Singapore under fire

The Far Eastern Economic Review refuses to take a defamation suit from the Lee family lying down


The Far Eastern Economic Review, under siege from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, for daring to print the views of opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, struck back defiantly Friday by printing virtually an entire issue critical of Singapore.

The frontal assault on the city state by the magazine may well be the sharpest against the governing Lee family and the government itself since the days when the Review’s late editor, Derek Davies, took them on in the 1970s and 1980s.  The international press has largely been supine for more than two decades after a blizzard of defamation and other suits filed by the Lees or other government leaders in what Lee himself, in a 1976 conversation with Davies, described as a strategy “aimed at the pockets of owners and publishers.”

The centerpiece of the Review’s October issue is a 2,000-word letter from editor Hugo Restall, giving the magazine’s side of the dispute. To emphasize its importance, Review editors held a Hong Kong press conference, accompanied by Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, which is owned, as is FEER, by Dow Jones Co. Gigot flew in from New York for the occasion, ostensibly to announce a new magazine feature, “the barometer of Asian Development.”

The Lees filed suit against the magazine in September in a Singapore court, alleging they had been defamed by the Chee interview, which appeared in FEER’s July-August issue and contained statements like these:

“Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the man many believe still runs Singapore and who is the current prime minister’s father…” and “While many Singaporeans don’t particularly like the People’s Action Party’s arrogant style of government, the ruling party has succeeded in depoliticizing the population to the extent that anybody who presses them with an action to make change is regarded with resentment.”

The article flatly stated that Chee lost his job as a psychology lecturer at the national university “in a climate of fear” for entering opposition politics. It questioned whether the government deserves its “squeaky-clean” reputation in the wake of a scandal that veered uncomfortably close to the wife of former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and asked whether libel suits are used by to suppress dissent.

After the article ran, the Singapore Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts slapped new conditions on four foreign publications requiring them to post a S$200,000 bond to cover damages from lawsuits and ordering them to appoint an agent in Singapore to accept lawsuits if they wished to continue circulating in the city-state.

In his lengthy response, Restall said the order “had no basis in Singapore’s own law.”  He added that “With Singaporean efficiency, the government bureaucracy leapt into action on the Lees’ behalf, imposing conditions with retroactive effect in order to force the magazine to put its head on the block for the Lees to chop off.  When the Review refused to comply with these conditions, the Lees proceeded with their lawsuits anyway.  This episode tells us much about the use of official power to chill free speech in Singapore.”

Unfortunately for the Lees, the Review has no assets in Singapore, leaving the magazine, now a monthly journal of analysis and comment, free to bang away from the relative safety of Hong Kong, although some reports have indicated that the Singaporean courts might ask the Hong Kong courts, under a reciprocal treaty, to enforce what appears almost certain to be a verdict in favor of the Lees.

And bang away the Review has done, with a vengeance.  Besides Restall’s letter,  the magazine contains an article by Australian scholar Garry Rodan, director of the Asia Research Centre and professor of politics at Murdoch University, Perth,  (http://www.feer.com/articles1/2006/0610/free/p013.html ) titled “Singapore’s Founding Myth vs. Freedom,” describing the lengths to which the country is willing to go to suppress press freedom, including Lee Kuan Yew’s 22 successful libel actions against journalistic institutions since 1965. A second article, titled “The Charade of Meritocracy,” (http://www.feer.com/articles1/2006/0610/free/p018.html) by University of Queensland, Australia, lecturer Michael D. Barr, calling into question Singapore’s vaunted claims of meritocracy and pointing out that unless they are Chinese, Singaporean citizens have little chance of rising in any fields.  A third, by Restall himself, titled “Financial Center Pipedreams,” http://www.feer.com/articles1/2006/0610/free/p023.html  calls into question Singapore’s aspirations to become a major Asian financial center.

The magazine also made public on its website the entire list of 10 letters between the magazine and Drew & Napier, the Lees’ Singapore lawyer, as well as six more letters between the Review and the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts.

Below is the full text of the Far Eastern Economic Review’s Letter to the Singaporean Authorities

October 2006

The Singaporean government’s recent decision to ban the REVIEW and the defamation lawsuits against us by its two most powerful politicians take us back to a time when the city-state was a poor speck of a country sitting on one of the fault lines of a fractious region. Besieged from without and within, the government of the young People’s Action Party resorted to Draconian colonial-era laws to crush dissent. Today, Singapore is an affluent and peaceful society with ample means to protect itself, and its Southeast Asian neighborhood has progressed from confrontation to cooperation. So why is it still using repressive measures against a monthly magazine that employs a total of three full-time journalists and has 1,000 subscribers in the country?

