Devan Nair’s 1988 Letter to Lee Kuan Yew

This letter originally appeared online at The Real Singapore.

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Image from Flickr

DEVAN NAIR c/o Miss K. NairĀ 

12 Leigh Road London, N5.
8 July, 1988

AN OPEN LETTER TO LEE KUAN YEW For The Editor The Straits Times Singapore.

Kuan Yew, I will come to the crux of my case against you straight away. What is it that you are afraid of, and that impelled you to such a massive public exercise in the total denigration of a comrade of nearly thirty years?

What prompted you to stoop so low to an utterly shameless demolition effort, by way of the incredibly sordid White Paper tabled before Parliament on 29 June?

Your statement in Parliament the same day gave you away. It made it abundantly clear that you were motivated by political revenge. For you referred to my recent public statements on political developments in Singapore as having made necessary what you did. But legitimate political comment calls for a rational political response, not for political revenge by way of a revolting descent into the gutter. The entire exercise reeks of revenge, a motive which enabled you to throw overboard all ethical considerations, medical ethics, Confucianist, Christian, Hindu ethics, the whole lot.

According to your own panel of doctors, I suffered from a medical condition, not a moral or political one. Clinical tests clearly indicated a much enlarged liver, resulting in a state of acute confusion, bouts of giddiness, exhaustion and fainting spells, admittedly erratic conduct, and amnesia. We may differ about the diagnosis. Several doctor friends of mine in Singapore, let alone in the United States, have quite other notions about the diagnosis. For now, we will let that be.

But where in the civilized world is sordid political capital so shamelessly squeezed out of a medical condition? Where else would self-respecting politicians count obviously transient behaviour, proceeding from a critical medical condition, as a fundamental moral or political lapse? And where else is the sacrosanct confidentiality of medical reports, and of doctor-patient relations, so outrageously violated for a purely political purpose? You know the answers. Only in a society governed by a man like you.

All my comrades in party, trade unions and government, including you, have always known me (you often extolled me), as a highly moral man over nearly three decades of intimate comradeship in a common struggle for a common cause-the building of a nation. How does a clearly transient condition transform me overnight into a hopeless alcoholic, womaniser, wife-beater, among other lurid depictions of depravity? The data presented in the White Paper, in the form of my letters to you just before and after my resignation, and of Dr. Nagulendran’s psychiatric report! to you (the use of which constitutes the most disgusting outrage on medical ethics imaginable), can only be seen in undistorted perspective, in the light of the most crucial data of all which, of course, has been carefully omitted.

You know very well that all this was done or took place when I was under extraordinarily heavy sedation, 125 mgs (yes, one hundred and twenty-five mgs) of valium daily, to be precise, for some ten days.

Thereafter, I was subjected to a slowly graduated decline in the dosage, until it ceased when I left for New York a few weeks later. My son Janadas [Nair] knew of this, but he was persuaded that this was normal for cases like mine. But doctors in the United States were astounded when I told them of this. Even Dr. Gitlow who looked after me in New York, was not told of the kind of sedation I was under, although he had asked for the information.

Such excessive sedation, enough to dope an elephant, makes not for clarity, but for hallucination and disorientation, and you had successfully pontificated to a man rendered highly suggestible by a psychotropic (mood-altering and mind-changing) drug. Further, psychiatric examination and assessment by Dr. Nagulendran was conducted when I was in a highly sedated state. In other modern societies it would have been an impartial medical inquiry that would have been called for, rather than a political White Paper, and the Government, not the patient, would have been in the dock for the scandalous appropriation of medical reports on a patient as state documents for shameless political use.

In addition, I believe that I would have been able to sue my Singapore doctors, in particular Dr. Nagulendran and Dr. Tambyah, alleging gross violation of medical ethics.

