Lee Kuan Yew played to win; Netanyahu shores up foreign allies; ASIS to train Japanese spies. By Hamish McDonald.

Glowing tributes for Malcolm Fraser and Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew lies in state for public viewing at Singapore’s Parliament House.
Lee Kuan Yew lies in state for public viewing at Singapore’s Parliament House.

In the space of four days, the deaths of two “giants” of our era: Malcolm Fraser followed by Lee Kuan Yew. 

Fortunately for Tony Abbott their respective state funerals were not being held on the same day. On Friday he had to grit his teeth and pay homage to the man who detested him and his politics. On Sunday he will be in Singapore paying homage to the man who once warned that Australia risked becoming the “poor white trash of Asia”, a fate Abbott suggests awaits us in Labor hands. So he’ll be trying to quietly batik shirtfront Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who’s been avoiding his phone calls, on the sidelines.

Both Fraser and Lee managed to cover certain levels of domestic political trickery with international statesmanship, in somewhat different directions in their later years. With the 1975 dismissal forgiven, Fraser became a strong critic of the closeness of ties to America, expressed last year in his book Dangerous Allies. 

He is joined in this sentiment, if not to the degree of advocating an exit from the ANZUS Treaty, by many of Australia’s senior-most retired diplomats and Malcolm Turnbull, who warned (after Barack Obama used speeches in Canberra and Darwin to announce his Asian pivot) against allowing “a doe-eyed fascination with the leader of the free world to distract from the reality that our national interest requires us to truly (and not just rhetorically) maintain both an ally in Washington and a good friend in Beijing”.

It was not always thus with Fraser. Although tributes mostly concentrate on his role in marshalling Commonwealth sanctions against apartheid and Rhodesia’s Ian Smith, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the final (and ultimately successful) squeeze on the Soviet Union that began after Leonid Brezhnev’s Afghanistan intervention, okay for Vietnam to invade Cambodia, and deployment of theatre nuclear missiles to test Washington’s nuclear umbrella over its allies. 

1 . LKY played to win

You will not get an entirely dispassionate view of Lee Kuan Yew here. Your columnist was working for the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review magazine when Lee launched Operation Spectrum in 1987, to crush what he painted as a Marxist conspiracy involving 22 young political activists using the cover of Catholic social justice work.

The suspects were given the full soft torture treatment by the Internal Security Department (ISD): sleep deprivation for two or three days, white light and loud music, interrogators standing behind spotlights forcing them to stand for hours with clothes drenched in ice water and the airconditioning turned to low temperature, facial slapping, insults, warnings of how their families might suffer. Eventually, several chose the option of going on television to confess that, yes, actually they were manipulated by communist elements.

Lee then took umbrage at a suggestion in the magazine that the Catholic archbishop of Singapore had been pressured by him into a public statement condemning the supposed plot. It was the culmination of a long and testy relationship between Lee, and the Review’s editor, Derek Davies. They had frequently “got down on the mat and wrestled”, as Davies used to describe their arguments about the magazine’s coverage of the island republic. Now it was war.

Lee deployed the full battery of legal firepower used to destroy domestic political opponents as soon as they raised their heads above the parapets: defamation actions mounted by family law firm Lee & Lee, massive damages awarded by a compliant judiciary, and then bankruptcy that brought an automatic bar to parliament. All uncritically reported by the state-controlled broadcast and print media, with damaging material ferreted out by the ISD and tax department.

The defamation case against the Review took up several pages of The Straits Times every day. Dirty tricks included a security officer circulating embarrassing details of our local solicitor’s divorce around the courtroom. Defence barrister Geoffrey Robertson gave Lee a hard time in the dock over three days. But the outcome was predictable, and Lee then removed the only independent avenue of appeal by ending the right of final appeal to the Privy Council in London (unless both parties consented, which of course he did not).

Lee went on to one of his most devious contortions of free speech and democracy. The Review was banned from shipping in copies, but to show he was not afraid of its coverage, Lee authorised the local printing of pirate copies of the magazine, with advertising removed. Dow Jones, the US publisher that later came to fully own the Review, tried to jolly Lee’s successor, Goh Chok Tong, out of the hostility. They were told: “The first rule here is that we win. All other rules can be changed to make sure this happens.”

2 . Netanyahu shores up foreign allies

Benjamin Netanyahu has moved quickly to form his new government after his surprise gains in the March 17 elections.

Bibi’s task now is to placate allies disturbed by the last-minute election tactics that clinched his victory, including a warning that Arab-Israelis were coming out “in droves” to vote, confession that he supported settlements to limit the ambit of a Palestinian state, and that there wouldn’t be such a state on his watch anyway. 

He’s trying to climb back (It was “never my intent” to offend Arabs; a Palestinian state might be possible if conditions change) but suspicion remains and Israel is likely to get less automatic protection from its usual friends.

Britain and France are now understood to be working on a draft resolution in the United Nations Security Council that calls on Israel to vacate the territories seized in the 1967 war. This will be a more moderate version of drafts that Arab countries have so far failed to get through. 

On Monday, the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said Washington remained troubled by Netanyahu’s statement dismissing the two-state solution. “We cannot simply pretend that these comments were never made,” he said, adding: “An occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end, and the Palestinian people must have the right to live in, and govern themselves in, their own sovereign state … In the end, we know what a peace agreement should look like. The borders of Israel and an independent Palestine should be based on the [June 4] 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”

Now The Wall Street Journal has reported that Israel used information gathered on the nuclear negotiations with Iran, including intelligence from electronic eavesdropping, to lobby in the US congress against the deal that the US administration and five other governments are trying to clinch with the Iranians. Netanyahu’s intelligence minister, Yuval Steinitz, has also gone to lobby the French government against the pact.

3 . ASIS in Japan 

Hot on the heels of a Reuters report from Tokyo that Japan was looking to set up its own MI6-style foreign spy agency, our own intelligence community’s preferred organ, The Australian, has revealed that Japanese spooks will be drilled in spy craft by our very own Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS).

This seems a bit premature, as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is yet to dispatch politicians to study the British and other models, and legislation will not be passed until next year. Until then, Tokyo will have to rely on its existing clutch of intelligence gatherers, in the National Police Agency, the Justice Ministry, the Self-Defence Forces, the Foreign Ministry and the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office.

It all has a bureaucratic tone, far from the pre-1945 days when Japanese agents masqueraded as Buddhist monks, barbers and barmen across Asia. Perhaps ASIS can liven things up by harking back to its own formative days in the 1950s, when its officers were sent to MI6 for training in the arts of secret communications, running agents, bribery, blackmail and burglary. The final test was being sent on the run across Britain, without papers or money, and with the police force in pursuit. Could be hard on innocent Japanese backpackers, however.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 28, 2015 as "Glowing tributes for political giants".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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