March 26th, 2010
Critics have called Singapore’s leaders dictators and gotten away with it. But, there’s another d-word that the government has zero tolerance for: dynasty. Ever since Lee Hsien Loong was identified in the 1980s as a potential prime minister, the country’s leaders have consistently sued for defamation anyone who alleges that anyone in the Lee family has achieved high rank through anything other than merit.
(In an exceptional 2002 case, involving Singaporean activist Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff of the radical Muslim website Fateha, the state waved criminal defamation as its preferred weapon instead of a civil suit.)
The New York Times company didn’t check the track record before publishing a piece by Philip Bowring with the d-word. Its global edition, the International Herald Tribune, which is printed and circulated in Singapore, was promptly sued. It settled by issuing an apology and paying damages. That the NYT did not bother to contest suggests that the company – belatedly examining Singapore’s consistent line on such allegations – decided that it had no defence that would stand up in a Singapore court.
The other kind of allegation that consistently invites legal action has to do with the independence of the judiciary. Several foreign publications have seen criticism of the court backfire badly. The most notorious case concerned academic Christopher Lingle, whose 1994 article – also in the International Herald Tribune – did not even mention Singapore by name.
Singapore leaders allow themselves to be criticised as undemocratic or illiberal. Some even appear to wear such labels with pride, since they have little respect for Western-style liberal democracy. However, the latest case shows yet again that they will not countenance aspersions on their integrity. Anyone who questions the independence of the judiciary or the government’s incorruptibility – especially its system of leadership succession – must be prepared to provide evidence or pay the price.
UPDATE, APRIL 2010:
In an interview with American broadcast journalist Charlie Rose, PM Lee Hsien Loong explained the government’s sensitivity to allegations of nepotism. Here is the relevant section of the transcript, from the website of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Q: “Your father is enormously respected around the globe, you know that and you are his son. Your wife is important in Singapore as a business person, correct?”
Mr Lee: “I am not sure you can call her a business person. I think she is an employee.”
Q: “She is known around the world as a business person, correct?”
Mr Lee: “She is an employee, you can call her what you want.”
Q: “You seem to be sensitive to the issue of what is called nepotism?”
Mr Lee: “We are very sensitive.”
Q: “Tell me about this sensitivity?”
Mr Lee: “The whole of our system is founded on the basic concept of meritocracy. You are where you are because you are the best man for the job and not because of your connections or your parents or your relatives. If anybody doubts that I as Prime Minister am here not because I am the best man for the job but because my father fixed it or my wife runs Temasek because I put her there, not because she is the best woman for the job, then my entire credibility and moral authority is destroyed. I am not fit to be where I am and it is a fundamental issue of fitness to govern. First you must have the moral right, then you can make the right decisions. It is a basic Confucian precept.”
Q: “Only when you have the moral right?”
Mr Lee: “Then can you govern and make the country right and in Singapore people expect that. If there is any doubt that this is so and people believe that I am there because my father fixed it or the whole system really is just a make believe, then the system will come down. It is not tenable. If it is true, it better be proven and I better be kicked out. If it is not true, it better also proven to be not true and the matter put to rest.”
Q: “So if some journalist writes about nepotism and you think it is not true?”
Mr Lee: “Then we sue him as we did recently.”
Q: “And won. You sued the International Herald Tribune.”
Mr Lee: “We raised the matter with the International Herald Tribune and they paid damages and apologized, they did not go to court. They could have gone to court.’
Q: “I would consider that wining if they paid damages and apologized.”
Mr Lee: “All right.”
Q: “But you thought what was written in the International Herald Tribune would somehow attack the moral fiber of your trust with the people you govern because?”
Mr Lee: “Yes, of course, they compared me, they put us on the same list as Kim Jong Il.”
Q: “Because he inherited his power from his father?”
Mr Lee: “Yes, indeed and in a similar way.”
Q: “You say we will not stand for that because it goes to the essence of our moral authority to govern?”
Mr Lee: “In this case, in fact the same journalist and the same newspaper had made the same allegation and apologized and paid damages and promised never to do it again and they did it again.”
Q: “They promised one time and they did it again and so you went back? Are you anxious to send a signal that you don’t dare write about nepotism in Singapore because the Singaporeans will sue you?”
Mr Lee: “No, the signal we want to send is if you want to make an allegation, make sure it is true and be prepared to prove it. We were prepared when we sued them to go into court, give evidence, enter the witness box and be cross examined under oath and they can bring their lawyer and demolish us and prove that what they said is true. What more can you ask?”
Q: “Has anybody else written anything?”
Mr Lee: “From time to time, including Bloomberg, they have apologized.”
Q: “Bloomberg apologized, what did they say?”
Mr Lee: “Something similar, I can not remember.”
Q: “About nepotism and you went to them and they apologized. They said we are sorry, we were wrong?”
Mr Lee: “Yes.”
Q: “Finally what is the legacy of our dad, somebody I admire as you know from many conversations he and I have had together?”
Mr Lee: “He made a state where there was none, a country, a nation which would become a nation which nobody believed could succeed and he has made a system which can run without him and will endure beyond him.”
For the full interview, visit the PMO website.