Singapore's Chilling Effects

September 13, 1995

Singapore's role as a communications center in Asia is likely to suffer from its long campaign to control what the outside world hears and knows about its institutions. Even with Hong Kong succumbing to China's rule in two years, Singapore is merely convenient and not indispensable as an entrepot for the written and spoken English word in business and news communications.

For the second time this year, a Singapore court has penalized the International Herald Tribune for mild comment about Singapore's political affairs. This time it assessed the paper $678,000 in libel damages to former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, current Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (son of Lee Kuan Yew) for an article last year that referred to "dynastic politics" in Singapore. "Dynastic politics"? Perish the thought.

That followed a heavy fine in January for a 1994 opinion article, "scandalizing the Singapore judiciary," that talked about a "compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians," in an unnamed country. The judge had no doubt what was meant.

Much stronger stuff than that is fair comment in The Sun about this country's institutions. The chilling of comment about Singapore -- news magazines and the Asian Wall Street Journal have commanded official attention in the past -- is close to bizarre. But Lee Kuan Yew long ago turned Singapore into a thriving business community with strictly limited personal freedoms and guided thought. No use saying it can't work. There it is.

The Paris-based, American-owned newspaper of 190,000 circulation has an edition of 17,000 printed in Singapore by another company, with 7,000 copies sold in the island state. The newspaper wishes to maintain this arrangement, and did not fight the court judgments.

The respected Far Eastern Economic Review publishes out of Hong Kong. How that island entrepot will fare as a free speech haven under Chinese rule remains at issue. Many Western companies would find Japan expensive to operate in, but its communications are superb. Manila, Bangkok, Seoul, Sydney, Brunei and Jakarta are centers of English-speaking international business in Asia.

Singapore's pressures mean to restrict what is said about it not only on the island but elsewhere in Asia and the world. Trying to control its image by forbidding unauthorized observation is a losing business in the days of Internet and fax and satellite. Singapore is shooting itself in the foot. The more it tries to suppress reasonable comment, the more people will talk.

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