Friday, September 12, 2008

Singapore government's two-pronged assault on Dow Jones & Company

Dow Jones & Co. owns both the Far Eastern Economic Review, which is banned in Singapore and being sued for defamation by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong & Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, and Wall Street Journal Asia. The Attorney-General of Singapore has "applied to the court for contempt proceedings to be instituted against" the latter according to this media briefer from the AG.
Singapore Proceedings Target Wall Street Journal
Wall Street Journal
September 12, 2008

HONG KONG -- Singapore's attorney general applied to the country's court for contempt proceedings against the company that publishes The Wall Street Journal's Asian edition and two senior editors.

The application relates to two editorials and a letter to the editor that ran in The Wall Street Journal Asia in June and July that the attorney general says "impugned the impartiality, integrity and independence of the Singapore Judiciary."

The first of the editorials, titled "Democracy in Singapore," concerned comments made in a Singapore court as damages were being assessed against Chee Soon Juan, head of the Singapore Democratic Party, and his sister and colleague, Chee Siok Chin. In 2006, the two lost a defamation suit brought by Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, over an article the Chees published in their party newsletter that was interpreted by the court to imply corruption on the part of the government.

The application to the court also refers to a letter to the editor written by Mr. Chee and a Journal editorial that cites a report by the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute on "human rights, democracy and the rule of law" in Singapore.

"We are aware of the statement issued by the Singapore Attorney General's office regarding the application for contempt proceedings against The Wall Street Journal Asia," a Dow Jones spokesman said. "While we are reserving comment on the application until we receive official notification, we do not believe the articles were contemptuous of the Singapore courts."

The Wall Street Journal Asia is owned by Dow Jones & Co., a subsidiary of News Corp. Another Dow Jones publication, The Far Eastern Economic Review, which is banned in Singapore, is defending defamation charges in Singapore brought by the elder Mr. Lee and his son, the prime minister, in relation to an article concerning Mr. Chee.

Singapore's political leaders have previously won damages against several foreign news publications for defamation.

If the application is successful, a hearing date will be set and the respondents will have the opportunity to make their arguments in open court, the attorney general's office said on its Web site.
Here are the two editorials and the letter,

Democracy in Singapore
June 26, 2008

Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore can rightly be proud of many achievements, but full democracy is not one of them. The city-state he founded in 1965 and led as Prime Minister until 1990 is economically prosperous and its citizens enjoy a range of freedoms. Political dissent is not among them.

Which makes a recent David-vs.-Goliath exchange between one of the country's few opposition politicians and Mr. Lee worth noting. The dialogue took place in a courtroom and is therefore privileged -- which means we can report on it without risking a lawsuit, which Mr. Lee often files against critics.

Audio files are available on the Singapore Democratic Party's Web site, and a partial transcript is available at, an independent blog. The Straits Times reported last Thursday that the Supreme Court is "investigating the facts" of how the transcripts and audio recordings were released. A Court spokeswoman, in an emailed statement, said "in general, transcripts are provided only to parties of the case."

The setting was a hearing to assess damages against Chee Soon Juan, head of the Singapore Democratic Party, and his sister and colleague, Chee Siok Chin. In 2006, the Chees lost a defamation suit brought by Mr. Lee and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, over an article they published in their party newsletter that was interpreted by the court to imply corruption on the part of the government. In last month's hearing, the elder Mr. Lee, who holds the title of Minister Mentor, was cross-examined by Mr. Chee, who was representing himself.

Mr. Chee is no orator, and on one level the dissident was no match for the eloquent Mr. Lee. But when the subject turned to the moral underpinnings of democracy -- freedoms of speech, assembly and association -- the debate went game, set and match to Mr. Chee.

Mr. Chee set out his philosophy while questioning Mr. Lee: "What I'm interested in is justice, the rule of law, because ultimately it is not about you, Mr Lee. It is not about me. It's about the people of Singapore, it is about this country and everything we stand for. You and I will pass on, but I can tell you, the practice of the rule of law, the entire concept of justice, democracy -- that is going to last for all eternity."

Mr. Lee didn't respond directly to those assertions, choosing instead to cite the International Bar Association's decision to "honor" Singapore by holding its annual conference there last year and noted a letter from the association's president saying "how impressed they were by the standards they found to obtain in the judiciary."

Elsewhere in the hearing, Mr. Lee defended his string of defamation suits against opposition politicians and the press: "They know me by now," Mr. Lee said, referring to the people of Singapore, "that if anybody impugns the integrity of the government, of which I was the prime minister, I must sue."

He went on: "There are various parts of this government which do not comply with Western practices, including the law of libel. But it is a system that has worked." Mr. Lee has never lost a libel suit. He and his son are currently suing the Far Eastern Economic Review, a sister publication of this newspaper, and its editor, Hugo Restall.

Our own reading of the Chee-Lee transcript is that the Minister Mentor sounded more than a tad defensive -- no less so than in his characterization of Mr. Chee, who has been bankrupted as a result of lawsuits by Mr. Lee and other politicians. He called Mr. Chee, a "liar, a cheat and altogether an unscrupulous man." Not to mention "a near-psychopath." Mr. Chee, for his part, referred to Mr. Lee as a "pitiable figure."

It's hard to know what Singaporeans make of all this. Mr. Lee is widely revered as the father of their country, and Mr. Chee is often scorned for his aggressive tactics. But at least, thanks to the Internet, they are able to read the exchange and make up their own minds.

