LKY's words. At most, we can only say that Barr committed academic negligence in (first) not looking up the original source and (second) not revealing his source clearly.

b. FEER misquoted E85(d). Barr referred only to E85(d), hence we couldn't say that Barr twisted LKY's words because we don't have access to E85(d).

c. FEER quoted E85(d) correctly on this particular statement by LKY. Barr referred only to FEER, thus Barr twisted FEER's quotation of E85(d).

d. FEER quoted E85(d) correctly on this particular statement by LKY, Barr referred only to E85(d), thus Barr twisted E85(d).

As I don't have access to E85(d), I cannot verify whether FEER misquoted or quoted LKY on this particular statement. Nonetheless, there are quotations from other works which give a fuller picture of the original statement in E85(d), such as Francis Seow's 'To Catch a Tartar':

"do-gooders, who wanted to help the poor and the dispossessed, getting perverted along the way to Marxism," but who, "given sufficient time, would eventually become like the communists in the Phillippines." (p.70)

Seow's quotation with the extra bits about Philippines (which is shortened in FEER) seems to be from E85(d), and it shows that FEER has quoted E85(d) correctly. If so, then whether Barr referred to FEER or E85(d), we can still say that he has twisted LKY's words.

Sze Zeng said...

Besides, I don't think (though I can be wrong) Barr had access to the original source E85(d).

If he didn't have access to the ISD note, then he probably relied on FEER. If so, it's right to compare Barr's statement with FEER's article. Unless Barr can show that he had indeed read E85(d), the comparison here stands.

As I said, I can be wrong to assume Barr didn't have access to the ISD note. He just need to show that he has indeed access the original note to prove me wrong.