May I state, in addition, that neither I nor any member of my immediate family were ever shown any of the medical reports on me, with the outstanding exception of Dr. Gitlow who took pains to show me every single report of his, and to discuss them with me. He also took care to obtain my written consent to send his evaluations and test results to Singapore. But none of the doctors in Singapore bothered, at any stage of my illness, to show me their reports, nor to obtain my consent before they forwarded them to the prime minister. Indeed, the first time I saw these reports was in the White Paper. And thereby hangs a sadly significant tale.

Drug-induced confusion and suggestibility was enhanced by the near-absolute trust and confidence I had then reposed in the infallibility of your own judgments and actions. It is in this light that my letters to you reproduced in the White Paper should be seen.

How wrong I was, I know now.

A very good friend of mine, the Indian physiotherapist who accompanied me to Kuching, Mr. Kalu Sarkar, has been quoted against me in the White Paper. Again, a stupendous omission, equivalent to the omission of the Pacific Ocean from the map of the world. It was not revealed that Mr. Sarkar had been arrested, detained, cruelly treated, and released for return to India only after the ISD secured from him statements about me which he knew to be untrue. I discovered this when I met him in India on my way to the United States in 1985. Among other things, Mr. Sarkar vouched for the fact that when in Sarawak, I only rarely drink liquor in the daytime. Only in the evenings did I have my customary drinks. He therefore did not attribute my erratic conduct in the mornings and afternoons to alcohol. I learn that Mr. Sarkar, who is a respected member of his community, is preparing his own affidavit now, as a free man, and not as one of your detainees.

I have publicly acknowledged that my erratic behaviour in Kuching, although proceeding from a medical condition, was nonetheless unbecoming of a Head of State, and have more than once humbly apologised to the people of Singapore for having failed them. But the salacious slant of many of the reports in the White Paper is vividly illustrated by what my wife and son Janamitra discovered during a visit to Kuching in November 1985, in order to check on reports of my conduct there. This refers to the allegation repeated in the White Paper that I had made sexually suggestive remarks to Mrs. George Chan, wife of an assistant minister. I quote from Mitra’s report to me: “I told him (Dr. George Chan) about the report that you had propositioned someone’s wife while you were in Sarawak. He said this was the first time that he had heard this. He asked whose wife you were supposed to have propositioned. I replied, ‘Yours!’ Dr. Chan was surprised. He stated that you had been rude to his wife.

But he dismissed the whole incident as ‘small.’ He said that you had called him the next day and asked to speak to his wife, whom you promptly apologised to. He said his wife never thought anything about it. He also said that as a doctor, he knew there was something wrong with you, and those times in which you behaved strangely and in confusion were completely uncharacteristic.”

A humane response to the deviant behaviour of a sick man also came from Tun Abdul-Rahman bin Ya’kub, the then Governor of Sarawak, in whose residence I was a guest during my visit, and whom I met in London in November 1985. He told me that he had flown hurriedly to Singapore on hearing of my hospitalisation in order to see me. He was not allowed to do so.

Instead, he was taken to your office, where you wanted to know whether he had any complaints to make. He told you quite categorically that I had done nothing to complain about.

When I asked the Tun to tell me frankly whether there was any substance to rumours that I had molested ladies in Kuching, he assured me that no such report had come to his attention. But he said that he was very concerned for me as a very ill person, as evidenced by clearly uncharacteristic erratic speech and conduct. For example, he was startled when I wanted the Malay orchestra to play Indian music. I don’t recall this at all.

The Tun also vigorously denied rumours circulating in official circles in Singapore to the effect that the Malaysian Government had complained to the Government of Singapore about my behaviour in Kuching. He said that this was entirely baseless, for the good reason that there was nothing to complain about.

They were only concerned about the obviously ill visiting President they had on their hands. Dato Musa Hitam, the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia at the time, confirmed this when I met him in Manila in November 1986.

Next, what disturbed me most about the visit to the Iban longhouse was not so much lubricious reports about having fondled Iban ladies on my lap, but the fact that I have only the haziest recollection of the visit.

