Monday, October 09, 2006

FEER October issue

From the Editor

October 2006

The Singaporean government’s recent decision to ban the REVIEW and the defamation lawsuits against us by its two most powerful politicians take us back to a time when the city-state was a poor speck of a country sitting on one of the fault lines of a fractious region. Besieged from without and within, the government of the young People’s Action Party resorted to Draconian colonial-era laws to crush dissent. Today, Singapore is an affluent and peaceful society with ample means to protect itself, and its Southeast Asian neighborhood has progressed from confrontation to cooperation. So why is it still using repressive measures against a monthly magazine that employs a total of three full-time journalists and has 1,000 subscribers in the country?

The July article that started this most recent dispute with Singapore, “Singapore’s ‘Martyr,’ Chee Soon Juan,” sought to raise a similar question, only it focused on the methods used to silence the leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party. We put it to Mr. Chee himself, and he laid the blame squarely on the country’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who now holds the title of “minister mentor.”

The ruthless suppression of dissent must be kept up, he said, because as long as Mr. Lee is alive, a new generation of leaders is unable to emerge and distance themselves from his record. Mr. Lee’s past actions, which have led to human rights abuses and statist management of the economy, haunt the government. Mr. Chee believes that is the true reason dissidents like himself are hounded: “If we had parliamentary debates where the opposition could pry and ask questions, I think he is actually afraid of something like that.”

After the article was published, we received letters from Davinder Singh, a lawyer for Mr. Lee and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, claiming that these sentiments and several other sections of the essay defamed the two men. Mr. Singh demanded apologies, removal of the article from our Web site, and an undertaking to pay damages and legal costs.

We did not comply with these demands, and proposed instead to publish a clarification that the REVIEW did not intend the article to express the defamation alleged by Mr. Singh. After several rounds of correspondence with Mr. Singh, all of which is posted on our Web site, we heard nothing more for 10 days. Then the Singaporean Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts announced new conditions to be imposed immediately on the REVIEW, requiring us to appoint a legal representative in Singapore to accept lawsuits, and post a S$200,000 ($126,000) bond to cover damages from such lawsuits—even those relating to already published articles—if we wished to continue circulating. This order had no basis in Singapore’s own law, which stated clearly that such regulations could be imposed only on publications that publish at least weekly or which have been found to have engaged in domestic politics. We have also posted all of our correspondence with the ministry on our Web site.

The timing and substance of this move were in our view no coincidence. It followed hard upon our refusal to apologize and pay damages. Moreover, to sue the REVIEW in Singapore, the Lees would have to serve the papers in Hong Kong, where the magazine is based, since we do not have any employees in Singapore. This means we could challenge that service and/or the enforcement of damages in Hong Kong.

With Singaporean efficiency, the government bureaucracy leaped into action on the Lees’ behalf, imposing conditions with retroactive effect in order to force the magazine to put its head on the block for the Lees to chop off. When the REVIEW refused to comply with these conditions, the Lees proceeded with their lawsuits anyway. This episode tells us much about the use of official power to chill free speech in Singapore.

The Lees’ court filings of Aug. 22, which we have posted on our Web site, claim that the REVIEW article carried the message that Mr. Lee Sr. is “unfit for office because he is corrupt.” We believe that no rational subscriber to this magazine would read the article in the way the Lees allege. Reporting an opposition MP’s claim that a leader’s policies may have led to human-rights abuses and the concealment of government errors is very different from alleging he is corrupt. Mr. Lee’s probity is legendary; we do not believe that his faults include personal corruption, and it strikes us as fantastical to allege that such an allegation was made by the REVIEW.

The lawsuits also make reference to the section of the article that notes “Singaporean officials have a remarkable record of success in winning libel suits against their critics. The question then is, how many other libel suits have Singapore’s great and good wrongly won, resulting in the cover-up of real misdeeds? And are libel suits deliberately used as a tool to suppress questioning voices?” The lawyer claims that this means that Mr. Lee Sr. “has set out to sue and suppress those who would question him as he fears such questions would expose his corruption.”

