We’re Sorry Singapore, the Financial Times Says

The lawsuit-happy family of Singaporean Patriarch Lee Kuan Yew has forced the Financial Times into an apology and monetary settlement for a story in which there appears to be no libel.

The apology comes just as the International Bar Association, which according to its website prides itself on believing “in the fundamental right of the world’s citizens to have disputes heard and determined by an independent judiciary and for judges and lawyers to practice freely and without interference,” is holding its biggest-ever convention in the city-state and is considering opening a permanent office there.

The IBA delegates were met with a resolution from a flock of human rights advocates across the world, including the World Movement for Democracy, the Council for the Community of Democracies, Liberal International, the Club of Madrid, Reporters without Borders and the Asia Human Rights Commission, calling on the group to "express its concern at the lack of respect for the rule of law in Singapore" and to "urge the Singapore government to practice the rule of law and not the rule by law by signing and ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

Victor Mallet, the Financial Times’ Asia editor, refused comment on the story, which ran on September 29, or on the FT’s settlement. The article, a column by Sundeep Tucker, 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.

If anything, the article, and the rapid mea culpa, also point up in dramatic detail one of the dangers of sovereign funds and their growing use by governments. News organizations that set out to report critically upon such funds in the countries of their origin can quickly find themselves sued for defamation or subject to other governmental harassment.

Tucker referred to Temasek, the Singapore state investment fund, and described some of the problems Temasek has faced with the fallout from Temasek’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. The FT quickly complied, with this published apology:

“We recognise that the article meant or was understood to mean: that Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew secured, or was instrumental in securing, the appointment of his son, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, as Prime Minister, for nepotistic motives; that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong secured, or was instrumental in securing, the appointment of his wife, Ms Ho Ching, as the Chief Executive Officer of Temasek Holdings (Private) Limited for nepotistic motives; and, that Ms Ho Ching is promoting her brother-in-law Lee Hsien Yang’s interests by securing or helping to secure his appointment as Mr Jackson Tai’s replacement at DBS Bank for nepotistic motives.

“…We admit and acknowledge that these allegations are false and completely without foundation. We unreservedly apologise to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Ms Ho Ching for the distress and embarrassment caused to them by these allegations. We undertake not to make any further allegations to the same or similar effect.

“…We have agreed to pay Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Ms Ho Ching damages, by way of compensation, and costs incurred by them in connection with this matter.”

No member of the Lee family has ever lost a case in a Singapore court as far as can be determined. The Lees are also suing the 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.

These issues have escaped the apparent notice of the International Bar Association.