Singapore’s reputation on the line as British author fights on

James Gomez
The Guardian

Alan Shadrake gives the victory sign as he arrives at court in Singapore. (Reuters)

The trial of Alan Shadrake for criticising the death penalty has damaged Singapore’s standing

Singapore’s long-serving administration has won some time to ponder how it will deal with yet another self-inflicted blow to its global branding.

The reprieve came as a Singapore court today postponed a case against the British author Alan Shadrake for three weeks.

Shadrake, 75, faces contempt of court charges, after Singapore’s Media Development Authority lodged a police report on 16 July against his book Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, which criticises the application of the death penalty. Published in neighbouring Malaysia, the book has sparked a criminal defamation investigation against the author in Singapore.

Shadrake rejected an offer of mitigation in exchange for an apology at today’s contempt of court hearing and said he would fight on. This means more reputation damage is in store for the People’s Action Party administration in the weeks ahead.

Local groups and international human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reporters without Borders have criticised the decision to prosecute the author.

News agencies, websites, blogs and social network sites are carrying news about the case around the globe and putting a sharp focus on censorship in Singapore.

The Shadrake affair comes as a Malaysian, Yong Vui Kong, faces execution next month for a drug-related offence committed when he was 19. The Malaysian foreign ministry, under pressure from the public, has written to the Singapore government to plead clemency for Yong, now 22.

Meanwhile, the British embassy in Singapore has chosen to play the Shadrake affair low key, opting to give the author quiet support without issuing public statements.

The timing of the two incidents has regalvanised a small group of activists and bloggers. Although most local NGOs and opposition parties have been characteristically silent, there is a high level of awareness of the two cases among the Singapore public.

The administration has spent large amounts of money on marketing Singapore internationally, most recently over the upcoming Youth Olympic Games. But at the same time it continues to damage Singapore’s reputation with its censorship.

In keeping with tradition, one strategy used at today’s court hearings was to threaten legal action against the media for publicising the alleged contemptuous remarks in Shadrake’s book. That was a lost cause, given the information already circulating on the internet.

Singapore, like everyone else, has to increasingly contend with information disseminated by new media and is no longer able to ensure that only positive images of itself appear.

Meanwhile, the book in question is flying off the shelves at bookshops across the causeway in Malaysia.

James Gomez is deputy associate dean (international) and head of public relations at Monash University, Australia

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