Mr. Lee certainly has an impressive record of suing his critics, as do other Singaporean officials, but since we don’t believe he is corrupt, we could hardly have meant that these lawsuits were intended to conceal corruption. Rather we asked the question, one that is legitimate and in the public interest, whether Singaporean officials have used libel lawsuits as a tool to suppress legitimate criticism.

Even defending oneself vigorously in Singapore can incur punishment. For instance, in a case involving a REVIEW article from 1987, a London queen’s counsel vigorously cross-examined the prime minister. After finding for Mr. Lee, the court awarded him aggravated damages in part because the barrister’s questions were calculated to “increase the hurt to his feelings.”

Finally, the Lees’ lawsuits against us allege that the REVIEW defamed them by referring to the scandal of the National Kidney Foundation and Chief Executive T.T. Durai. We noted that this case was exposed only because Mr. Durai, having prevailed in one defamation case, filed a second against a major bulwark of the regime, Singapore Press Holdings, which he lost. The obvious and legitimate question asked by the opposition is, how many more Durais are there in Singapore officialdom who are getting away with abuses because of the lack of an independent media and a vigorous opposition?

Corruption undoubtedly exists in Singapore, as the National Kidney Foundation scandal shows, but asserting this is not a slur—no country is entirely free of this taint. The key thing to watch is whether a government uses sunlight as a disinfectant, or sweeps its errors under the rug. Singapore’s use of press restrictions and politically motivated libel actions makes us wonder whether its reputation for clean government is deserved. For instance, in July, Minister Without Portfolio Lim Boon Heng encouraged the local media to focus more on good news and stop trying to uncover abuses: “If you want to do investigative reporting, there must be something which is wrong which has not been attended to. I think there are not many issues in Singapore that fall under this category.”

Mr. Lim’s words reflect Singapore’s deliberate program to neuter the domestic and international media. Over its 60 years, the REVIEW has often borne the brunt of this campaign. In a 1995 column for the Independent newspaper, the late Derek Davies, a former editor, recalled that in 1976 Mr. Lee Sr. threatened the magazine with ruin if it commented on sensitive matters. Then in 1985, Mr. Lee confided he had a new plan:

“He told me that he was determined to set things straight with the foreign press before he handed over power to the younger generation,” Mr. Davies wrote. “He was drafting a new press law aimed at the pockets of owners and publishers, not editors. If any publication was deemed to be ‘engaging’ in Singapore’s domestic politics, its circulation (and its profits) could be cut to a trickle, while denying it the right to claim it had been banned.”

The new law was passed in 1986, and as a commentator noted in the Times of London the following year, there was little doubt what engaging in domestic politics meant: “As a rule of thumb, any article with which Singapore disagrees and which does not carry its views is deemed to be an interference in its internal affairs.” It wasn’t long before the REVIEW fell afoul of the stricter standard. In 1987, Mr. Lee sued for libel over its coverage of the detention without trial of Catholic social workers, claiming he was portrayed as intolerant of the church and religious freedom. The government restricted the REVIEW’s circulation to a tiny number, and when Mr. Davies withdrew all distribution, it pirated the magazine with the advertisements blacked out.

Sadly, the government’s efforts at controlling coverage of Singapore have been largely successful. For local journalists, whose coverage is controlled by the government through Singapore Press Holdings, resistance is futile. And given that Singapore represents an important market for media in the region, many foreign publications are wary of offending the government. Correspondents who want to tackle controversial subjects find that even carefully nuanced articles involve so much back-and-forth with the lawyers that the effort hardly seems worthwhile. When something critical does make it into print, the appearance of a letter from Mr. Singh demanding an apology and damages has in recent years too often resulted in immediate capitulation.

We respectfully submit that balanced coverage of Singapore in the international media requires deeper reporting and tougher analysis of government actions, as well as an occasional opportunity for opposition politicians to speak for themselves without fear of financial ruin. This is one reason for the REVIEW’s decision to defend itself against these latest defamation suits.

