Another day in the lion city, almost

John Berthelsen
Asia Sentinel

Singapore again ousts the editor of the Asia Sentinel

You can say one thing for Singaporeans. They have long memories. And if you think the place is loosening up, think again.

In 1988 — 21 years ago — my projected three-year stint as the Asian Wall Street Journal’s correspondent in Singapore ended two years early when the Singaporeans refused to grant me another work visa, and I was forced to leave the island republic to its own devices. Singapore does not now take kindly to the practice of independent journalism, and it didn’t then. 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.

Fast forward through three jobs and several countries to March 17, 2009 – Tuesday – when I flew to Singapore for a one-day stopover as a formality to getting a new visa for Indonesia. The bullfrog-faced woman at the country’s immigration counter, an office that is among the world’s fastest and most efficient – stiffened visibly when she entered my US passport into her computer, and immediately called for backup. Twenty-one years later, I was being bounced out of the country again.  The Burmese general Thein Sein was luckier. The junta member got a warm welcome and an orchid named for him. Perhaps there was a mixup, or perhaps he banks there.

Seconds after the woman passed my passport through her scanner, I was shepherded away from the usual scrum of passengers headed out into Singapore’s tropical sunlight, and into a facility where a stone-faced immigration officer apparently busied himself making telephone calls. When I attempted to ask to inform a colleague on the same trip that I had been detained, he shooed me back into the facility, where I sat watching a couple of football teams contend for a half hour or so.

After what appeared to be a series of telephone calls to bureaucrats somewhere, ultimately, I was led away and into the upper reaches of Changi Airport. Changi is a great airport, with an array of stores that would cause envy to some of the world’s best department stores. But there are parts of Changi that you probably aren’t ever going to see. One of those parts was a barren room with a quote on the wall from J.M. Barrie, who created Peter Pan, that “it is more important to like what you do than to do what you like.” It was equipped with a couple of racks of bunk beds and two television sets, where I sat with a half-dozen Chinese hookers who watched a Martha Stewart cooking show with considerable interest, considering that none of them spoke English.

An couple of hours later, a wholly polite and accommodating immigration officer acceded to my request and paroled my passport from other officials so that I could go to duty-free and liberate a couple of bottles of gin to take back to nominally dry Jakarta. He showed the passport to the duty-free lady to endorse the purchase, then took the passport back. Finally I was herded to seat 64D on SQ958 – the very last row. I wasn’t to get my passport back until SIA officials escorted me to Indonesian immigration, where I, my passport and my duty-free liquor were liberated.

I am hardly alone in being bounced out of the island republic. Lee Kuan Yew and his prime minister son, Lee Hsien Loong, for decades have been suing for defamation and taking other actions against journalists who don’t parrot their version of events. As far as can be determined, they have lost just one case – in 1984, when Senior District Judge Michael Khoo made the mistake of ruling that Lee Kuan Yew’s 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. No judge in the intervening 24 years has ever made the mistake of ruling against the Lee family, especially in cases involving the press.

The government or members of the Lee family have filed defamation or contempt charges against virtually every major publication in Asia, including the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, Time Magazine, the Economist, the now-defunct AsiaWeek and any other publication that refuses to toe the Lee line. The Far Eastern Economic Review, especially under the late editor Derek Davies, was a particular target. The Review in September was fined for having defamed the Lees pere and fils, in relation to an interview with Chee Soon Juan in which the serially jailed opposition leader said Singapore would never change until Lee Kuan Yew was dead.

After the renamed Wall Street Journal Asia was nailed as a paper for the biggest contempt fine in Singapore history – S$25,000 – the government apparently decided that wasn’t enough. The attorney general filed suit against Melanie Kirkpatrick, a senior editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal itself, 15,339 kilometers away, in kind of the legal equivalent of Kim Jong Il deciding to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile because the powers that be weren’t paying enough attention to him.

In a way, it’s reassuring that the government could reach across 21 years to pick my name out of the mists of history. It probably means they are vigilant enough to continue to pursue Mas Selamat Kastari, the limping jihadi terrorist who somehow managed to escape in February of 2008 from the most secure prison on that most secure 650-sq km island, and elude capture for more than a year.

This is a government that is said to routinely monitor the telephone conversations of journalists and opposition figures, keeps them under surveillance, reads their computer traffic at the uplink, searches their trash and reads their mail before they get it. Kastari, they say, is still somewhere on the island. He won’t get away, if Special Branch can take the time away from pursuing the press and the opposition to look him up.

John Berthelsen is the editor of the Asia Sentinel.

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