The July article that started this most recent dispute with Singapore, “Singapore’s ‘Martyr,’ Chee Soon Juan,” sought to raise a similar question, only it focused on the methods used to silence the leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party. We put it to Mr. Chee himself, and he laid the blame squarely on the country’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who now holds the title of “minister mentor.”

The ruthless suppression of dissent must be kept up, he said, because as long as Mr. Lee is alive, a new generation of leaders is unable to emerge and distance themselves from his record. Mr. Lee’s past actions, which have led to human rights abuses and statist management of the economy, haunt the government. Mr. Chee believes that is the true reason dissidents like himself are hounded: “If we had parliamentary debates where the opposition could pry and ask questions, I think he is actually afraid of something like that.”

After the article was published, we received letters from Davinder Singh, a lawyer for Mr. Lee and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, claiming that these sentiments and several other sections of the essay defamed the two men. Mr. Singh demanded apologies, removal of the article from our Web site, and an undertaking to pay damages and legal costs.

We did not comply with these demands, and proposed instead to publish a clarification that the REVIEW did not intend the article to express the defamation alleged by Mr. Singh. After several rounds of correspondence with Mr. Singh, all of which is posted on our Web site www.feer.com, we heard nothing more for 10 days. Then the Singaporean Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts announced new conditions to be imposed immediately on the REVIEW, requiring us to appoint a legal representative in Singapore to accept lawsuits, and post a S$200,000 ($126,000) bond to cover damages from such lawsuits—even those relating to already published articles—if we wished to continue circulating. This order had no basis in Singapore’s own law, which stated clearly that such regulations could be imposed only on publications that publish at least weekly or which have been found to have engaged in domestic politics. We have also posted all of our correspondence with the ministry on our Web site.

The timing and substance of this move were in our view no coincidence. It followed hard upon our refusal to apologize and pay damages. Moreover, to sue the REVIEW in Singapore, the Lees would have to serve the papers in Hong Kong, where the magazine is based, since we do not have any employees in Singapore. This means we could challenge that service and/or the enforcement of damages in Hong Kong.

With Singaporean efficiency, the government bureaucracy leaped into action on the Lees’ behalf, imposing conditions with retroactive effect in order to force the magazine to put its head on the block for the Lees to chop off. When the REVIEW refused to comply with these conditions, the Lees proceeded with their lawsuits anyway. This episode tells us much about the use of official power to chill free speech in Singapore.

The Lees’ court filings of Aug. 22, which we have posted on our Web site, claim that the REVIEW article carried the message that Mr. Lee Sr. is “unfit for office because he is corrupt.” We believe that no rational subscriber to this magazine would read the article in the way the Lees allege. Reporting an opposition MP’s claim that a leader’s policies may have led to human-rights abuses and the concealment of government errors is very different from alleging he is corrupt. Mr. Lee’s probity is legendary; we do not believe that his faults include personal corruption, and it strikes us as fantastical to allege that such an allegation was made by the REVIEW.

The lawsuits also make reference to the section of the article that notes “Singaporean officials have a remarkable record of success in winning libel suits against their critics. The question then is, how many other libel suits have Singapore’s great and good wrongly won, resulting in the cover-up of real misdeeds? And are libel suits deliberately used as a tool to suppress questioning voices?” The lawyer claims that this means that Mr. Lee Sr. “has set out to sue and suppress those who would question him as he fears such questions would expose his corruption.”

Mr. Lee certainly has an impressive record of suing his critics, as do other Singaporean officials, but since we don’t believe he is corrupt, we could hardly have meant that these lawsuits were intended to conceal corruption. Rather we asked the question, one that is legitimate and in the public interest, whether Singaporean officials have used libel lawsuits as a tool to suppress legitimate criticism.

Even defending oneself vigorously in Singapore can incur punishment. For instance, in a case involving a REVIEW article from 1987, a London queen’s counsel vigorously cross-examined the prime minister. After finding for Mr. Lee, the court awarded him aggravated damages in part because the barrister’s questions were calculated to “increase the hurt to his feelings.”

Finally, the Lees’ lawsuits against us allege that the REVIEW defamed them by referring to the scandal of the National Kidney Foundation and Chief Executive T.T. Durai. We noted that this case was exposed only because Mr. Durai, having prevailed in one defamation case, filed a second against a major bulwark of the regime, Singapore Press Holdings, which he lost. The obvious and legitimate question asked by the opposition is, how many more Durais are there in Singapore officialdom who are getting away with abuses because of the lack of an independent media and a vigorous opposition?