In this issue, academics Michael Barr and Garry Rodan take on two taboo subjects in Singapore: the racial composition of its educational system and the government’s control of the local media. Mr. Barr examines whether Singapore’s claim to be a meritocracy stands up to scrutiny given the striking inequality between the races as shown by the educational advantages enjoyed by ethnic Chinese. Mr. Rodan looks at how the government controls the flow of information for the purpose of protecting and reinforcing the founding myths of the PAP regime.

These articles go straight to the heart of some of the most sensitive issues the Singapore government doesn’t want discussed: race, language, religion and culture. These topics are sometimes said to be “out of bounds.” As Mr. Lee Sr. once explained, “They are not cerebral matters which we can discuss in a Western salon. In our society, these are visceral matters. People take their religion very seriously. It is extremely dangerous to treat this just as another conversational subject.”

Mr. Lee apparently still sees the country he shepherded to independence as fragile and vulnerable. Yet having enjoyed almost 40 years of PAP rule, Singapore has had plenty of time to tame its ideological and racial demons. If after four decades the society remains so volatile that one can’t even discuss sensitive topics openly, the government must have failed in its duty to build a harmonious society.

We don’t think that’s the case. There is much to admire in Singapore’s development under the PAP, and the REVIEW has a responsibility to its readers to provide a balanced view of this record. When honest criticism is forbidden, however, balance is hard to attain. We come back to Mr. Chee’s appraisal that the real impediment to Singapore’s emergence as a self-confident, pluralist society is Lee Kuan Yew himself. After all his contributions, the minister mentor is tarnishing his legacy with attacks on the REVIEW, the international and regional press, Mr. Chee, and others who pose no threat to Singapore. We believe most Singaporeans recognize this and yearn for a fully free democracy. We look forward to that day, when we hope the REVIEW will circulate in Singapore once more.


FEER strikes back!

Singapore’s Founding Myths vs. Freedom
October 2006

By Garry Rodan

The Singapore government hoped for significant returns when it invested approximately $85 million to host the September 2006 meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. And this seemed like a reasonable expectation. After all, the 16,000 delegates represented a captive audience to promote the Singapore’s finance and tourism industries.

What transpired, however, was a public-relations disaster for the ruling People’s Action Party. Singapore’s extensive curbs on political expression were to consume much of the international media attention before and during the meetings.

Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng warned that public protests may “attract severe punishment, including caning and imprisonment.” Under Singapore’s Public Entertainment and Meetings Act, a security permit from police is required for more than four people to gather in a public place. Authorities claimed that outdoor protests would disrupt local residents and could be exploited by terrorists.

Far from winning new admirers by hosting the meetings, Singapore’s authorities managed to alienate existing ones. Leading American neocon Paul Wolfowitz, now president of the World Bank, slammed immigration restrictions on activists as “authoritarian.” Mr. Wolfowitz accused Singapore authorities of reneging on a 2003 agreement to allow attendance of accredited activists, adding: “Enormous damage has been done and a lot of that damage has been done to Singapore, and it’s self-inflicted.” Belated approvals for 22 of the 27 banned activists to enter Singapore limited—but didn’t undo—the damage.

Many international NGOs conducted their activities from the nearby Indonesian island of Batam. Meanwhile, international media attention turned to the attempted illegal march and rally by Singapore Democratic Party leader, Chee Soon Juan, and six others to highlight curbs on freedom of speech, association and assembly. Encircled by 30 police, the protesters were physically prevented from even beginning their march from a city park. Without taking a single step they had proven their point and the government’s contempt for voices of protest was vividly projected to the world.

Additional limits to political expression in Singapore are imposed through stringent media regulation and frequent litigation by government leaders. None of this is abating. Indeed, this publication was recently banned in Singapore, as editor Hugo Restall explains in this edition. But why does the ruling PAP persist with such tight controls over expression given that it enjoys widespread political support inside and outside Singapore? How can we understand the sorts of pr disasters described above?

