misrule of law: Singapore's legal racket
An op-ed essay from The New York Times by WILLIAM SAFIRE.
IN Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, dictators used the power of a corrupted and compliant judiciary to cloak with legitimacy the regime's need to lock up, torture or drive out any who dared oppose them.
That same device -- the misrule of law -- is being used today in Singapore. The local dictator, Lee Kuan Yew, has developed his own method of silencing his political opponents and courageous journalist: He has his lap-dog judges condemn critics for libel and assess huge fines to be paid to the dictator and his henchmen.
Here's how the judicial gang operates: A veteran lawyer named Tang Liang Hong had the temerity to run against the ruling party this year. When he mentioned scandalous discounts the dictator received in a real estate deal, Lee and his coterie charged Tang with being "an anti-English education, anti-Christian Chinese chauvinist."
As might be expected in a political campaign, Tang denied that and called his attackers liars -- thereby stepping into a libel trap. Lee and his cohort sued for millions. When the "election" ended, Tang wisely beat it out of town to Hong Kong because he claimed to fear for his safety. Lee & Co. sued him for saying that, too.
When Lee sues, judges jump. His bench socked Tang for US$5.8 million for subverting the dictator's "moral authority to govern" and, while the lap-dog judges were at it, ordered the miscreant dissenter arrested on 33 counts of tax evasion.
In his 63-page judgment, the presiding judge recalled with pleasure a previous award to Lee of $400,000 from The International Herald Tribune for a piece he claimed suggested that compliant judges were used by Lee to bankrupt political opponents. Tang's "ferocious and venomous" suggestion that the Senior Minister lied was worth at least 10 times that.
What we have here is a plain and simple extortion racket. The dictator uses the courts to squeeze opponents for money, or to exact tribute from the Trib, making sure to appoint judges who deliver for him by bankrupting and exiling the opposition. Singapore is a nation-state run by efficient political racketeers professing respect for law and order.
Why should this bother us? The regional reason: Singapore's ultra orderly economy and anti-democratic politics make up the dangerous "model" being followed by China. A broader reason: The Singapore virus -- the notion that capitalist prosperity can be abetted by political repression -- could infect the global economy with its strain of fascism.
But nobody's worried. The World Economic Forum hails Singapore as No. 1 in economic freedom -- when the mention of "freedom" in the same breath as Singapore is a joke.
The Nixon Center for Peace and Pragmatism, controlled by Henry Kissinger, James Schlesinger and Maurice Greenberg, looks back fondly at Lee's anti-communist past and honors him as its "architect of the next century." And travellers who profess to stand for human rights help tyranny along by flying Singapore Airlines.
Worst of all, the organs of international opinion -- supposed guardians of free speech -- kowtow commercially to the despot and his nespot son. Time, Newsweek, The Financial Times write on eggs to avoid litigation in Extortionland: The Wall Street Journal invests with Singapore in a regional news network, and The Herald Tribune, owned by The New York Times and Washington Post, still operates in the scene of its past humiliation.
Why don't my brethren combine in restraint of trading with the avowed enemy of democracy's values? We aren't helpless; news media can locate headquarters in Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Taipei, which are already sites for printing and distribution.
The Trib would be crazy to run today's column. Calling a racket a racket is considered libellous in Singapore, where regard for truth is no defense.
In the U.S. last week, a unanimous Supreme Court demonstrated how a truly independent judiciary can check the power of a president and uphold the rights of an individual citizen. The reaction of the people, including those of us who disagreed in this case, was: That's it. Integrity makes possible finality. Someday the beacon of the rule of law will shine into Singapore and all the dark corners of the world.
Published in the New York Times. June 1, 1997