Singapore Steps Up Drumbeat of Charges Against Critics

Singapore’s always-prickly Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, appears to be growing less and less tolerant of criticism, filing defamation charges against a prominent human rights defender, Leong Sze Hian (above), just two weeks after forcing the temporary closure of the city-state’s longest-running and most prominent independent news site, The Online Citizen.

In Leong’s case, he says he merely clicked ‘Share’ on Nov. 10 on a story that sought to connect Lee to Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal on the Facebook page of a Malaysian website called The Coverage.My. Although the Lee family has sued a long list of domestic and international critics and news operations for an equally long list of offending articles or references of various kinds, it is believed to be the first time anybody has been sued in Singapore for merely clicking “share” on an article.

“This is unprecedented in history,” Leong said in a phone interview. “The model of Facebook’s success is the sharing function with friends. If clicking the ‘share’ button can get you sued, nobody may use Facebook any more. “

Other observers say the government is getting increasingly edgy over the possibility that a general election is expected relatively soon, probably in 2019, and for the first time since Singapore became a nation the government is expected to not be headed by a member of the Lee political dynasty or someone closely aligned with it.

Lee Hsien Loong, now 66, is expected to step aside to become a senior minister, as did his father and founder of the nation, Lee Kuan Yew, in 1990, effectively steering the government until 2004 as “Minister Mentor” and watching closely over the premiership of his successor, Goh Chok Tong. Goh was then succeeded by the younger Lee. The People’s Action Party, headed by the Lees, has never been seriously challenged since the PAP was founded in 1954.

Leong, a financial advisor who was the president of the Maruah Singapore human rights organization from 2014 to 2016 and is the past president of three other professional bodies as well as honorary consul for the countries of Jamaica and Burkina Faso and a onetime radio talk show host, said he was unable to comment on the suit, filed on Nov. 12, for legal reasons. But, he said in an interview, “In my defense I can say this ordeal, in the public interest will make more people realize how oppressive and ridiculous Singapore has become.”

The article in question was first published on Facebook by a now-defunct website called the States Times Review, which has now been put out of business by Singapore authorities, according to its website, “under false charges of ‘fake news’ and ‘criminal defamation’ laid by the Singapore dictatorship.”

The article, picked up by the Malaysian website where Leong found it, sought to connect the Singaporean prime minister with attempts by now-ousted Malaysian premier Najib Razak to launder billions of dollars from 1MDB through Singapore banks. The website’s editor, Alex Tan, who is based in Australia, wrote that he has been threatened with two years in prison for criminal defamation. Facebook has also resisted demands from Singaporean authorities that the article be taken down.

Leong immediately complied with an email from Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority to remove the article from his Facebook page within six hours, as the country’s strict media laws prescribe. Two days later, he received a demand for an apology and an ultimatum to name the amount of compensation he would pay Lee for damages.

The threat against Leong, who has been involved in human rights activities in Singapore for several decades and once wrote columns in a local Chinese-language newspaper, appears to be part of an increasing drumbeat of threats over allegations of defamation. On Nov. 20, authorities closed The Online Citizen and confiscated its computers after it printed a letter to the editor from Willy Sum, a critic who had accused the government of corruption. As with Leong, the letter was immediately removed from the site on notification from the IMDA.

Terry Xu, the editor, was taken in for questioning as was Sum and the website was closed over the fact that that all electronic equipment used for publication had been seized. However, despite the seizure, a citizen campaign raised the funds to provide new equipment to resume publication.

Although in the past The Online Citizen has first been warned by so-called “take-down” letters demanding the removal of offensive items, this time authorities immediately raided Xu’s house.

Rights organizations immediately criticized the government. “Singapore likes to portray itself as an open and democratic society, but this type of harassment of the independent media utterly belies that image,” said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “Authorities should drop this frivolous investigation and stop harassing The Online Citizen.”

Phil Robertson, the Southeast Asia representative for Human Rights Watch, said at the time of The Online Citizen’s closure that “What we have here is Singapore trying to go after TOC, which has been a thorn. It is a widely-read, in-depth online site, the kind of news outlet the government wants to get rid of. If they could do it by hook or crook, they were going to. An election is coming next year, the PAP is starting to get paranoid.”

In 2015, the government successfully sued a blogger and activist named Roy Ngerng Yi Lin, setting a disconcerting precedent for Leong. When Ngerng in a series of posts questioned Lee Hsien Loong’s stewardship of the country’s Central Provident Fund, Lee sent Ngerng a demand letter ordering him to apologize and name the amount he intended to pay in damages. The Maruah NGO which Leong headed defended Ngerng.

Ngerng, at that point a hospital orderly, offered S$5,000, which Lee refused to accept, describing it as derisory. After considerable legal maneuvering, Ngerng lost a summary judgment and was ordered to pay S$100,000 in general damages and S$50,000 in aggravated damages plus S$29,000 in legal costs. He was also immediately sacked from his job. He has since moved to Taiwan.

That places Leong in an equally difficult position. If he were to pick a figure that the Prime Minister were to find “derisory,” Lee could then name a figure that isn’t ‘derisory” and the Singaporean courts, which have never ruled against the Lee family in decades, would likely back up the prime minister.

“There have been so many defamation suits against journalists in the past, freedom of expression is in such danger,” Leong said. “As past president of a human rights NGO, Singapore is in the spotlight in every international human rights meeting we go to. It is the country with the most stringent laws against freedom of expression. We have come to a moment in Singapore history we think the government will change because of recent events. When the emperor becomes oppressive, he loses the mandate of heaven.”