Any attempt to answer these questions needs to grasp that suppression of dissent in Singapore is discriminating. The PAP has over the last four decades displayed special anxiety toward certain criticisms and scrutiny, while it is less severe in its reactions to others. In particular, it reacts robustly to questioning of the PAP’s governance virtues and the integrity of the political, legal and bureaucratic institutions it has crafted. It is especially protective of two foundational myths of the PAP, which provide the rationale for the ruling party’s monopoly of power.

The first myth is that public institutions are autonomous, efficient and administered by a meritocracy. In this construction, the integrity of any institution is directly linked to the character of its officials and vice versa. The second posits that unless all politics is channeled through clearly defined and regulated formal political institutions then Singapore’s social and political stability will be at risk. This concept of politics is a compartmentalized and highly regulated one.

However, the veracity of such defining stories about the essence of the regime’s character and purpose are impossible to fully ascertain given the constraints on inquiry and debate into them. This is not by accident, since if these myths could not hold up to scrutiny then the rationale of the de facto one-party state would be undermined. Insulating these myths from scrutiny may reflect a lack of confidence in the ability of Singaporeans to assess competing claims about key institutions. It might also reflect a lack of confidence in the ability of the institutions to withstand critical scrutiny. Whatever the case, reinforcing foundational myths involves continual vigilance in monitoring and restricting public debate on PAP governance and institutions.

Paradoxically, dissent itself can actually be functional for the promotion and reinforcement of these myths. For instance, the high-profile defamation suits against critics not only impair or punish government opponents. These trials also avail the ruling party of opportunities to articulate the proclaimed attributes and qualities of the governance system. This explains what otherwise appears to be an inordinate scale of resources and political investment devoted by the PAP to such trials.

Similarly, the extensive system of licenses and regulations pertaining to any form of political expression enables authorities to do more than just limit such activities. It provides opportunities for authorities to echo political leaders’ notions about threats to social and political order posed by civil society activism, public rallies, Internet Web blogs and other independent political expressions.

PAP sensitivity to scrutiny of key state institutions goes a long way toward explaining why J.B. Jeyaretnam and Mr. Chee have encountered more difficulties than most opposition politicians. They are depicted as engaging in “gutter politics,” periodically contrasted for the worse with Singapore’s two opposition members of parliament—Mr. Jeyaretnam’s successor at the helm of the Workers’ Party, Low Thia Khiang, and the leader of the Singapore People’s Party, Chiam See Tong.

In recent decades, Messrs. Jeyaretnam and Chee have consistently probed, questioned and criticized various aspects of the governance system, honing in on the processes accompanying bureaucratic, administrative and political decisions. They have each endured a raft of problems with authorities in trying to conduct political organization and communication—including a string of defamation cases awarding massive damages to PAP leaders. These ultimately resulted in the bankruptcy of the opposition politicians and hence their ineligibility to contest elections.

The most recent demonstration of the difficulties in scrutinizing the PAP’s governance claims without being open to defamation allegations by PAP leaders was provided in the run up to the May 2006 general elections. Mr. Chee led an SDP campaign questioning the response time of the government to problems over disclosures and uses of public funds by the multimillion dollar charitable organization, the National Kidney Foundation. Any chance of a robust debate about the performance of the government and state regulatory institutions was blunted following legal suits by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

Questioning the associated meritocracy myth has proved especially hazardous for the international media. Examples of this include responses to articles by the International Herald Tribune in August 1994 and Bloomberg in August 2002, respectively seen to imply nepotism in the political rise of Lee Hsien Loong and in the appointment of Lee Hsien Loong’s wife, Ho Ching, to the executive directorship of the government-linked holding company, Temasek Holdings. The IHT was ordered to pay over $604,000 in total damages, while Bloomberg settled out of court for around $380,000.