Understandable, because I was told that I had collapsed at least twice on my way there, and once in the longhouse itself. As for the Iban ladies, Tun Abdul-Rahman bin Ya’kub told me that there was nothing untoward about what was reported to have happened. It was customary longhouse practice. But you know that customary practice or not, I would not have allowed it if I had been in a normal condition. In any case, I had not spent the night in the longhouse, as many other visiting dignitaries had done, including Mr. Malcolm Macdonald, the Governor-General of the British South East Asia in colonial times.

Other reports in the White Paper allege uncharacteristically crude behaviour on my part with nurses and other ladies. I have no means of checking on the veracity or otherwise of these allegations. I simply cannot recognize myself in them. It may be that in the deplorable amnesic condition I was in, I did perhaps behave offensively. All that I can do is apologise for the unpremeditated behaviour of an amnesic person.

I offered apologies to Tun Abdul-Rahman bin Ya’kub when I met him in London if I had behaved offensively to anyone. His response was that no apologies were necessary from a man who was as obviously unwell as I was. But I would still apologize as I did to the people of Singapore.

The White Paper has maligned a thoroughly respectable married German lady with children, whom I had first come to know in Europe several years ago. Incidentally, she had nothing whatever to do with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, one of the numerous misstatements of simple facts in the White Paper. I had only helped her with an academic assignment, as I had helped so many others, and I am angered by the suggestion, without proof whatsoever, that my relations with the lady were improper in any manner. I never went into her room at the hotel where she first stayed. I only rang for her from the lobby where she joined me. Nor did anything improper happen between us when I visited her in a private home, nor in Changi Cottage where I had taken her for a swim. My wife will speak for herself on this and other matters in which she has been so unpardonably misinterpreted. But you do jump to the worst possible conclusions about people, specially if you have fallen out with them.

The way you dramatically embellish your facts when it suits you takes some beating. Where on earth did you get the idea that I had consumed a bottle of whisky every night for a few months before my visit to Kuching? The Istana wine cellar count you had asked for surely revealed to you that I did not order anywhere near 120 bottles of whisky over a period of, say, 4 months. And I never did buy any liquor from outside the Istana. How could you have brought yourself to make such an obviously misleading statement? Even on the occasions I had abused alcohol, polishing off one bottle at one sitting at any time is a feat which I could not possibly have managed. And every night for months in succession? Come off it, please!

In the eagerness to prove that my powers of perception and judgment have suffered permanent impairment as a result of irreparable brain damage, the final authoritative evaluation by Dr. Gitlow of all the test results he presided over in New York is pointedly ignored or understated.

Before forwarding his evaluation to Singapore, which was with my explicit consent, Dr. Gitlow informed me that the psychometric tests showed that I was “inordinately bright,” with an exceptional command of language. And his considered professional evaluation of all the test results was that all my brain functions were within the range of normality for a person of my age, He also wrote to me later that “it is essentially an evaluation that fails to reveal any significant abnormality.” He also told me in writing: “Medical personnel are not only trained to note minutiae, but to realize simultaneously where they properly fit within the variable limits of ‘normal.'” But I have noted a mischievous and certainly politically inspired interpretation in the Straits Times of July 2, of the brain scan done in New York on June 17, 1985 by Dr. Robin J. Mithick. Dr. Mithick said the scan showed “frontal and mild cerebellar atrophy.” The interpretation did not come from Dr. Gitlow, but from somebody in Singapore.

Perhaps you might know who planted this “expert.” This is how the politically motivated interpretation goes: “This (brain scan) means that the brain tissue in the front part of the brain (the cerebrum), which controls the higher faculties such as language, reasoning and judgment, had deteriorated. There was also mild degeneration of brain tissue at the rear part of the brain (cerebellum) which controls the sense of balance, and co-ordination of physical functions. The degeneration is permanent and irreversible.” Who said so? I challenge you to show that Dr. Gitlow said anything like this. In fact, all this was the “minutiae” Dr. Gitlow referred to in his letter to me. Deterioration in language? Dr. Gitlow told me that the finding of another test was exactly the opposite.

