Singapore Justice: a Moving Target

“Humpty Dumpty: When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean ‑ neither more nor less.

Alice: The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things.

Humpty Dumpty: The question is: which is to be master ‑ that's all.”

In an extraordinary move, nearly two years after Singapore’s ruling Lee family filed a defamation suit against the Far Eastern Economic Review, a high court judge let it be known to the Lees’ lawyers that he was "searching for a higher defamatory meaning" that would allow the charges to be broadened. Last week, the lawyers took him up on it and amended their complaint to allow for greater penalties.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, legendary strongman Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, are suing the Far Eastern Economic Review and its editor, Hugo Restall, over an August 2006 interview with opposition leader, Chee Soon Juan, in which Chee, among other things, said the island republic wasn’t going to liberalize until Lee Kuan Yew was dead.

After Justice Woo Bih Li’s suggestion, the Lees’ lawyers amended their petition to make sure that an allegedly libelous passage implying that Lee Kuan Yew had condoned corruption on the part of T.T. Durai, the former head of the National Kidney Foundation, also be applied to Lee Hsien Loong, although the offending passage didn’t mention the prime minister. Durai has since been imprisoned for misuse of funds.

It all came down to the meaning of the word “he.” The passage that Woo used to extend the libel to Lee Hsien Loong referred to him as a member of a generation that will “have a price to pay” for the elder Lee’s policies. It went on to quote Chee as saying “Why is (Lee Kuan Yew) still afraid,” and finished saying “I think he is actually afraid of something like that.”

Although the Review’s lawyers contended that the pronoun “he” referred to Lee Kuan Yew, Woo, in a June 25 hearing, asked: “Is the court precluded from concluding that the natural and ordinary meaning of the disputed words are as defamatory of Lee Hsien Loong as they are allegedly defamatory of Lee Kuan Yew?”

Prompted by the judge, the Lees’ lawyer, Davinder Singh, argued in his written submission to the court for the amendment, “the article clearly asserted that like Durai, who abused defamation suits to silence his critics and conceal his corruption, Lee Hsien Loong has abused libel suits as a tool to conceal his corruption."

The original 2006 article kicked off a spate of actions on the part of the Singapore government, which almost immediately required four more foreign media companies in addition to the Review – the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, Newsweek and Time, to post a security deposit of S$200,000 and to appoint a local agent authorized to accept service of legal writs in the event that the government decided to sue.

The Lees also filed suit against Restall and the Review, which is owned by Dow Jones Corp., which in turn was bought last year by Rupert Murdoch’s publishing empire, charging that the elder Lee had been “gravely injured in his character and reputation and [had] been brought into public scandal, odium and contempt” by references to him in the article.

Singapore and the Lee family have long been famous for suing journalists, both foreign and domestic – and they have never lost a suit in Singapore. The Far Eastern Economic Review was a favorite target.

The media watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 140th out 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.

The Singapore government also was embarrassed in July by a 72-page report by the International Bar Association, which held its international convention in the island republic last year, on continuing controversy over the judiciary. Although Lee Kuan Yew described the association as having issued a letter commending the country’s judiciary, the letter was never issued. Instead, the report, titled “Prosperity versus individual rights? Human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Singapore,” makes 18 recommendations that the association urges the Singapore government to implement as a matter of priority.

Singapore, the report stated, “cannot continue to claim that civil and political rights must take a back seat to economic rights, as its economic development is now of the highest order. In the modern era of globalization, isolationist policies and attitudes are no longer tenable. The international community, through the mechanisms of the United Nations, regional forums and non-governmental human rights bodies, has a role to play in commenting on practices that it perceives to fall short of international standards.

“The [association’s human rights institution] strongly encourages Singapore to engage with the international community in a more constructive manner, and to take steps to implement international standards of human rights throughout Singapore. It is imperative that Singapore now takes its place as a leader in the region, not only in business and economic development, but in human rights, democracy and the rule of law.”

Singapore’s government, the report continues, “is currently failing to meet established international standards in these areas.” Reports of opposition candidates being targeted for criticizing the government, it says, “are of significant concern and threaten democracy and the rule of law in Singapore.” It describes an “apparent climate of fear and self-censorship surrounding the press in Singapore,” and that the “increasing tendency for high profile and respected publications to pay large out-of-court settlements to avoid litigation with PAP officials and the continued run of success within in-court claims is worrying.”