Singapore had its own agenda when criticising Britain’s handling of Hong Kong’s early 1990s electoral reform, declassified cables show

Gary Cheung

Britain suspected Singapore had its “own agenda” in the early 1990s when it criticised London’s handling of a dispute with Beijing over Hong Kong’s electoral reform, declassified diplomatic files have revealed.

In 1994, J.S. Smith, the private secretary to then foreign secretary Douglas Hurd wrote to Roderic Lyne, a private secretary to then prime minister John Major, that Lee Kuan Yew, then senior minister of Singapore, had consistently criticised the British government’s approach to Beijing on Hong Kong affairs. Smith also suggested that Singapore might have been angling for a greater role in China’s economic development.

“At his most outspoken, [Lee] characterised the governor’s constitutional reform [in 1992] as ill-timed, futile and in breach of the spirit of our agreements and understandings with China,” Smith wrote.

“He also accused us of conspiring with the US to introduce democracy to China.”

The note was compiled as preparation for Major’s meeting with Goh Chok Tong, Singaporean prime minister at the time, in London on April 18,1994. The document was among the latest batch of files declassified from the National Archives in London.

Hong Kong deserves democracy, but alas, in the world as it is, we do not often get what we deserve

Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, speaking in 1992

In December 1992, Lee told an audience at the University of Hong Kong: “Hong Kong deserves democracy, but alas, in the world as it is, we do not often get what we deserve.”

Lee said Beijing could view the campaign of the city’s last governor, Chris Patten, for democracy as an Anglo-American conspiracy to influence the democratisation movement in China, with Hong Kong used as a pawn.

Lee’s remarks were made in the presence of Patten, who was facing fierce criticism from Beijing over his political reform plans.

Under Patten’s plan, 2.7 million electors would vote in nine new constituencies in the 1995 Legislative Council polls. Ten lawmakers would be drawn from the elected representatives of district boards, which were renamed district councils after 1997.

Beijing believed Patten’s plan breached the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, as well as the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Goh Chok Tong, former prime minister of Singapore, after the city-state's Independence Day celebrations on August 9, 2004. Photo: AP

The British government backed Patten’s proposal and it was passed in June 1994, seven months after the collapse of talks on Hong Kong’s 1994 and 1995 elections that lasted 17 rounds.

“Singapore’s public criticism has toned down since the public exchanges of 1992. But our reporting shows that the views of the Singapore government remains that the UK and the Governor had mishandled relations with China,” Smith wrote.

“Singapore have their own agenda, given their ambition to play a greater part in the development of China’s economy.”

Smith noted that Singapore was involved in a major investment project to build a “Singapore-style industrial township” in Suzhou, a city near Shanghai.

He was referring to the Suzhou Industrial Park, which was launched in 1994 to strengthen cooperation between the two countries in the biomedical industry. It is seen in China as a model of modern manufacturing based on industrial estates in Singapore.

Former prime minister John Major (left) with Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong at Downing Street in July 1995. Photo: Reuters

Since the 1990s, Singapore and China have invested in three government-to-govern­ment projects on the mainland, including the biomedical complex in Suzhou.

In a telegram sent to London on April 11, 1994, the British High Commissioner to Singapore at the time, Gordon Duggan, described Goh as a “modest, conciliatory, caring and thoughtful individual, a technocrat”, in contrast to Lee, who he described as his “visionary, [one or two adjectives redacted] predecessor”.