I now understand why Brigadier General Lee told the BBC in a recent interview that my recent political criticism of the Government “showed impaired judgment.”

So legitimate criticisms of some of your disastrous policies are the result of the impairment of perception and judgment on the part of the critics? In which case innumerable Singaporeans who feel the same way as I do, not to mention your growing number of critics elsewhere, are all loony bins?

Again, come off it, please!

Talking about “command of language,” Dr. Nagulendran’s psychiatric assessment could have avoided grievous errors of interpretation if he had some command of language himself. His rendition of the Tamil word my wife used, “that tu,” meaning a light tap on the head, was “hit.”

This was how I came to “hit” my wife once. You improved considerably on the psychiatrist by saying that I “beat her often,” a vivid example of the geometric progression of exaggeration in your hands. You want another example?

To the psychiatric’s question whether members of my family drank, my wife’s answer was “yes.” This became in your hands, “Your two brothers and three sisters, your father, your mother, and two uncles, they all had alcoholism.” This atrocious libel on an entire family was later retracted, according to James Fu’s letters to the Far Eastern Economic Review, which stated that the prime minister “withdraws. Unreservedly” his “lay rendering of the family-history part of the medical report on Nair” (FEER, 5 March 1987). You no doubt consider it safe now to resuscitate the libel in the White Paper, under cover of parliamentary privilege.

A few words about the alcoholism diagnosis. I do not blame Dr. Gitlow at all for reporting that the “presumptive” diagnosis was alcoholism. He could not have done otherwise, for two reasons.

One, I was sent to him for treatment, not for diagnosis, which was done in Singapore.

Two, “the patient was yet to liberate himself from the enormous influence you still exercised on his thinking and attitudes, and was convinced that his amnesic condition and breakdown in Kuching could only be explained by the diagnosis of alcoholism.” Nothing more was needed for Dr. Gitlow’s “presumptive” diagnosis. Only a few months later did the scales begin to fall from my eyes, slowly and painfully. There was a direct correspondence between my discovery of myself and my discovery of you.

The final certitude that I was never an alcoholic only came when I went to reside in Indiana as a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Indiana University. I asked for and obtained a copy of the medical report of the extensive and thorough-going medical examination I had undergone in 1984 (about a year before my Kuching visit) in the Indiana University Teaching Hospital-clinical, radiological, neurological, brain scans including an NMR scan, the whole works. The Dean of the Medical School, Dr. Ward B. Moore and another doctor who went through the entire report told me that they found nothing to suggest alcoholism, nor did they discover any sign of brain damage. They also expressed the view that it was not credible to suggest that I had become an alcoholic or had suffered brain damage within a year of such comprehensive tests. Experiential knowledge since has also convinced me that the alcoholism diagnosis you continue to cherish no longer holds water.

You delude yourself if you believe that the disgusting concoction of misinterpreted truths, half-truths, and untruths, not to speak of gaping omissions, in your parliamentary statement and in the White Paper, will enjoy more than a passing season. Nearly thirty years of struggle and effort in the service of the people of Singapore, in intimate comradeship with you and others, are not wiped out so easily. Not even the formidable intimidatory apparatus of power and systematic misinformation you have assembled can forever stifle the truth. What will ultimately prevail is the season of truth. And the total truth, many-sided and whole, will include the virtues and defects, successes and failures, prides and shames of all of us, including you and me. In short, total truth has an infallible way of debunking the debunkers.

Your genius for sticking labels on people does Singapore no good.

The truth of things often requires the removal of the labels on them. Nowhere more so than in the brand of politics you have developed. Thanks to you, Singapore has rapidly become a vivid illustration of the political adage: “Give a dog a bad name and hang it.”

If our nation is to survive as a credible entity in the modem world, we need to unstick the labels you have so tirelessly fixed on people and opinions you disapprove of. Honest, educated young professionals, who had the temerity to develop social ideas of their own, suddenly found themselves arrested and labelled “Marxist conspirators.”