So, too, in the case of Gopalan Nair, which is making its way through the courts now. Mr. Nair is a former Workers' Party candidate. He is now a U.S. citizen and online advocate for media freedom in Singapore. He traveled to the city-state to attend Mr. Chee's hearing last month and recorded his thoughts on his blog, where he expressed his contempt for the court proceedings and challenged Mr. Lee to sue him.

On May 31, he was arrested and interrogated. On June 2, he was charged with insulting Judge Belinda Ang, who presided over the Chee hearing, by email. He was released on June 5, six days after his initial arrest, and charged on June 12 with insulting another judge in a separate, 2006 email. Last week, the court changed the first charge and specified that the offending remarks about Judge Ang were made on a blog, not by email. Mr. Nair says the police have also threatened him with charges under the Sedition Act.

Mr. Nair's case is scheduled to go to court in mid-July. Meanwhile, Mr. Chee was just released from jail, where he served 11 days for "scandalizing" the court during his questioning of the Minister Mentor. His sister served 10 days. The court has yet to set the amount of monetary damages in the defamation case. When it does, we'll know the going price of political dissent these days in Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore.

Let the Court Produce the Transcript, Show the Truth
July 5, 2008; Page A10

I refer to the letter by Lee Kuan Yew's press secretary, Yeong Yoon Ying, "Two Views of Freedom of Speech and Law in Singapore" (June 30), in which she quoted me as calling, in open court, Singapore leaders " 'murderers, robbers, child molesters' and 'rapists'."

Mr. Lee, or his counsel, is in possession of court transcripts and audio recordings that would show whether I had uttered those words. He must now produce the part of the transcript that quotes me saying those words or he risks destroying his own credibility.

Mr. Lee and his prime minister son, Lee Hsien Loong, sued the Singapore Democratic Party and its executive members for defamation over an article we published in our party newsletter criticizing the nontransparent and nonaccountable manner in which Singapore was run.

The Lees obtained summary judgment from the courts despite our defense, in which we cited disputes of fact and law. In other words, there were triable issues. The summary judgment meant that we were found guilty without being given the chance to call witnesses and cross-examine the plaintiffs.

Ms. Yeong also says that "Singapore upholds free speech." Yes, and Robert Mugabe has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Your readers might care to know that I have been repeatedly convicted and imprisoned for speaking in public and I face several more such charges. Seventeen of my associates have been charged for conducting a protest against the raising of prices by the Singapore government.

It is also noteworthy that Freedom House stated: "Singapore citizens cannot change their government democratically."

We are not advocating a Western- or Asian-style of democracy. We want a democracy based on universal principles as enshrined in the Singapore Constitution and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

By the way, Mr Lee sued us in his personal capacity. Why is Ms. Yeong, a civil servant, writing the letter on his behalf?

Chee Soon Juan
Singapore Democratic Party

Judging Singapore's Judiciary
July 15, 2008

Lee Kuan Yew recently noted the International Bar Association's decision to "honor" Singapore by holding its annual conference there last year. We hope the former Prime Minister, now Minister Mentor, takes equal note of the IBA's latest assessment of the judiciary in Singapore.

The IBA's human-rights institute issued a report last week on "human rights, democracy and the rule of law" in the city-state. Like numerous past observers, the IBA finds that Singapore limits political speech and assembly and exercises strict controls on the media.

The 72-page report also describes "concerns about the objective and subjective independence and impartiality" of the judiciary. In cases involving litigants from the ruling People's Action Party or PAP interests, the IBA finds "concerns about an actual or apparent lack of impartiality and/or independence, which casts doubt on the decisions made in such cases."

The IBA report is a good primer on Singapore's use of defamation cases against opposition politicians and the foreign press. It summarizes high-profile cases over the past 25 years against J. B. Jeyaretnam, Tang Liang Hong and Chee Soon Juan. And it reviews defamation cases against foreign publications, including this newspaper and our sister publication, the Far Eastern Economic Review, which currently is fighting defamation charges brought by Mr. Lee and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In a statement last week in response to the IBA report, the Law Ministry defended Singapore's legal system. "The cases brought by PAP members usually relate to scurrilous and completely untrue allegations of corruption made against them," it said. And, "It is also absurd to suggest that honorable and upright judges in commercial cases become compliant and dishonorable when dealing with defamation cases involving government ministers."

The IBA report concludes with 18 recommendations, including abolishing defamation as a criminal offense and urging government officials to "stop initiating defamation claims for criticisms made in the course of political debate." It also calls for "security of tenure" for all judges and an end to the transfer of judges between executive and judicial roles.

Singapore is unlikely to reform its political or judicial system anytime soon. But when the country is ready to join the ranks of modern democracies, the IBA's recommendations provide a good checklist of how to do so.


Agagooga said...

The dialogue took place in a courtroom and is therefore privileged -- which means we can report on it without risking a lawsuit, which Mr. Lee often files against critics

Oh well, so much for that.

Actually this case is even more extremely disturbing than usual. The only outright criticism of the judiciary came from citing the IBA report. Which, among other things, makes you wonder why they don't go after the IBA.

jacob said...

Easier to go after a foreign publication which is being sold here rather then go after an international organisation of lawyers in which S'pore's AG is probably a member!!