Singapore Aims to Cripple a Press Critic

The Online Citizen faces an onslaught of legal and government actions

The Online Citizen, one of the few independent news publications in Singapore, appears to be about to be put out of business from at least three different angles after having crossed swords with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In addition to two government actions against it, the news portal’s editor, Terry Xu, lost a defamation case to Lee on September 1 and was ordered to pay the prime minister S$210,000 (US$156,283) over a 2019 article that dealt with the bitter feud between the prime minister and his siblings over the disposition of their father’s historic mansion. The article reproduced allegedly defamatory statements by Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling. But instead of suing his brother and sister for the comments, Lee chose to take on the Online Citizen and its editor.

For decades, the Lee family have used Singapore’s malleable courts to bring defamation and contempt cases against luckless defendants including some of the world’s most powerful newspapers such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, the Financial Times and others, and to bankrupt political opponents. They have never lost a case in the Singapore courts against news organizations or political opponents although their desultory efforts to use the courts elsewhere have not been successful,

But over recent months dissidents have successfully used crowdfunding to blunt the sting of fines imposed by the courts. In April, political candidate Leong Sze Hian became the first to raise enough to fully pay off S$133,000 ordered by the high court after he was convicted of sharing an article uploaded onto Facebook deemed to have libeled Lee Hsien Loong. Roy Yi Ling Ngerng, a dissident now living in exile Taiwan who was sued by Lee, also used crowdfunding to pay off his debts.

Following the verdict Xu’s allies started a crowdfunding project that so far has raised more than S$185,000 from more than 1800 contributors to pay off the fine and looks likely to pay all of it. 

The growing frequency of successful crowdfunding exercises is regarded by the government’s critics as an example of the fading power of the Lee family to use defamation suits to defang those who defy them, especially as the feud between family members has continued and the prime minister is perceived to be using the arms of the government to punish his siblings.

It now appears that the defamation suit having failed to bankrupt Xu, the government will seek to put The Online Citizen out of business through other means. This week, the news portal’s license was suspended and it was ordered to stop posting on its websites and social media accounts. It was given two weeks to declare all of its funding sources despite "multiple reminders and extensions" by the Infocomm Media Development Authority, which said it hasn’t given reasons for its non-compliance.

Under the IMDA’s regulations, internet content providers that promote or discuss political issues are "required to be transparent" about their sources of funding, supposedly to prevent foreign influence in domestic politics.

The Online Citizen responded that it offered to provide the necessary declaration on the condition that IMDA would not seek further clarifications regarding its subscription framework and funding sources. 

According to local media, IMDA said it was denying the publication’s request and that it is “not a matter of negotiation.” Xu confirmed to local media that he had been notified of the suspension and that he was “still in the midst of considering our options, particularly challenging the decision to exercise the suspension of its other platforms.”

At the same time, the government introduced a measure in parliament that the Home Affair Minister said is aimed at quelling foreign interference in Singapore’s political sovereignty and national security, but which critics say is aimed squarely at the likes of Xu and The Online Citizen.

Singapore is proud of adhering to the rule of law but far too often the rule of law it adheres to are those passed to quell troublesome questioners. In the 1980s, faced with aggressive news reporting by the Wall Street Journal’s Asian edition, the parliament pushed through a law allowing the government to cut the paper’s circulation from 5,000 copies a day to just 400. It created similar laws against the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review. Local politicians have also seen their ability to contest elections crippled by parliamentary jiggery pokery.

The proposed law would empower the minister to issue directions that require a person or Internet intermediary to stop communicating hostile information or campaign content. If these directions fail, the minister can order Internet service providers to block access.

The minister can also require social media services, relevant electronic services and Internet service providers to take “practicable and technically feasible actions” to restrict the dissemination of additional hostile information or campaign content.

To mitigate the risk of local proxies being used for foreign interference, the proposed law would define individuals and entities directly involved in Singapore’s political processes as “politically significant persons,” according to local media. It would include political parties, office holders, Members of Parliament, candidates and their agents. A ministerial designee would also be empowered to name other individuals and entities – apparently at his or her discretion – anyone he or she wants to pick.

“The competent authority can also direct any PSP that publishes matters on political issues relating to Singapore, to disclose the particulars of any foreign author and/or foreign principal for whom or at whose direction the article or program is published,” according to the measure. Fines could run up to S$500,000.

In May, an anonymous publication called “Fathership” published an article titled “Meet the Malaysian writers running The Online Citizen” whose source apparently was Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam. It named Rubaashini Shunmuganathan (who co-wrote the article concerning the Lee feud for which the publication was sued by Lee), Cathleen Fernandez, Aldgra Fredly, Roxanne Tai, and Stephen Nitto as five Malaysians writing for the publication.

The Online Citizen "attacks the government with its team of Malaysian writers," the article charged, citing an instance in which the publication alleged that police had bullied an elderly woman suffering from dementia who wasn’t masked. Shanmugam said it is a "regular" occurrence that the Online Citizen attacks the Singapore government with its "team of Malaysian writers."

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