Observations about how the governance system treats PAP leaders was at issue in a $555,000 defamation suit against the Hong Kong-based Yazhou Zhoukan for publishing comments in September 1996 by Singapore lawyer Tang Liang Hong. These related to a controversy over a prelaunch discount sale offer of condominium units by Housing Properties Limited taken up by Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Hsien Loong and various other members of the Lee family. One of the directors of HPL was Lee Suan Yew, the elder brother of Lee Kuan Yew.

Then Prime Minister Goh’s instigation of an investigation into the propriety of the offer and the timing of disclosures by HPL to the Stock Exchange of Singapore, conducted by the finance minister and the head of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, cleared the Lees of any impropriety. However, Mr. Tang maintained that an inquiry conducted by either the Commercial Affairs Department or the Corrupt Practice Investigation Bureau would be more convincing since they were more detached from government. Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong sued Yazhou Zhoukan for approximately $555,000 for defamation and extracted an apology from the magazine.

Given the frequency with which Singapore’s courts have been deployed to quell criticism of key institutions, it’s not surprising that questioning the judiciary’s independence is treated most seriously. There is no better illustration of this than in the case against the IHT for a 1994 op-ed article in which Christopher Lingle didn’t even mention Singapore or its courts by name. He referred to the use in the region by some authoritarian regimes of “a compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians.” Lee Kuan Yew insisted this was an oblique reference to Singapore and sued the IHT and Mr. Lingle. In the prosecution’s determination to prove this point, it documented 76 separate articles from the Straits Times between 1972-94 to establish that government critics had in fact been regularly prosecuted in Singapore’s courts. Likewise, in Annex A of the Aug. 22 court filing against the review, the plaintiffs’ lawyers enumerated 22 of the defamation actions previously taken by Mr. Lee since 1965.

Mr. Lee’s eagerness to draw the world’s attention to such a history and to volunteer that Singapore’s legal system was the premier candidate for Mr. Lingle’s description might appear puzzling. However, the trial provided a stage for Mr. Lee to assert the independence of the judiciary, to sound a stern warning to others who might want to question this, and to reinforce claims important to Singapore’s economic brand, namely that the integrity of the city-state’s governance regimes distinguish it within the region.

Yet this strategy is not without contradictions and it faces challenges from political and economic forces. Ironically, one challenge emanates from the increasing use of the courts by Singapore’s political opponents to question, counter and challenge the PAP’s foundational myths. Mr. Chee used his February Bankruptcy Petition Hearing, for example, to circulate his court documents to the international media, and he outlined how and why he didn’t believe Singapore’s judicial system was independent when dealing with opposition politicians. He was also able to remind the international media of the criticisms leveled at the Singapore judicial system by Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists and the New York Bar Association. Mr. Chee was not intimidated by the prospect, and subsequent reality, of a suit for contempt of court.

Lee Kuan Yew has since secured a summary judgment for his defamation case against Mr. Chee and his sister and SDP colleague, Chee Siok Chin, arising out of the last election campaign. However, while the Chees were thus denied their request for a public hearing, their detailed defense of what they regard as fair comment on a matter of public interest was posted on various Web sites. Moreover, they are challenging the decision to award a summary trial as unconstitutional. In effect, the Chees are taking a foundational PAP myth seriously to see where it leads.

Meanwhile, economic globalization is contributing to a growing scrutiny of, and challenge to, Singapore’s governance system. Currently a request for review by the Toronto-based oil and natural gas company, EnerNorth Industries, is pending before the Canadian Supreme Court. It is seeking to overturn a decision by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to abide by a Singapore High Court ruling. This went against EnerNorth in its dispute with Singaporean company Oakwell Engineering and it faces the prospect of having its assets seized under Canadian law to pay for that judgment. However, EnerNorth’s appeal centers round the contention that: “Singapore is ruled by a small oligarchy who control all facets of the Singapore state, including the judiciary, which is utterly politicized.”

