Singapore Wins Again

As expected, a Singapore high court judge has once again ruled against a western news organization, in this case the Wall Street Journal Asia, for contempt of court for three articles published in June and July that “impugn the impartiality, integrity and independence of the Singapore judiciary,” according to the complaint.

The court fined Dow Jones Publishing Co. S$25,000, said to be the highest amount ever levied for such a case, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"Dow Jones is extremely disappointed with the ruling of the High Court and strongly disagrees with the court’s analysis that the editorials and letter to the editor constitute contempt of court," a Dow Jones spokesman said. "Also, contrary to what the attorney general has alleged, The Wall Street Journal Asia has not engaged in a ‘campaign’ of any sort against the Singapore judiciary. We will in the future continue to defend the right of The Wall Street Journal Asia to report and comment on matters of international importance, including matters concerning Singapore."

The 43-page judgment, written by High Court Judge Tay Yong Kwang, contains some startling language in its attempt to pin contempt charges on the newspaper, its editor, Daniel Hertzberg, managing editor Christine Glancey, and Dow Jones Publishing Co., now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. In effect, Tay said, there were no actionable words in the articles. But, he wrote:

“Words sometimes mean more than what they say on the surface. This proposition is a recurring theme in the present proceedings before me, which concerns an application for by the Attorney General for orders of committal for contempt against [the] three respondents...”

And, as part of the background of the case, Tay wrote: “As will be demonstrated shortly, it is not the AG’s case that the publications contained passages or words that expressly scandalize the Singapore judiciary, but that they do so by implication, especially when the offending passages or words of each publication are read in the context of that individual publication.”

In other words, any publication deemed by Singapore to have been hostile to Singapore in the past could find itself in the dock without using “passages or words that expressly scandalize the Singapore judiciary” or presumably the family of ageing patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s minister mentor.

The court, however, is about as touchy as the Lee family. In October, three supporters of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party were promptly arrested when they turned up at Singapore’s Supreme Court wearing T-shirts depicting a kangaroo in judicial robes. The three, 19-year-old Muhammad Shafi'ie Syahmi Sariman, 33-year-old Isrizal Mohamed Isa and 47-year-old John Tan Liang Joo, were convicted and were to be sentenced November 27 for contempt of court.

Reporters Without Borders condemned the Wall Street Journal ruling, saying that "Even if the fine is not colossal, the ruling very clearly shows that Singapore's judges have no intention of letting the foreign media express themselves freely about the country's judicial system, which is lacking in independence."

As to the Journal case, it is hardly the first time Singapore has found the western press wanting, or used tortured language to go after them. The lawsuit-happy Lee family has filed a plethora of defamation lawsuits and contempt charges repeatedly against Dow Jones publications, particularly the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Asian Wall Street Journal, now known as the Wall Street Journal Asia, as well as Time Magazine, the Economist, the International Herald Tribune and many more.

In 2007 for instance, the Financial Times issued a hasty apology and paid undisclosed damages for a story in which there appeared to be no libel. The article dealt with the growth of so-called sovereign wealth funds, particularly a new Chinese fund that was unveiled at the end of September, and referred to growing concern over the acquisition of strategic industries by funds controlled by governments in Asia and the Middle East. At the end of the piece, the author referred to Temasek, the increasingly troubled Singapore state investment fund, and described some of the problems Temasek has faced with the fallout from the fund's acquisition last year of Shin Corp, the Thai telecoms group owned by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which ultimately contributed to Thaksin’s downfall. At the end of the article, the author referred to the fact that Temasek is run by Ho Ching, the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and concluded with these words:

“DBS Bank, whose biggest shareholder is Temasek, this week surprised many by announcing that US-born Jackson Tai would step down towards the end of the year. Mr Tai was said to be keen to ‘spend more time with his family.’

“Last week Jimmy Phoon, Temasek's chief investment officer, announced he was leaving ‘to take a break and spend some time with the family.’ “Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at the reasons. Singapore, after all, is built on strong family values. Lee Kuan Yew, founding father of the city-state, must be proud to see Lee Hsien Loong, his son, occupy the role of prime minister. “Mr Lee (Jnr) himself will be pleased Ho Ching, his wife, has helped turn round the performance of Temasek after being appointed chief executive in 2002. The rumour mill now suggests Lee Hsien Yang, the younger brother, could replace Mr Tai at DBS. The younger Mr Lee earned his spurs as chief executive of SingTel, also part of the Temasek firmament.”

That caused an apparent explosion among the Lees, and allegations of libel over charges of nepotism. The FT quickly complied with its public apology

In 1994, the Lee family sued the International Herald Tribune, which also quickly issued an apology and paid damages, for a column in which the author wrote about dynastic politics in China and, in passing, mentioned Singapore,saying “Dynastic politics is evident in ‘Communist’ China already, as in Singapore, despite official commitment to bureaucratic meritocracy. Similarly with the Kuomintang inheritance in Taiwan, which won out until 1987, when lack of candidates and the pressure of opinion ended the Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek era".

The courts awarded aggravated damages on the basis of Lee Kuan Yew’s claim (and similar claims by Lee Hsien Loong and Goh Chok Tong) that "The said words, in the context in which they were published, and in their natural and ordinary meaning, meant and were understood to mean" that Lee Hsien Loong was "appointed to various offices in the Singapore government on the basis of nepotism and not on the basis of merit."

No member of the Lee family has ever lost a case in a Singapore court as far as can be determined. The Lees recently won damages against Far Eastern Economic Review for defamation and the government has banned the publication over a 2006 interview with Chee Soon Juan, the head of the Singapore Democratic Party, in which Chee said the authoritarian city-state would only change direction after the elder Lee’s death. At one point, Judicial Commissioner Sundaresh Menon refused to allow the Review’s lawyer, Australian Tim Robertson, permission to sit in on the hearing because Robertson had made comments critical of Singapore in 2005 over Singapore’s decision to execute a convicted drug trafficker.