It’s Back to the 1970s as Lee Hsien Loong Demonstrates Nothing Has Changed
The last week has brought a distinct feeling of deja vu.
Firstly, we had the decision to close Yale-NUS, which was spun as economic but was clearly a political decision. After Singapore promised that there would be freedom of thought and expression on campus, it became increasingly cleat that this was unacceptable to the Government. Such is the degree of top-down control that Lee Hsien Loong’s Government exerts over the university that even a relatively innocuous module that was to be taught in 2019 by playwright Alfian Sa’at was unacceptable to the authorities. Clearly the authorities were worried that if they did not clamp down now it would become a hotbed of dissent and maybe a source of potential future Opposition candidates among the students there. It is rumoured that student assistance to the Workers Party, which must have seemed to the students to be a relatively safe option given the PAP’s endorsement of Workers Party under Pritam Singh, in Sengkang was the last straw.
Secondly, judgement was given in the libel suit brought by the PM against Terry Xu from The Online Citizen. Given the statistically improbable run of success the PM and his PAP cronies have enjoyed before the courts where he appoints the judges and his AG controls their promotion or demotion, the finding of defamation and the quantum of damages ($210,000) was not a surprise (though vastly reduced in real terms from the damages that the courts routinely ordered my father to pay), even though in this case the PM chose not to sue his siblings who had been the source of the alleged libel.
Singapore often claims that it follows UK law and that therefore there is rule of law in Singapore. However, even in the UK, which is seen as one of the friendliest forums for defamation claimants, litigants are required to prove that they have suffered economic loss as a result of the libel. This was the argument that George Carman made when he defended my father in the defamation suit brought by “Swiss standard of living“ Goh after the 1997 General Election. Carman forced Goh to agree that far from suffering an economic loss, he had had an “excellent” year. The judge hearing the suit, Rajendran, agreed because he only awarded Goh $20,000 in damages. Goh, as everyone knows, appealed and got the damages increased to $100,000 without economic justification.
Similarly LHL’s damage award bears no relation to any economic loss he has suffered. He continues to draw over $2 million a year in salary and his wife continues as CEO of Temasek until she steps down in October. Her salary, estimated to be in the tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars a year, continues to be paid. LHL is in no danger of being unseated as PM until such time in a year or five or ten years that he decides to step down.
The only difference between now and JBJ’s time is that with the rise of the internet and social media it has become much easier for those on the receiving end of outrageous damages awards to raise the money. Or at least that is the standard reason given. The real reason is that Singaporeans were too scared of helping JBJ and the Lees and their friends made clear that if one suit was paid off they would just bring another claim, in what was aptly called a flagrant abuse of the judicial process and something that our judges, even if they owed their appointment, salary and promotion to the PM and his AG, should never have allowed.
Thirdly, and proving that nothing has changed with Lee’s authoritarian Government since the supposedly bad old days of the twentieth century, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) is now taking action against TOC for receiving foreign donations and will probably suspend it permanently. This again is reminiscent of his dad’s tactics of using different state agencies to come after his opponents like JBJ. Despite Terry Xu not posing much of a threat to LHL’s hegemony, the latter is also using his AG to pursue archaic and repressive criminal defamation charges as well as contempt of court actions against Xu.
Chillingly, the examples cited to justify claims of foreign interference (The Eastern Sun and The Singapore Herald) were from the 1970s:
“Singapore was a target of two such operations in the 1970s involving newspapers The Eastern Sun and the Singapore Herald. These newspapers received funding from foreign sources and ran articles that sought to undermine Singapore’s nation-building efforts,”
I remember my parents had The Singapore Herald (TSH) delivered to our house and as a 13 year old I read about the desperate David v Goliath battle they fought against LKY’s determination to close them down as the last independent media outlet. There was a famous cartoon showing LKY as a tank driver about to crush TSH depicted as a baby in a nappy. At the time there were many claims by LKY and his Government that TSH were being funded by the CIA but not a shred of evidence was ever produced and it was without doubt a lie.
The bogeyman of foreign interference was produced to justify the introduction of the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act. Interestingly IMDA says that the articles undermined “Singapore’s nation-building efforts”. Strangely Singapore’s interests always coincide with keeping the Lees in power thus safeguarding their financial interests providing a perfect illustration of the poster that hung in my dad’s office with a quotation from John Locke, the Enlightenment philosopher, “When political power is used for private gain, tyranny prevails.”
Like a broken record demonstrating that the PAP are bankrupt of new ideas, IMDA repeats the lies and disinformation which have become part of the brainwashing of all Singaporeans from school age onwards. This is that they are incapable of making their own judgements and need a totalitarian state to tell them what to read and think. Of course as the Government is the only agent empowered to use the Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act (POFMA) it can repeat the lies without any sanction and individuals are powerless top stop it.
There is worse. In a stunning non-sequitur, IMDA makes the extraordinary statement that “There have also been reports from other countries, that foreign players and their agents attempted to influence their politics by buying off political parties and individual politicians.” This seems to be more of a description of how the PAP Government operates in foreign countries, where it uses the resources of GIC and Temasek, built up by imposing austerity on Singaporeans, to bribe foreign academics and politicians and ro invest in Western countries in an influence buying exercise. Western universities like Oxbridge and the Ivy League are influenced by sending large numbers of Government scholars there, one of whose tasks is to spread disinformation. I have written about Joe Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winner in Economics, who sang Singapore’s praises in helping its poor despite a higher Gini coefficient than the US. Stiglitz cited his Singapore students as sources of information. He has visited Singapore many times, no doubt flying first class and staying at Raffles, as a guest of the Government or its institutions. Obama and Michelle have also been invited to speak in Singapore as guests of the Bank of Singapore and dined with Lee Hsien Loong when they are here. Boris Johnson, the UK PM, has also enjoyed the PAP’s hospitality and used it to help pay for sex with his mistress Jennifer Arcuri. The list of examples of PAP influence buying are too numerous to mention. Keppel and Sembawang Marine, Temasek companies, have even been caught bribing Brazilian politicians directly in order to win business. Yet IMDA fails to cite any examples of when Singapore politicians have received foreign money.
However the PAP have always sought to spread smears about Opposition politicians receiving money from abroad, most notoriously when a PAP MP falsely claimed in 1972 that the Workers Party had received $600,000 from abroad. My dad sued the MP and Radio Television Singapore (RTS), the predecessor to Mediacorp, for defamation. Demonstrating that Singapore’s judiciary will only allow defamation to be used by their paymasters, the judge ruled that my father had failed to prove the MP’s words since they were in Chinese and RTS carried them in English. The judge also let RTS off the hook, dismissing the libel action with costs. This was the gift that kept on giving, as WP’s inability to pay the costs allowed LKY to put it into bankruptcy and later secure my father’s debarment from Parliament on a fraudulent conviction that the Privy Council called “a grievous miscarriage of justice” but was unable to overturn due to the AG’s use of a shabby trick.
There are many, including the Workers Party 2.0, who claim that Singapore has moved on and is becoming, or already is, a “robust” democracy (provided one is respectful of LHL and do not ask him any embarrassing questions or aspire to ever take over the Government. However recent events should cause the scales to drop from Singaporeans’ eyes and show that LHL has not changed. Singapore is still stuck in a time warp dating back to the 1970s.