By: Our Correspondent

singa-skylineIn January
of 1984, JB Jeyaretnam, Singapore’s then-lone opposition member
of parliament, and mortal enemy of then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew,
was acquitted by Senior District Judge Michael Khoo in a Singapore
court of making a false declaration about the accounts of his
Workers’ Party.

Shortly
after that, Senior District Judge Khoo lost his job and was
unceremoniously moved to the attorney-general's chambers, widely
considered to be a much lower posting. The Jeyaretnam episode is the
last time on record that a high-profile case ever went against any
members of Singapore’s ruling Lee family or the government.

Given this
unbroken record of legal victories, the Singapore government looks
set to attempt to improve on it, filing contempt of court charges
against the Wall Street Journal Asia for three articles published in
June and July that “impugn the impartiality, integrity and
independence of the Singapore judiciary,” according to the
complaint. “These allegations and insinuations are
unwarranted.”

One of the
editorials concerned a 72-page report by the International Bar
Association that has become an embarrassment both to the government
and the Lee family. In a court case against the embattled opposition
leader Chee Soon Juan, Lee Kuan Yew testified under oath that the
Singapore Law Society had received a laudatory letter from the
association, praising Singapore’s judicial system. Instead,
the 72-page report, titled “Prosperity versus individual
rights? Human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Singapore,”
makes 18 recommendations which the association urges the Singapore
government to implement as a matter of priority. 

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.”

The
Journal’s editorial called the report a 'good primer' on
Singapore's use of defamation suits against opposition politicians
and the foreign press.

Christine
Glancey, the managing editor of the newspaper, now owned by Rupert
Murdoch’s News Corp., said she would have no comment and
referred all questions to Robert Christie, Dow Jones corporate
spokesman in New York. The contempt charges, and another case hanging
fire in Singapore against the Far Eastern Economic Review, another
Dow Jones publication, are rapidly becoming a test of News Corp’s
nerve. It is the first time News Corp, which in the past has shown
little stomach for taking on governments, has come up against the
immovable object that is the Singapore regime, as other publishers
have, usually to their sorrow.

The
decision to file contempt charges comes a few days after another
Singapore judge, Justice Woo Bih Li encouraged lawyers for the Prime
Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan
Yew, to amend their defamation petition against the Far Eastern
Economic Review to make sure they included Woo’s own more
defamatory reading of an article about the two ministers. Woo’s
ruling, two years after the filing of the original charges, appeared
to be unprecedented.

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.

An
official enquiry requested by Jeyaretnam into allegations of
executive interference in judiciary appointments in the wake of
Khoo’s demotion found that there was no truth to the claims. In
fact, Justice T S Sinnathuray, the sole commissioner who examined the
case, said: "The wholly unfounded allegations of Mr Jeyaretnam
(of executive interference) were scandalous statements that should
never have been made."