I downloaded two books on that trip. One, Marshall of Singapore by Kevin Tan, is a biography of one of the city state’s most remarkable characters. The son of Iraqi Jewish immigrants, David Marshall was a strident advocate of Singaporean independence and became its first elected chief minister. But he was a hapless politician and was easily outmanoeuvred by his great rival Lee Kuan Yew, who went on to become Singapore’s uncontested leader. Marshall, instead, built a reputation as Singapore’s finest criminal defence lawyer, with a record of acquittals so long that Lee, exasperated, scrapped the jury system. While giving the government credit for Singapore’s economic successes, Marshall was a persistent critic of its human rights policies.
The other book I found online was Authoritarian Rule of Law by Jothie Rajah, a Singaporean academic now working for the American Bar Foundation, who dissects the country’s legal system which, she says, protects corporate rights while clamping down on dissident individuals.
As both these books were oppositional, I decided to go for a pro-government account for my third trip to Singapore last month. I was aware of Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs — you can’t walk through a bookshop in Singapore Changi airport without noticing them — but I assumed that they would be hectoring and humourless.
I was engrossed by the first volume even before take-off from Heathrow. There is self-admiration, but Lee includes voluminous quotes from his enemies and less-than-flattering assessments from diplomatic cables too. It is worth reading just for the vivid account of the Japanese occupation.
I landed back at Heathrow still immersed in his tearful announcement of Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965. Further Singapore reading suggestions for my next visit would be welcome.