Singapore Sling

January 14, 1995

Suppose a writer in Country X charges that some "intolerant regimes" in the region use "a compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians." Doesn't say what country. But he's hauled into court, where the prosecutor says he could only have meant Country X and was calculating to undermine the authority of its courts.

"The passage implied that the judiciary was party to a subtle scheme to suppress public dissent," the prosecutor said. The judge ruled the evidence adequate to try the writer, editor, publisher and printer for criminal contempt of court with heavy fines and jail time possible.

Musical comedy? Gruesome contemporary opera? Sci-fi allegorical flick? Novel by Aldous Huxley, George Orwell or Franz Kafka? None of the above. Real thing. Trial starts Monday.

It is happening in one of the world's heralded success stories, a triumph of modernism, a U.S. ally and major trading partner, a tiger of Asian development, bastion of law and tidiness and high-tech triumph over limited resources: Singapore.

The very Singapore where chewing gum on the subway is an offense, painting graffiti brings a caning and importing dope means death. The writer is Christopher Lingle, an American economist who taught at the national university and wrote this column after returning to the U.S. The paper is the Asia edition of the International Herald Tribune, based in Paris and owned by American companies.

Mr. Lingle declined the opportunity to return to face trial. The editor, Michael Richardson, an Australian, lives there. He and Paris-based publisher Richard McClean and the newspaper and the regime-owned company that prints the paper are at some risk.

This has nothing to do with keeping subversive doubt out of the island state, a high-tech paradise where fax, modem, Internet and satellite broadcasting give censorship the efficiency of a sieve.

It is Singapore, where opposition politicians have been ruined financially by defamation suits brought by ruling People's Action Party big-shots including former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who incidentally has brought a separate libel suit against the newspaper and Mr. Lingle. Singapore, where the newspaper tried to avoid trial by printing an abject apology for the October article, which the attorney general said was an admission of liability.

And people in Washington are wringing their hands about human rights in China, which says it is Communist? Would Singapore really prove the criticism true by going through with this farce to its farcically logical conclusion? Stay tuned.

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