Singapore Bankrupts the Singapore Democratic Party

Singapore’s dynastic Lee family has again put an opposition party out of business, this time with an order from the Singapore High Court to the leaders of the Singapore Democratic Party to pay S$610,000 in damages for defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean Minister Mentor.

Chee Soon Juan, the SDP’s leader, told reporters the party is bankrupt after failure to pay libel judgments and legal costs from a marathon series of lawsuits and other court actions brought by Lee pere et fils, the latest in June when Chee and his sister, Chee Siok Chin, were sentenced for having “scandalized the court” and “obstructed the administration of justice” during a contentious three-day hearing to decide on damages to be awarded to the prime minister and his father.

The Chees, the court said, had issued “serious allegations of corruption, dishonesty, nepotism and financial impropriety which the defendants persisted in maintaining without foundation to the end." The two went to jail on the contempt charges because they didn’t have the money to pay their fines after having been driven into bankruptcy.

It was the seventh time Chee Soon Juan has been jailed in Singapore, four for speaking in public without a permit, once for attempting to leave the country without a permit after being invited to a conference in Istanbul for the World Movement for Democracy's Fourth Assembly in April 2006, and once before for “scandalizing the judiciary.”

Chee told Reuters the damages were "not unexpected.” But, he said, “it's not going to deter us from doing what we have been doing, and that is speaking up for issues that Singaporeans should know about."

It isn’t the first time the Lee family had bankrupted a political party, and it calls up memories of lawyer Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, who died on September 30 at 82 after more than three decades of jousting with Lee Kuan Yew, almost unanimously unsuccessfully. . In an utterly graceless letter of condolence to Jeyaretnam’s sons, Lee Hsien Loong accused the deceased of helping “neither to build up a constructive opposition, nor our parliamentary tradition.”


In 1981, on his sixth attempt at public office, Jeyaretnam became the first politician ever to win an election against the formerly impregnable People’s Action Party, which has run Singapore since its founding as an independent nation. The government promptly responded by redistricting his Anson constituency out of existence, and then bringing a long series of lawsuits that, by Jeyaretnam’s calculation, cost him more than S$1.6 million in damages and costs.

Unable to get the voters oust Jeyaretnam from Parliament, the government went after him on accusations of misstating the Worker Party’s Accounts. However, Senior District Court Judge Michael Khoo acquitted him of making a false declaration, which resulted in Khoo’s unceremonious removal from his job and a transfer to the attorney-general’s chambers, widely considered to be a much lower posting. The Jeyaretnam episode is the last time on record that a high-profile case ever went against any members of Singapore’s ruling Lee family or the government.

Jeyaretnam was ultimately jailed for perjury in 1986. He took the case to the Privy Council in London, which ruled that he was the victim of a “grievous injustice,” only to have Singapore abolish the right of appeal to the body, the ultimate legal authority for Commonwealth nations.

Jeyaretnam didn’t give up. Fined, sentenced to a month in jail and barred from politics for five years, he ran again in 1997 and was returned by the voters to office, leaving it in 2001. After having got out of bankruptcy, he founded a new political party but, weakened by ill health, he never ran again.

In the meantime, the Lee family continues its crusade on anybody who disagrees with them, filing a long string of lawsuits against the foreign press in particular. The most recent was in September when contempt charges were filed against the Wall Street Journal/Asia for three articles published in June and July that “impugn the impartiality, integrity and independence of the Singapore judiciary,” according to the complaint. “These allegations and insinuations are unwarranted.”

On September 24, another Singapore judge, Woo Bin Lih, awarded the Lees damages in a suit against another Dow Jones publication, the Far Eastern Economic Review, ruling that he had been defamed by the FEER’s editor, Hugo Restall, for a 2006 interview with Chee Soon Juan which stated, in part, that Lee Kuan Yew had been using libel actions to suppress opponents.

Lee Kuan Yew has sued the FEER repeatedly, as well as bringing other legal actions against Time Asia, the Asian Wall Street Journal, as it was then known, the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times – which once capitulated for a story in which there was no apparent libel – the Economist and the Bloomberg News Service, among others. The media watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 140th of 167 countries surveyed in terms of freedom of the press. The country has been kicking foreign journalists out for writing critical articles about the republic since the early 1970s and has an inordinately long memory about ever letting them back in.

While the mainstream press has universally capitulated to the Lee family and largely ceased criticism of the island nation, however an increasingly vitriolic cadre of Internet bloggers has taken over, indefatigably denouncing the government at every turn. So far, there is no evidence that the government has taken notice of them.