WSJ: FEER ban not sign of confident govt

October 6, 2006
Singapore Democrats

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Wall Street Journal Editorial
6 Oct 06
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB116008536560784194.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

Seems like old times. It’s been a while since this newspaper or our sister publication, the Far Eastern Economic Review, has found itself in litigation in Singapore. Like virtually every other foreign publication that circulates there, we’ve had that dubious pleasure before, in actions brought by the government or by the city-state’s famously litigious founding Prime Minister, now Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew.

Review Publishing Co. and Editor Hugo Restall are now the subjects of defamation lawsuits brought by Mr. Lee and his dutiful son, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Review Publishing is a Hong Kong-based subsidiary of Dow Jones & Co., which publishes The Wall Street Journal.

In addition to being sued, the Review is also banned in Singapore per an edict by the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts handed down last week. It is now a criminal offense to subscribe to the Review or import or reproduce it for distribution. Starting with the October issue, which goes on sale everywhere else in Asia today, the Review will no longer circulate in Singapore.

Anyone with a passing understanding of how Singapore operates will understand that these two events — the Lees’ libel suits and the Ministry of Information’s ban — are no coincidence. In any event, the idea that a journal of opinion published 10 times a year in Hong Kong with a Singapore circulation of approximately 1,000 is interfering in the country’s domestic politics — the underlying basis for the ban — is absurd. So, too, is the Singapore government’s apparent belief that the free flow of information is not essential for a first-world economy.

* * *

The offending column in the July issue of the Review was an interview Mr. Restall conducted with that rara avis in Singapore, an opposition politician. Chee Soon Juan criticized the Lees in the article, which also briefly mentioned the 2004 scandal at the country’s largest charity, the National Kidney Foundation. “The scandal was a gift for the opposition,” Mr. Restall wrote, “which naturally raised questions about why the government didn’t do a better job of supervising the highly secretive NKF.”

Mr. Restall reported Mr. Chee’s view that the elder Mr. Lee is the man behind Singapore’s suppression of dissent. “If we had parliamentary debates where the opposition could pry and ask questions, I think he [Mr. Lee] is actually afraid of something like that,” he said.

Mr. Restall went on to raise several questions that are in the public interest, specifically having to do with the non-transparency of government institutions: “The government controls huge pools of public money in the Central Provident Fund and the Government of Singapore Investment Corp., both of which are highly nontransparent. It also controls spending on the public housing most Singaporeans live in, and openly used the funds for refurbishing apartment blocks as a bribe for districts that vote for the ruling party. Singaporeans have no way of knowing whether officials are abusing their trust as [NKF Chief Executive] Mr. Durai did.”

The Review’s editor also noted that “Singaporean officials have a remarkable record of success in winning libel suits against their critics.” And he asked, “Are libel suits deliberately used as a tool to suppress questioning voices?”

These passages are the crux of paragraphs that the Lees allege are defamatory. Briefly, the Minister Mentor’s lawsuit contends that the words “in their natural and ordinary meaning” mean “that the Plaintiff is unfit for office because he is corrupt and has set out to sue and suppress those who would question him as he fears such questions would expose his corruption.” Similarly, the Prime Minister’s pleading interprets the Review’s article “to mean that the Plaintiff is unfit for office because…[he] has retained Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who is corrupt…”

Huh? If English weren’t an official language of Singapore, we’d wonder if something went missing in translation. The meaning the Lees allege is preposterous, all the more so given Singapore’s justifiable reputation for efficient, clean government. We certainly don’t believe — nor do we think any reasonable reader of the Review would infer from the article — that the Lees are personally corrupt.

Clearly, though, the Review article touched a defensive nerve. Last month a Singapore court ruled that Mr. Chee and his sister had defamed the Prime Minister and the Minister Mentor for linking the scandal at the National Kidney Foundation to the way the country is run. Three days later the World Bank issued its latest report on governance. “Singapore,” the report says, “has one of the best rankings in the world on control of corruption, but it ranks in the middle of the pack on voice and accountability, below much poorer countries such as Brazil and Botswana.”

Finally, let us turn our attention back to the publication ban and note another curious aspect of this case. The Lees’ attorneys first wrote to the Review on July 13, indicating that their clients were contemplating bringing suit and demanding certain concessions, including damages. The Review has no assets in Singapore.

On August 3, the Ministry of Information announced changes in its interpretation and application of Singapore’s Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, requiring the Review and four other international publications to appoint a local representative to accept service of legal process and to post a security deposit of S$200,000 ($126,000) that would be available to satisfy any legal judgments. The giveaway was that changes would be retrospective — the money would go toward any damages obtained by the Ministers against the Review for the Chee interview.

How convenient. As the Review’s counsel said in a letter to the Minister of Information on August 24, “the handling of this matter pointlessly exposes the Government of Singapore to the charge that it has acted in bad faith in altering the conditions regulating foreign publications because it will appear to have acted to benefit its two most powerful members.” When the Review declined to comply with the retroactive regulations, it was banned.

As it happens, Singapore’s Newspapers and Printing Presses Act does not cover the online version of the Review at www.feer.com, where, the Review tells us, it will do its best to make its October issue available free of charge to Singaporeans. In addition — and free to all readers — the Review is posting the disputed article, the Lees’ court pleadings and its correspondence with the Lees’ attorneys and the Ministry of Information.

Among these documents is Appendix A to the Minister Mentor’s lawsuit, which contains a list of defamation suits brought by the elder Mr. Lee and dating back to 1965. Socrates observed that old men are themselves, only more so, and we can only assume that Singapore will remain locked in its old ways until Mr. Lee passes from the scene.

Virtually every foreign publication that circulates in Singapore has faced the government’s wrath at one time or another, starting with a contempt action against this newspaper in 1985, when Singapore’s inferiority complex was perhaps more understandable. This is not the behavior of a prosperous, self-confident nation.