By: John Berthelsen

As an indication of the extent to which Singaporeans are losing their fear of the family of the late patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, Terry Xu, the editor of a small online news site, has refused to remove a critical article from his website describing the family’s internecine feud in the face of a threatened defamation lawsuit by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

It is almost certain at this point, if the past is any prologue, that Xu and his publication, The Online Citizen, will be sued. It remains to be seen whether the Singapore judiciary will join Xu in defiance of the prime minister. 

That would be a dramatic act of defiance. The Lee family has never lost a single lawsuit in 35 years – since 1984, when then-Senior District Judge Michael Khoo made the mistake of ruling that Lee Kuan Yew’s then-mortal enemy, the late opposition politician Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, was innocent of making a false declaration about the accounts of his Worker’s Party. Judge Khoo was promptly transferred out of his position as a senior judge and sent off to the attorney general’s chambers, his judicial career over. 

Since that time, most domestic and international publications have simply knuckled under, paid fines for defamation or contempt of court, licked their wounds and pulled in their journalistic horns. The list includes the late International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, Time Magazine, the Economist, the now-defunct AsiaWeek and others. Those that have fought charges, including the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Wall Street Journal, have lost anyway.

But Xu, the editor of The Online Citizen, which was founded in 2006, wrote on September 4 that he will not comply with a demand by Prime Minister Lee to remove an 800-word article printed on Aug.15 describing the bitter squabble between Lee and his two siblings over the fate of their father’s black-and-white colonial mansion, which the patriarch wanted to be torn down after his death in March of 2015 to prevent it from becoming a shrine to his memory.

The debilitating squabble, which began in 2016, has played itself out publicly, with the two siblings – sister Lee Wei Ling and brother Lee Hsien Lang – charging that Hsien Loong had misled his father over the disposal of the magnificent home. The public allegations have begun to damage the image of political invulnerability that the family has enjoyed since Singapore’s founding. 

For instance, for the first time, a presumably credible opposition has begun to emerge, headed by a 79-year-old former physician and former People’s Action Party stalwart, Tan Cheng Bok, who formally announced that he would form the Progress Singapore Party to take on the ruling PAP in the next election, which must be held before April 5, 2021 but is expected earlier. 

Lee Hsien Yang met publicly in 2018 with Tan prior to his establishing the new party, an act of defiance against his brother and the party that has dominated Singapore politics since 1954, when it was formed by Lee Kuan Yew to fight for Singapore’s independence from British colonial rule. 

In April Hsien Yang also announced that he had taken the unprecedented step of donating to a crowdfunding campaign by Leong Sze Hian, a blogger whom Lee Hsien Loong is suing for defamation for merely clicking “share” on a derogatory Facebook post. 

Enter the Online Citizen, which on August 14 published a Facebook posting by Hsien Loong’s wife, Ho Ching, of an article from a publication called Healthy Holistic Living titled “Here’s Why Sometimes It Is Okay to Cut Ties with Toxic Family Members.” The article went on to detail the family feud and to repeat allegations by the prime minister’s siblings which became a subject of his libel threat.  Although Lee has never sued his brother and sister, he is using those comments as a basis to go after Terry Xu. 

That spurred the Prime Minister’s Office to issue a letter to Xu and his publication, which exists on contributions from volunteer editors, writers and contributors, demanding that the article be taken down and to “publish a full and unconditional apology, plus an undertaking not to publish any similar allegations, prominently on your website and on your Facebook timeline,” by Sept. 4.

Xu took down the article hours later although a Facebook page remained online. Then, on Sept. 4 Xu said he was refusing to comply with the request and put the article back up. Although he apologized in a letter to Hsien Loong over what he called any possible misinterpretation of some parts of the article and Facebook post, he said the intent was “not to raise doubts or misunderstandings about the technicalities surrounding the allegations” and concluded by saying that “I am of the opinion that the contents of the article are not defamatory.” 

Instead, he said, “in light of the public statements emanated from members of your own family, who, presumably, would have been privy to the events that the article refers to, and the issues of public interest that arise, I believe that the contents of the article constitute fair comment.”

 Although he said the costs of a potential lawsuit might be hefty, “that is a price I am willing to pay to not only uphold my principles, but also to uphold my obligations to Singapore and my fellow Singaporeans.”

That is almost-unprecedented insolence by a Singaporean journalist. Activists and journalists have routinely been hammered down by the courts. The Straits Times, the island republic’s leading news organ, while privately owned has never disobeyed the Lee family. An extraordinary book by former editor   Cheong Yip Seng, titled “OB Markers,” details how he was appointed editor in chief of the Straits Times not by an editorial board but by then-deputy prime minister Goh Tok Chong on Lee Kuan Yew’s orders. 

It isn’t Xu’s first brush with Lee. The website has been hassled for years by the government, most dramatically on Nov. 20, 2018, when authorities closed it and confiscated its computers after it printed a letter to the editor from a critic who had accused the government of corruption. 

Although the letter was immediately removed from the site on notification from the Media Development Authority, Xu was taken in for questioning as was the author of the letter and the website was closed over the fact 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 had been warned via so-called “take-down” letters demanding the removal of offensive items, this time authorities immediately raided Xu’s house.

It will now be demonstrated by the courts whether life for journalists in Singapore has changed.