A former solicitor-general who entertained rather nebulous notions of leading a small opposition group in Parliament was labelled an instrument of an unlikely Machiavelli in the U.S. Embassy. Now I am the latest victim of your label-fixing genius-brain-damaged alcoholic, wife-beater and what not.

Memorable words of your own, uttered 27 years ago, will attest to the fact that this is not the first time I have been the victim of a total smear, a furious attempt at utter demolition. I quote from a radio talk you gave to Singaporeans in 1961, when you and I were fighting real enemies, and not tilting at windmills as you are doing today.

“Lim Chin Siong … (the most important open-front leader the M.C.P. had built up) …was once Devan Nair’s closest open-front comrade. Devan Nair was his constant guide. But when Devan Nair decided that the M.C.P. was wrong in continuing the armed struggle after independence in the Federation and not coming to terms with Malayan nationalism, Lim began to fight Devan Nair relentlessly and ruthless, by fair or unfair methods, by smears and intimidation, to destroy every influence that Devan Nair had with the workers and the unions. His personal friendship for Devan Nair meant nothing. I knew that this was what one must expect of a good Communist.”

Well, the Lim Chin Siong of 1961 turns out to be an incompetent juvenile in the art of demolition compared to the awesome efficiency displayed by the Lee Kuan Yew of 1988.

If I had been less naive and gullible than I was I might perhaps have perceived a possible danger signal in an informal and personal exchange that took place between us some three or four months before I resigned as President in March 1985. You will recall that I had made it clear to you then that I did not wish to renew my presidency when my term expired in October 1985.

I was surprised to learn from you that it was not considered desirable for me to retire in Singapore after I stepped down as President. You suggested that I accept an ambassadorship. I declined, saying that I did not relish the life-style of an ambassador, involving as it did the treading of an endless cocktail circuit, picking up the latest gossip, and sending it off as a dispatch to the Foreign Ministry. I told you that I would prefer a readership in the National University instead, which would enable me to do my own writing and to relate to our students. You did not seem to particularly like this prospect.

When we met again the following week, you told me that the younger ministers were disappointed that I had rejected an ambassadorship.

Surprised, I asked why. I was dismayed to learn that some of them thought that if I remained in Singapore, I might be tempted to interfere in the political process. I assured you that I would not interfere in any way, and certainly not with the trade unions, which was probably what some persons might have been nervous about. In any case, I had believed what you told me. Indeed, I was prone to repose uncritical belief in you most of the time. I no longer do. I was perhaps blind then to what might have been an unmistakable writing on the wall for me.

It is not possible, in the course of a single letter, to reply in full to the massive public onslaught you unleashed on me with your speech on 29 June, and the accompanying White Paper, which I am confident will be judged by history as a product of acute political dementia.

Some might even say a terminally diseased spiritual condition. The political disvalues you have come to pursue, the perils that the nation faces as a result, the circumstances of my resignation, and above all what I consider the betrayal of the multiracial revolutionary movement which made Singapore, are the subjects of a book I am writing on.

I am most grieved by the wrong you and Dr. Nagulendran have done to my wife, than by the harm done to me. She has been shockingly and disgustingly misrepresented as a witness against her own husband. In your system, it seems that anything goes. Members of a single family are made to bear witness against each other, not to speak of doctors bearing witness against their patients. Are these the “Confucianist” values you prescribe for Singaporeans? My wife will make her own response. My sons, too, who were witnesses of the circumstances surrounding my resignation, will bear their own witness to the unfolding truth as they saw it.

For the rest, we have not seen the end of the play. The last Act of the tragi-comedy you began has yet to be played out. I wish you good luck.




  1. This was published in Francis T Seow’s book, TO CATCH A TARTAR. As Mr Harry Lee did not sue, by inference, the contents of Mr Nair’s letter is factually correct.

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