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Foreign News Media in Singapore

Singapore’s Lees cow the International Herald Tribune again

John Berthelsen
Asia Sentinel, 24 March 2010

In an unusual statement, the International Herald Tribune on March 24 apologized to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, his father Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for a February 15 article by contributor Philip Bowring on dynastic politics in Asia.

Although the article contains an analysis of dynastic politics in Asia, nowhere does the story say or imply that nepotism played a role in the Lee family’s – or any other family’s political prominence in the region. In that way, the case is reminiscent of another in which the Financial Times apologized for a September 2007 article in which there appeared to be no libel. The article merely listed the names of Lee family members in high positions in the island nation.

Philip McClennan, the newly installed chief editor of the IHT for Asia, said the Hong Kong office was not empowered to talk about the letter and referred requests to Robert Christie at the New York office of the New York Times, which owns the International Herald Tribune. Bowring, who is also a contributing editor and founder of Asia Sentinel, said he could not comment on the case.

In the apology, the paper said that in 1994 Bowring “agreed as part of an undertaking with the leaders of the government of Singapore that he would not say or imply that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had attained his position through nepotism practiced by his father, Lee Kuan Yew.”

In the 1994 case, the IHT hastily agreed to apologize to the Lee family for Bowring’s article even before they filed a lawsuit, laying the paper open to legal action on the basis that it had already admitted wrongdoing. Eventually the paper was forced to pay the equivalent of US$678,000, the largest amount of damages Singapore had ever levied on a publication.

Although neither Bowring nor the newspaper would comment on the case, it is possible to speculate that the Lee family demanded that the language over the 1994 case be included in the apology or that the paper risked more expensive legal action.

The IHT was also sued in 1995 over an article by an Australian academic, Christopher Lingle, and ordered to pay costs and fines over an article on “intolerant regimes” in Asia that use “a compliant judiciary” to bankrupt opposition politicians. Singapore was not mentioned in the article. Nonetheless, Justice Goh Joon Seng said he had “no doubt” that the American was referring to Singapore in his passage about a compliant judiciary and that the reference had “scandalized the Singapore judiciary” despite the fact that the Lees had repeatedly used their courts to bankrupt opposition politicians.

Being charged in the Singapore courts is tantamount to being convicted. As far as can be determined, neither the government nor the Lee family have never lost a case against the press in their own courts, nor does it appear that they have ever won one outside of Singapore. The government or members of the Lee family have filed defamation or contempt charges against virtually every major publication in Asia, including the Financial Times, Time Magazine, the Economist, Bloomberg News Service, the now-defunct AsiaWeek and any other publication that refuses to toe the Lee line although none of the cases have been filed in countries with rational legal systems.

The Far Eastern Economic Review, especially under the late editor Derek Davies, was a particular target going back to 1988. Dow Jones Corporation, the later owner of the magazine, which ceased publication in December, paid US$175,000 in damages and costs on a ruling that the magazine defamed Prime Minister Lee and his father in a 2006 interview with Chee Soon Juan, the secretary-general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party.

In agreeing to the settlement rather than continue to fight the case, Dow Jones issued the following statement:

Dow Jones strongly disagrees with the decision of the Singapore Court of Appeal upholding the ruling against the Far Eastern Economic Review in the defamation case brought by Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Kuan Yew. The Court casts significant doubt as to whether Singapore will ever recognize the fair and honest reporting privilege accorded to responsible journalism — a privilege available in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries with diverse histories and cultures.

Other fines paid by international news media include the Economist, which was ordered to pay US$227,000 in one case and US$125,000 in another. Bloomberg was ordered to pay the Lees US$550,000 in 2002. In several other cases, the damage settlements were not revealed.

In the statement on the IHT’s March 24 editorial page, the newspaper said that despite Bowring’s promise not to imply nepotism had played a role in the younger Lee’s ascent to power, “Mr Bowring nonetheless included these two men in a list of Asian political dynasties, which may have been understood by readers to infer that the younger Lee did not achieve his position through merit.

