Singapore, the multi-ethnic city-state is one of history’s great developmental success story’s. From poverty, invasion, occupation and social unrest in the mid 20th century, it has risen to be one of the most independent and prosperous nations in the world.
It’s a story underpinned by a 50-year political tradition of one-party and three Prime Ministers that includes a father and son. But now a public rift has opened between the son and daughter of the nation’s founding father. A rift that at its minimum threatens to raise questions over the moral sincerity of the countries leadership, and at its maximum acts as a litmus test over the equal handling of those that attempt to step outside its recognized boundaries of acceptable political discourse.
Lee Wei Ling is the well-known neurosurgeon and sister to the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. She is also, along with her brother, one of three children to Lee Kuan Yew, the universally recognized father and first Prime Minister of Singapore. Recently, she engaged in a series of public statements over social media that directly concerns their late father’s legacy. In reference to what she sees as elaborate events to commemorate their father’s death last year, she has both suggested that her brother was “abusing his power” in order to establish a political dynasty and that media in Singapore was commanded by the “powers that be”. Such is this public challenge to her brother, that it has made news headlines around the world. But more than this, it has awoken the resentment of those that have formally been prosecuted by the country’s leadership for similar utterances in the past.
Writing on his Facebook page, the Singaporean Prime Minister publically responded by saying that he was “deeply saddened” by the remarks, claimed that the accusations were “completely untrue” and stressed that “meritocracy is a fundamental value” of Singaporean society. Further, he stated that neither he or his governing party would ever “tolerate any such attempt” in reference to establishing a dynasty. Nevertheless, this is not the first time these things have been raised in reference to the Singaporean political leadership, nor is it the first time that it has come in conjunction with issues related to what is widely perceived to be Singapore’s unique way of handling the media. The most well-known case of which was the New York Times, who as owners of the Paris-based Herald Tribune were forced to pay a US$114,000 settlement in 2010 to the Singaporean government. This was based on an Op-Ed piece dealing with “dynastic politics”, that listed Lee Hsien Loong and his father as one of many examples. This was the second such case, the first of which was in 1994 which relating to similar insinuations. This resulted in a settlement of a massive US$678,000.
“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”– Immanuel Kant
Lee Kuan Yew formed the Singaporean People’s Action Party (PAP) in 1954 and after Singapore became independent in 1959 it immediately gained power. Since then, it has remained in power and held a staggeringly high majority of parliamentary seats. He held power for over 30 years until 1990 in which Goh Chok Tong took the Prime Ministership before the founders son, Lee Hsien Loong took power in 2004 who has held the position ever since. However, and despite family appearances, Singapore is formally one of the least corrupt nations of Earth and is ranked a strong 8th by transparency international. But its generally high level of institutional trust is contrasted by a growing class of people that have been empowered by a western propagated and internet fed freedom of expression ethos, that cuts across the grain of its long-standing history of censorship. Currently, and as a consequence of firm government action, it sits a 153rd in the World Press Freedom Index.
One of the most prominent of these individuals that feel’s that his freedom of expression is suppressed is Roy Ngerng, an influential blogger from Singapore that we interviewed last year. Roy was special because of his outspoken stance against the Singaporean Government and the fact that he was in the process of being run through the courts on defamation charges by none other than Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore himself. Now he is one of many prominent online bloggers that are raising their voice to point out the perceived inconsistencies in approach to what can be said and by who. Referencing the New York Times case as a typical example he told us that, “Both times, they did not directly refer to the trio, but were sued and financially penalized heavily. In Lee Wei Ling’s case, she directly referred to her brother. In a normal situation, she would have been sued and would have to pay very high damages due to the obvious defamation and her position, role, and reputation in Singapore.”
