No surprise here: Singapore’s Lee family wins in court

John Berthelsen
Asia Sentinel
25 Feb 07

In a procedural decision against the Far Eastern Economic Review, a Singapore judge refuses to allow the magazine outside counsel.

In a hearing where the Far Eastern Economic Review’s outside lawyers were not allowed to participate, a Singapore high court has refused to throw out defamation lawsuits filed against the magazine by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, the former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

The two members of the Lee family sued the Review Publishing Company Ltd. and its editor, Hugo Restall in August 2006 last year over an 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 death of Lee Kuan Yew, its founding political figure.

The government also later banned the Review, which at that time had than 1,000 subscribers in Singapore, because it did not appoint a legal representative and pay a $126,150 security bond – new requirements that are unrelated to the lawsuit, but that the Review has called unjustified.

In a 64-page rendering of his ruling against the magazine, Judicial Commissioner Sundaresh Menon said he would refuse 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.

“Mr Robertson was quoted as… characterising Singapore as an ‘authoritarian regime’ and pointedly remarking that ‘the present Singapore is controlled by the government, as is the judiciary, and so in cases which have a political element in them the odds.

are stacked well and truly against the opponents of the regime,’ Menon wrote.

The fact that the request was made on behalf of someone who had made “openly disrespectful remarks about the judiciary and continued to stand by them even as he sought my indulgence was a factor I considered relevant,” Menon wrote. “In my judgment, it would have been inappropriate in these circumstances for me to have turned the other cheek to Mr Robertson when I would not have done so for any citizen of this country. Furthermore, I was mindful that an exercise of my discretion in Mr Robertson’s favour in these circumstances might have been misconstrued as acquiescence in his views and this would have been unacceptable to say the least.”

It is not the first time Singapore courts have denied the right of defendants to outside counsel. In a previous hearing for the Review, Dow Jones attorney Stuart Karle was also refused permission to appear in Singapore court. In 2001, opposition politician Chee Soon Juan was refused the right to be represented by a Queen’s Council because, he said in a letter to the International Bar Association, “no Singaporean lawyer dared to take up my case.”

The Lee family and other top government officials have an unbroken record of victories in defamation suits against political opponents and publication who have been critical of them. J. B. Jeyaretnam and Tang Liang Hong, both of whom formerly headed the Singapore Worker’s Party, were sued successfully at least 26 times for defamation, bankrupted and driven from politics. The government has also repeatedly used its Inland Revenue Service to go after opposition politicians and other figures with whom it has disagreed.

Amnesty International, in a 2006 press release, called this use of civil defamation suits “both disproportionate and politically-motivated and appears to be aimed primarily at dissenting voices regarded as having the potential to challenge the PAP’s political hegemony.” The use of defamation suits against opponents, the organization said, is driven by a strategy to “bankrupt opponents through the courts – and so prevent their participation in public life,” and that “In such cases the Singapore Judiciary has not moved to check the Executive’s misuse of the law.”

The Review has no Singapore-based employees and only negligible assets, raising questions whether the Lees intend to carry their threat outside the city-state because even if the courts ultimately award them damages, it is unlikely that they could recoup within the country itself. Firewalls erected between sister companies mean that Dow Jones Corporation, which owns the publication, would probably be protected from any defamation judgment as well.

The government could conceivably take advantage of a Commonwealth statute that allows for reciprocal enforcement of damages and ask the Hong Kong courts to order the Review to pay up. A Singaporean judgment would first have to be registered in Hong Kong’s Court of First Instance, where it would be enforced like a local judgment. The Review would have the right to raise objections and set out reasons that the judgment shouldn’t be honoured. But in his written judgment turning down the magazine’s appeal, Menon wrote that it is clear that the Lees were limiting their claim for damages to Singapore and that legal papers had been served in an appropriate manner.

The Singaporeans may have been influenced by a stern ruling against them in the British High Court in December after a rare attempt to take Singapore’s version of justice into a neutral venue. The court vindicated a prominent English neurologist and expert on epilepsy who was accused by another member of the Lee family of professional misconduct.

In a written decision adjudicated in December and handed down on January 12, the court effectively ended the pursuit of Simon Shorvon, the former principal investigator of a medical research project in Singapore, after a protracted international dispute in which the Singapore Medical Council alleged Shorvon was guilty of professional misconduct. Shorvon is now a professor at the University College, London.

The charges were brought against Shorvon by Lee Wei Ling, a physician, who also happen to be the daughter of patriarch Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong’s sister. But in its written judgment, the court ruled that the charges brought against Shorvon were so minor that, while true, they weren’t worth bothering with.