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Lin Quan Zhong
Asia Times Online
When Lee Hsien Loong four years ago followed in his father’s footsteps as Singapore’s prime minister, many hoped he would break with Lee Kuan Yew’s authoritarian tendencies when the younger man encouraged citizens to “feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas, or simply be different”.
It’s now apparent that hopes the younger Lee’s government would take a more relaxed approach to political criticism and open debate were set too high. While Singapore’s restrictions on the mainstream media are nothing new, legal action recently taken against a foreign blogger who criticized the island state’s justice system has raised fears that those tight controls are now being applied in cyberspace.
On June 2, US blogger and former Singapore citizen Gopalan Nair was the first online writer to be arrested and charged with “threatening, abusing or insulting a public servant”, in his particular case a high court judge. His trial started on Friday and is being closely watched by the country’s scores of critical on-line writers and commentators.
Writing about testimony given by the older and younger Lee in connection with a defamation suit they brought against opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, Nair accused Judge Belinda Ang of being an order-taking “employee” of Lee Kuan Yew and his son. He presented no concrete evidence to back those claims on his blog.
Nair, who runs the blog “Singapore Dissident”, which may be accessed at http://singaporedissident.blogspot.com, also questioned in strong language the judge’s impartiality in deciding the case. Trained as a lawyer, Nair openly challenged the courtroom statements of Lee Kwan Yew – who now holds the position of Minister Mentor – and provided details of his own identity and the location of his blog.
Nair was an active member of the opposition Workers’ Party and stood for elections in 1988 and 1991 before moving to California, where he practiced law. He recently returned to Singapore to support opposition leader Chee and his sister, who are in the midst of a high-profile defamation court hearing that could land both political activists in prison.
How Nair’s case plays out in court is being closely watched throughout the region, including in neighboring Malaysia, where Internet-based media and blogs have likewise developed a strong following through critical reporting and editorials. Over the past decade, the Internet has provided space for alternative media to discuss news and views not carried in the government-controlled mainstream media in Singapore.
Until now, controversial views expressed over the Internet have not come under the same scrutiny as reporters who have tried to report critically for traditional media, including print, television or radio. “Nair’s arrest is a confirmation that Singaporeans do not have the supposed privilege of being safe on the Internet,” Supinya Klangnarong, vice-chair of the Bangkok-based Campaign for Popular Media Reform, a press freedom advocacy group.
Singapore ranked at 141 out of 169 countries in the 2007 Worldwide Press Freedom Index released by the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiers. In recent years, Singapore has acquired a global reputation for using punitive civil lawsuits to silence political opponents of Lee’s ruling party. In some cases the accused have faced bankruptcy due to the high costs of the legal proceedings and the amount of damages sought.
(Chee and his sister, fellow activist and co-defendant in the defamation case Chee Siok Chin, last week opted to go to jail after being sentenced to 12 days and 10 days respectively for contempt of court during the Lee trial, AFP reported. Chee Siok Chin told AFP on Wednesday that they were unable to pay the S$2,000 (US$1,470 US) in court fees required to file their appeals against the contempt finding. The Chees had defied the judge’s admonitions about the way they grilled the two Lees, the AFP report said.)
Singaporeans were glued to the three-day defamation court hearing in May in which the Lees’ had filed against the Chees, whose Singapore Democratic Party newsletter was charged with defaming both elder and junior Lee in their capacities as government figures. The publication in February 2006 compared a controversy over financial opacity at the non-profit National Kidney Foundation (NKF) with how the People’s Action Party (PAP) manages Singapore’s national accounts.
The court proceedings provided plenty of quotable fodder for bloggers. In reply to a question posed by an SDP lawyer on the first day of the defamation hearing, prime minister Lee was quoted in the local media saying: “I do consider Dr Chee as a liar, as a cheat, somebody who has brought discredit to the opposition in Singapore, but I do not hate him.”
At the same time, Singaporeans have also followed closely on-line reporting of the May 19 raid of the private screening in a Singapore hotel of the anti-government documentary “One Nation Under Lee”. Created by political activists, the 45-minute video chronicles and criticizes Lee Kuan Yew’s rise to power and his sustained crackdown on political dissidents. Although government authorities stopped the film’s screening, it is still available over the Internet.
Coverage of recent events in the mainstream media, including the English-language daily Straits Times, has underscored its pro-government bias. News of Nair’s arrest focused mainly on his political background and referred to him variously as either a “former Singaporean” or “former [opposition] Workers’ Party member” rather than a trained US lawyer.
Popular blogger Kengho Yap noted that the free daily newspaper Today had two conflicting versions of Nair’s arrest, apparently underscoring the government’s indecision on how to couch the news. Yap posted photos of two different versions of the pro-government paper on his blog, with the first version carrying the headline “American Jailed for Insults”, and the second one, which was actually published, under the headline “Man Threatened Judge”.
“They had first wanted public perception of Mr Gopalan Nair to be American,” Yap wrote on his blog, “News Release by Uncle Yap”. Cyberspace reactions to Nair’s blog postings and views on Chee’s trial have also varied widely. “I think he went too far,” said Singaporean blogger Havok in an interview. “After reading some of his older posts, I can only say that he is looking for trouble.”
Nair’s actions and disclosure of his personal details and location in Singapore, which were perceived by many as an open challenge to the government, were probably “the most daring or foolish act ever in the history of the blogosphere”, wrote the writer of the blog I Z Reloaded.
In the blog Sheep City (http://aidilomar.com), Aidil Omar wrote that the real lesson in the Nair case is that “we common sheep are not allowed to air our disgust and frustrations towards the incorruptible and infallible members of the ruling government.”
Meanwhile Nair’s lawyer, Chia Ti Lik, was more circumspect in his blog (http://chiatilik.wordpress.com). “Perhaps the case concerned Mr Gopalan Nair. Perhaps the case centered on Gopalan Nair’s support for Chee Soon Juan and Chee Siok Chin. Perhaps it was because Gopalan had the audacity to insult/threaten a High Court judge,” he wrote. “Perhaps it was because of Gopalan’s open challenges to the Minister Mentor in his blog.”
Nair was released on June 5 on S$5,000 bail and had his passport confiscated. Lawyer Chia wrote in his blog that sedition charges are also expected to be filed by the government against his client. As such, expect more critical blog entries in Singapore’s blogosphere in the weeks and months ahead.