Singapore authorities use libel laws to silence critics

September 26, 2002

By: Eric Ellis

Bloomberg News Humbled NY Times
Singapore facts stranger than fiction

THE international media's all-too-frequent legal jousts with Singapore's politicians have reached a new level of surrender with the recent $550,000 settlement by the US business news wire Bloomberg.

The fast-expanding service last month settled a defamation action with Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Lee's eldest son, Deputy Prime Minister and PM-designate Lee Hsien Loong, without the matter even getting to court.

The three leaders alleged libel in an article, written by a US-based Bloomberg contributor, that described as nepotism the appointment of Lee's daughter-in-law, Ho Ching, as executive director of Temasek Holdings, the government-owned investment company that controls Singapore Telecommunications, Singapore Airlines and other assets.

While a succession of foreign publishers have been sued by Lee, his colleagues and family for defamation over the years, none are believed to have settled so quickly. From publication to settlement, the matter was over in three weeks.

Bloomberg's swift capitulation seems mindful of the legal record of Singapore's leaders. Foreign publishers have spent millions in fruitless attempts to defend libel actions brought against titles that have earned an international reputation for accuracy and credibility.

But Bloomberg's settlement was different at several levels; its speed, that it didn't make it to court; and that the person arguably most defamed, Ho -- about whom it was suggested she got her job because of family connections and not ability -- wasn't party to the action. And the article, written in the US, wasn't printed in Singapore. It appeared on the internet, on Bloomberg's machines and in a Malaysian newspaper. Singapore didn't sue the Malaysian paper for publishing it.

Bloomberg's surrender seems a practical decision. The record of local leaders in Singapore's defamation cases suggests Bloomberg believed it wouldn't have won.

Sydney barrister and writer Stuart Littlemore says Bloomberg, which didn't return calls on the matter, is simply being a realist. ``They've probably decided that there is no way they will win so why waste the time and money,'' he says.

A defamation specialist, Littlemore knows a bit about Singapore's judicial system, specifically its libel courts. He claims to have studied every defamation case heard in Singapore since its 1965 independence. Littlemore has also monitored Singapore libel cases for the International Commission of Jurists and notes that members of Singapore's People's Action Party, uninterrupted in power since 1959, have never lost a libel action heard in Singapore. He also says no foreign publisher has ever successfully defended a libel action in a Singapore court when opposing a Singapore politician.

And when they win against their critics, Littlemore has calculated their average award for damages -- S$450,000 (A$463,000) -- is 12 times the wider Singaporean average. Singapore's leaders argue they have a greater reputation to defend.

Singapore Opposition figure Chee Soon Juan applied for Littlemore to represent him in a separate defamation stoush with Lee and Goh earlier this year. That application was denied by High Court judge Lai Kew Chai, once a partner of Lee and Lee, the legal firm founded by elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew. Lai said Littlemore ``lacks decency, lacks measure and maturity and is utterly disrespectful''. Littlemore needed to learn manners, the judge said. Littlemore hasn't sued Lai for those remarks. But were he to say the same of Singapore's prickly officials, history suggests he'd likely find himself a libel defendant and, as the leadership's record also suggests, he'd soon be some $450,000 the poorer for the exercise.

Bloomberg's offending article was excised from the internet, digitally erased from ``the mind of Man'' as The New York Times columnist William Safire put it.

For Bloomberg it was an arrival of sorts. It joins the long ranks of foreign titles that have lost actions in Singapore's courts: the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Asian Wall Street Journal, Time, Asiaweek and the IHT, all titles which, like Bloomberg, have reputations for penetrating reporting and commentary.

Where they are all vulnerable to Singapore justice is that each has an economic interest in Singapore itself. The city-state might have a tiny population but it is a wealthy, English-speaking one. Foreign titles print in Singapore because it guarantees efficiency. So, if the government chooses, as it has done, to cut Singapore circulation, advertising and profits are threatened.

In a memo to staff after the settlement, Bloomberg's New York-based chief editor Matthew Winkler said the welfare of Bloomberg's 180 employees in Singapore was ``at risk''. He was also concerned its 3000-odd Singapore customers ``might lose the Bloomberg service''.

Still, there are signs the foreign media may be losing patience with Singapore's prickliness. The US wire Associated Press recently moved its regional headquarters to Bangkok, following difficulties with journalist visa renewals in Singapore.

Perhaps Bloomberg could've played it that way, too. As one journalist put it, when one wire service pulls out of a regional financial centre, it damages its own business. But if everyone does it, that financial centre is damaged.