There is also increasing international scrutiny of the governance rules and regulations pertaining to Singapore’s domestic market. Already this includes critical attention by the International Monetary Fund and U.S. negotiators involved in the U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement. Concerns have been raised about levels of transparency, possible conflicts of interest pertaining to appointments within the state and the advantages open to government-linked companies by virtue of political networks to which they belong.

The second foundational PAP myth about the threat to political and social order posed by political pluralism has also manifested itself in a range of measures curbing political expression. The most explicit symbol of this myth is to be found in the Societies Act, which bars political activity by groups not specifically registered for this purpose. In effect, this outlaws civil society—both as an alternative to formal politics or as a complement to it.

Whereas in a liberal democracy widespread political engagement by social groups is viewed as functional for the political system, the PAP worries that this opens the door to “hidden agendas” and special interest politics. As Lee Hsien Loong stated in 2001: “It will be very tragic if Singaporeans are divided into many special interest groups and each one asserts its demands, and you’re unable to form a consensus.”

Attempts by political parties to engage with the general public, particularly by the SDP, have been frustrated by administrative and other impediments. Such were the difficulties experienced by the SDP in obtaining permits for public meetings that they have on occasions deliberately violated the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act. This resulted in prosecutions of SDP members and two prison terms in 1999 for Mr. Chee. The SDP has generally been deploying nonviolent civil disobedience to highlight administrative impediments to free speech and collective action.

One of the contemporary challenges for the PAP in the control of political expression has been the Internet. The essence of the government’s response has been to superimpose the spirit of the Societies Act on cyberspace. This includes the requirement for registration with the Singapore Broadcasting Authority of political Web sites and the barring of nonparty political associations from political promotion, advertising or campaigning during elections. As Senior Minister of State Balaji Sadasivan explained: “In a free-for-all Internet environment, where there are no rules, political debate could easily degenerate into an unhealthy, unreliable and dangerous discourse, flush with rumors and distortions to mislead and confuse the public.”

These controls have proved remarkably effective. However, during the May election, individuals defied the government edict barring political blogging and podcasting. There were around 50 Web sites and blogs producing political or semipolitical content during the election, according to the Institute of Policy Studies in Singapore. Among other things, this provided venues for critical analysis and views to be aired by individuals and it enabled videos of sizeable opposition rallies, blanketed in the state-controlled media, to be made available. This is an important development, since it challenges the PAP preference for all forms of political expression to be channeled through state-controlled institutions and the idea that the alternative is dangerous. A more serious challenge, though, would involve the technology’s facilitation of collective political action or mobilization. The PAP’s priority will be to prevent this.

Clearly the PAP’s determination to insulate its foundational myths remains resolute and attempts to challenge these continue to attract a harsh response from Singapore’s authorities. However, because of economic globalization and the use of new technologies, that exercise is likely to require continued refinement and creative energy.

Mr. Rodan is director of the Asia Research Centre and professor of politics at Murdoch University, Perth, Australia.

More at
The Charade of Meritocracy
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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Reservist conversation

Derek came out from his reservist liao. I was drinking teh with him last night at Hong Lim hawker center and as usual lah we kpkb about SAF...

Derek: you know or not, nowadays SAF got a lot of surveys.

Me: yah lah, once a while cookhouse survey lor, ask whether the food nice or lousy.

Derek: no lah, not dat kind, we all reservists they ask us what we think of SAF and S’pore

Me: hahaha i know your answer liao, but this type thing ppl will tell the truth meh?

Derek: confidential one, no need to put name or anything

Me: chey lidat where got use, wat kind of questions leh?

Derek: they ask whether we got confidence in SAF’s training?

Me: haha

Derek: ask if we think SAF is a capable fighting force?

Me: hahaha... some more?

Derek: the best one, ask whether we will fight for Singapore?

Me: HAHAHA... *chokes on teh* so wat u put?

Derek: strongly disagree lor, who the fuck will fight for the PAP?!


Derek: trick question ok, they wan to bluff who..

Me: haha how come they ask reservists this ah? why not ask the regulars??

Derek: bcoz really got war they won’t sacrifice the regulars?

Me: knn...