An American diplomat once tried to influence the 1988 Singapore General Election
Before Huang Jing, there was Hank Hendrickson.
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Singapore is so well-ordered it may come as a surprise to learn that under its calm exterior, there are spies and secret agents working for their own clandestine purposes.
Recently in Aug. 2017, academic Huang Jing was identified as a foreign agent, had his PR status revoked and was forced to leave Singapore. Way back in the 1970s, a Singaporean officer was seduced by a Russian spy.
Russia’s Cold War enemies, the Americans, were also involved in the Great Game. One American in particular would go further than most, and allegedly tried to influence Singapore’s 1988 General Election.
Call me Hank
E. Mason Hendrickson, known as “Hank”, was a diplomat serving as the First Secretary at the US Embassy in Singapore in the 1980s. This was when Ronald Reagan was President of the United States.
But no one knew Hendrickson was conspiring to interfere in an upcoming election. Two of his chosen “agents” were Francis Seow, the former Solicitor-General and Law Society President, and Patrick Seong, another lawyer.
According to founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in his book Third World to First:
“Around that time, in 1987, a counsellor in the US Embassy called Hendrickson met Seow to encourage him to lead an opposition group at the next election. The ISD recommended that we detain and interrogate Seow to get to the bottom of the matter. I agreed. We had to put a stop to this foreign interference in Singapore’s domestic politics and show that it was off-limits to all, including the United States.”
Hendrickson’s involvement was revealed when both Seow and Seong were arrested under the ISA for colluding with the Americans.
The government responds
A government press statement was released in May 1988, based on declarations made by Seow and Seong. It said that Hendrickson had encouraged them and other lawyers to run for Parliament against PAP MPs.
“He urged lawyers to contest the elections because they were disgruntled and were articulate and enjoyed a professional status.”
The statement also said that Hendrickson introduced a State Department official identified only as “Mr Y” to a group of lawyers “known to be critical of the government” at a lunch meeting at the Amara Hotel. Seow was present, having arranged the lunch meeting.
The government laid out its stance. It held that diplomats were free to speak to opposition politicians (citing JB Jeyaretnam and Chiam See Tong) to learn more about the local political scene.
But Hendrickson had gone one step further by cultivating anti-government people who were not politicians. And he went far beyond what was acceptable by instigating them to run for elections, while offering to fund them.
According to the Straits Times, Seow released a sworn affidavit admitting that he had visited Washington D.C. to meet Hendrickson’s superior in the US State Department. The Americans assured him of refuge if he ran into problems with the Singapore government.
The Singapore government asked for Hendrickson to be expelled for his actions. According to a report by the New York Times, the US Embassy replied that Hendrickson had not acted improperly. They released their own statement, saying that:
“In meeting with members of the political opposition in Singapore, Mr. Hendrickson was doing what American diplomats are expected to do in any country, namely to be in touch with a broad spectrum of individuals in order to report accurately developments in the country in question.”
They said that Hendrickson had “performed with distinction” in Singapore and they “regretted” his withdrawal. But ultimately, they decided to accede to Singapore’s request and kick him out.
“However, it is established in international law and practice that a government may at any time, and without having to explain its decision, give notice that a foreign diplomat should be withdrawn. The United States will therefore withdraw Mr. Hendrickson as requested by the Government of Singapore.”
The government got what it wanted, but the US was not done yet. In response, they expelled a Singaporean diplomat, first secretary of the Singapore embassy in Washington, Robert Chua Hian Kong.
Chua’s expulsion apparently led to a protest organised by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). 4,000 people drove buses around the US embassy, calling them “sneaky, arrogant and untrustworthy” for not reprimanding Hendrickson. And you thought that Singaporeans didn’t know how to protest.
The Hendrickson Affair elicited some pretty strong reactions from the PAP, not only LKY but also then-Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong. It was Ong, the NTUC Secretary-General at the time, who organised the protest outside the US Embassy. He also said:
“We are not anti-American, but we do not welcome anti-Singapore foreign elements to meddle in our domestic policies. Singapore politics is for Singaporeans only. Similarly American politics is for Americans only.”
However today with the benefit of hindsight, Hendrickson’s move could be viewed in the wider context of the US aiming to foster democracy (in their own terms) in Asia.
According to Ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan, during an Institute of Policy Studies Lecture, this was not due to ill-will on the American diplomat’s part or that the US and Singapore had suddenly become enemies, but a reflection of changing US interests in the region. The US probably saw it as an opportunity to “nudge” Singapore in the political direction that the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan were headed.
Singapore and the US mark 50 years of formal diplomatic relations last year. Despite the strong relationship both countries share today, the “Hendrickson Affair” goes to show that bilateral relations go through ebbs and flows, and as a small country, we are never free from foreign influence.
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Top image from Digital Paxton.