“We wish to state clearly that this inference was not intended. We apologize to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for any distress or embarrassment caused by any breach of the undertaking and the article.”

The offending article was taken off the International Herald Tribune’s website. However, it has been reprinted by many other publications which subscribe to the New York Times news services. Asia Sentinel reprints the IHT piece here for readers to judge:

All in the Family

By PHILIP BOWRING

HONG KONG — Are political dynasties good or bad?

Election time in the Philippines is a regular reminder of the roles that feudal instincts and the family name play in that nation’s politics. Benigno Aquino, son of the late President Corazon Aquino, is the front runner to succeed President Gloria Arroyo, daughter of Diosdado Macapagal, a president in the 1960s.

Senate and Congressional contests will see family names of other former presidents and those long prominent in provincial politics and land-owning.

But the Philippines is not unique. Dynastic politics thrives across Asia to an extent found in no other region apart from the Arabian peninsula monarchies.

The list of Asian countries with governments headed by the offspring or spouses of former leaders is striking: Pakistan has Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, herself the daughter of the executed former leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bangladesh has Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the murdered first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman . In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak is the son of the second prime minister, Abdul Razak. Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong is Lee Kuan Yew’s son. In North Korea, Kim Il-sung’s son Kim Jong-il commands party, army and country and waiting in the wings is his son Kim Jong-un.

In India, the widow Sonia Gandhi is the power behind the technocrat prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and her son Rahul is showing political promise and being groomed in the hope of leading the Congress party and eventually filling the post of prime minister, first occupied by his great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru.

In Japan, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is the scion of a Kennedy-like political dynasty: His father was a foreign minister, and his grandfather was a prime minister.

Indonesia’s last president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, is the daughter of its first, and family ties could well play in the next presidential election when the incumbent, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, must retire. In Myanmar, the durability of the opposition to the military owes much to the name of Aung San Suu Kyi’s independence-hero father as well as to her stoicism.

Thailand lacks obvious political dynasties but that is likely because there is already a monarch. South Korea’s rough and tumble democracy would seem to leave little scope for dynasties but even there, the political career of Park Chung Hee’s daughter, Park Geun Hye, has benefited much from her father’s reputation.

With the exception of North Korea, Asian dynasties are a phenomenon of countries that are more or less democratic.

In China, family connections help immensely but the party is still a relatively meritocratic hierarchy. Vietnam is similar. In the Philippines, it is easy to blame dynastic tendencies for the nation’s stark economic failures. But its problems go much deeper into the social structure and the way the political system entrenches a selfish elite. It is a symptom not the cause of the malaise.

In India, the Gandhi name has been an important element in ensuring that Congress remains a major national force at a time when the growth of regional, caste and language based parties have added to the problems of governing such a diverse country. In Bangladesh, years of fierce rivalry between Sheikh Hasina, daughter of one murdered president and widow of another, have been a debilitating factor in democratic politics. But their parties needed their family names to provide cohesion and without them there could have been much more overt military intervention. Ms. Megawati was a poor leader but just by being there helped the consolidation of the post-Suharto democracy.

Dynasties can be stultifying too. In Malaysia, the ruling party was once a grassroots organization where upstarts like former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad could flourish but over time it has become a self-perpetuating patronage machine. Too many of the key players are the offspring or relatives of former leaders.

There are more fundamental problems, too. Most current Asian dynasties trace themselves to the post-1945 political transformation. In that sense they have become a crutch, reflecting a failure to devise systems for the transfer of power to new names, faces and ideas.

Dynasties are a poor commentary on the depth of democracy in their countries. Without parties with a coherent organization and a set of ideas, politics becomes about personalities alone and name recognition more important than competence. Parties run by the elite offspring of past heroes easily degenerate into self-serving patronage systems.

So dynastic leadership in Asia’s quasi-democracies can provide a focus for nations, a glue for parties, an identity substitute in countries that used to be run by kings and sultans. But it is more a symptom of underlying problems than an example to be followed.

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  1. Pingback: NYT Public Editor: World’s press should unite and pull out of Singapore « Jacob 69er - April 5, 2010

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