Corruption undoubtedly exists in Singapore, as the National Kidney Foundation scandal shows, but asserting this is not a slur—no country is entirely free of this taint. The key thing to watch is whether a government uses sunlight as a disinfectant, or sweeps its errors under the rug. Singapore’s use of press restrictions and politically motivated libel actions makes us wonder whether its reputation for clean government is deserved. For instance, in July, Minister Without Portfolio Lim Boon Heng encouraged the local media to focus more on good news and stop trying to uncover abuses: “If you want to do investigative reporting, there must be something which is wrong which has not been attended to. I think there are not many issues in Singapore that fall under this category.”

Mr. Lim’s words reflect Singapore’s deliberate program to neuter the domestic and international media. Over its 60 years, the REVIEW has often borne the brunt of this campaign. In a 1995 column for the Independent newspaper, the late Derek Davies, a former editor, recalled that in 1976 Mr. Lee Sr. threatened the magazine with ruin if it commented on sensitive matters. Then in 1985, Mr. Lee confided he had a new plan:

“He told me that he was determined to set things straight with the foreign press before he handed over power to the younger generation,” Mr. Davies wrote. “He was drafting a new press law aimed at the pockets of owners and publishers, not editors. If any publication was deemed to be ‘engaging’ in Singapore’s domestic politics, its circulation (and its profits) could be cut to a trickle, while denying it the right to claim it had been banned.”

The new law was passed in 1986, and as a commentator noted in the Times of London the following year, there was little doubt what engaging in domestic politics meant: “As a rule of thumb, any article with which Singapore disagrees and which does not carry its views is deemed to be an interference in its internal affairs.” It wasn’t long before the REVIEW fell afoul of the stricter standard. In 1987, Mr. Lee sued for libel over its coverage of the detention without trial of Catholic social workers, claiming he was portrayed as intolerant of the church and religious freedom. The government restricted the REVIEW’s circulation to a tiny number, and when Mr. Davies withdrew all distribution, it pirated the magazine with the advertisements blacked out.

Sadly, the government’s efforts at controlling coverage of Singapore have been largely successful. For local journalists, whose coverage is controlled by the government through Singapore Press Holdings, resistance is futile. And given that Singapore represents an important market for media in the region, many foreign publications are wary of offending the government. Correspondents who want to tackle controversial subjects find that even carefully nuanced articles involve so much back-and-forth with the lawyers that the effort hardly seems worthwhile. When something critical does make it into print, the appearance of a letter from Mr. Singh demanding an apology and damages has in recent years too often resulted in immediate capitulation.

We respectfully submit that balanced coverage of Singapore in the international media requires deeper reporting and tougher analysis of government actions, as well as an occasional opportunity for opposition politicians to speak for themselves without fear of financial ruin. This is one reason for the REVIEW’s decision to defend itself against these latest defamation suits.

In this issue, academics Michael Barr and Garry Rodan take on two taboo subjects in Singapore: the racial composition of its educational system and the government’s control of the local media. Mr. Barr examines whether Singapore’s claim to be a meritocracy stands up to scrutiny given the striking inequality between the races as shown by the educational advantages enjoyed by ethnic Chinese. Mr. Rodan looks at how the government controls the flow of information for the purpose of protecting and reinforcing the founding myths of the PAP regime.

These articles go straight to the heart of some of the most sensitive issues the Singapore government doesn’t want discussed: race, language, religion and culture. These topics are sometimes said to be “out of bounds.” As Mr. Lee Sr. once explained, “They are not cerebral matters which we can discuss in a Western salon. In our society, these are visceral matters. People take their religion very seriously. It is extremely dangerous to treat this just as another conversational subject.”

Mr. Lee apparently still sees the country he shepherded to independence as fragile and vulnerable. Yet having enjoyed almost 40 years of PAP rule, Singapore has had plenty of time to tame its ideological and racial demons. If after four decades the society remains so volatile that one can’t even discuss sensitive topics openly, the government must have failed in its duty to build a harmonious society.

We don’t think that’s the case. There is much to admire in Singapore’s development under the PAP, and the REVIEW has a responsibility to its readers to provide a balanced view of this record. When honest criticism is forbidden, however, balance is hard to attain. We come back to Mr. Chee’s appraisal that the real impediment to Singapore’s emergence as a self-confident, pluralist society is Lee Kuan Yew himself. After all his contributions, the minister mentor is tarnishing his legacy with attacks on the REVIEW, the international and regional press, Mr. Chee, and others who pose no threat to Singapore. We believe most Singaporeans recognize this and yearn for a fully free democracy. We look forward to that day, when we hope the REVIEW will circulate in Singapore once more.

Hugo Restall, editor, Far Eastern Economic Review.

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