In Roy Nygerng’s case and according to the Prime Minister, it was alleged that Roy claimed that he was “guilty of criminal misappropriation of the monies paid by Singaporeans” to its sovereign wealth fund (CPF), which the Prime Minister rejected as “false and baseless”. Alternatively, Roy Nygerng claimed he was simply advocating for greater transparency and accountability in the CPF. The courts in Singapore stated that Roy had “no triable defense” and handed him an injunction barring him from publishing similar accusations regarding the Prime Minister. In a pre-written letter sent by the Prime Ministers legal team, Roy Nyerng was demanded to publish the words, “I unreservedly apologize to Mr Lee Hsien Loong for the distress and embarrassment caused to him by this allegation.”
Roy was left with attempting to muster significant support from a raft of international organizations that promote freedom of expression. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) released a statement saying, “this is unconscionable and clearly meant to cast a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Singapore” and the United Nations claimed they “fear for the chilling effect these persecutions might have on other human rights defenders”. Roy also appeared in a series of articles and media appearances internationally which he was depicted as a common social-political blogger subjected to censorship by the Singaporean government. Despite this support, and a raft of monetary contributions from everyday Singaporeans to help support his legal defense, he recently settled on immediate payment of US $22,000 costs and a US $110,000 over the next 17 years. A substantial sum for a young man who, in parallel to the lawsuit, lost his public sector job as a hospital orderly and who is the son of a simple carrot cake stall owner.
Despite the claimed “distress and embarrassment”, the son of Singapore’s first Prime Minister surfaced seemingly unscathed from the altercation with Roy. Last year he returned the ever-incumbent PAP (People’s Action Party) to power in parliamentary elections, increasing their already overwhelming dominance by 2 seats and pulling off their best election result in 15 years. Roy however, claims that his life now amounts to “getting a job and getting back on his feet”. He says that “most organizations in Singapore are connected or affiliated with the government” and that “one way or another they would rather not hire him”. Roy is now applying for jobs and fellowships overseas instead, as he claims that the word among headhunters is “who would hire him now, with his “repute” in Singapore.”
It’s clear that entering into polemical disputes that exist in an uncertain defamatory gray zone carries serious risk to future life prospects in Singapore. However, this is exactly how the public rift began to erupt between Ms. Lee and her Prime Minister brother. Ms. Lee, who had spent years publishing a column in the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore, was initially outraged by what she described as being censored. “I will no longer write for (Singapore Press Holdings) as the editors there do not allow me freedom of speech,” she wrote on her Facebook page after the publication wanted to edit an opinion piece that dealt with the issue of “hero worship” and the one year commemoration of her father’s passing. But Ms. Lee views on “hero worship” and her late father are not just her own, with a human rights storm erupting last year over a perverse and overtly offensive youtube clip uploaded by a young boy.
In March 2015 in the early wake of the death of Lee Kuan Yew, a 16-year old YouTube personality by the name of Amos Yee was charged with “intention of wounding the religious feelings of Christians, obscenity, and threatening, abusive or insulting communication.” All of this was as a result of a video uploaded to YouTube that Amos Yee claims in part was inspired by Roy Ngerng’s writing. The extremely media savvy young Youtuber who was unapologetic in his belief that vulgar language was highly “effective” in putting his points forward, compared the deceased leader with Jesus Christ and cast both in a negative light. He also published an image that depicted the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Lee Kuan Yew, engaging in anal sex. Subsequently, Amos Yee was sentenced to four weeks in prison backdated to include 53 days spent in custody.
Once again the actions of the Singaporean government initiated worldwide attention with Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticizing the verdict as “publicly punishing a youthful dissident who dared besmirch the image of the recently passed leader, and intimidating anyone else who might think of doing the same in the future.” Amnesty International declared Yee a prisoner of conscience, citing Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that enshrines the principle to freedom of expression and the Wall Street Journal wrote that Amos Yee’s trial showed “Singapore’s struggle to adapt its tradition of censorship to the realities of the digital era.” However, what this did represent was a deeper political phenomenon. Rather than the “chilling effect” feared and exclaimed by the United Nations, it showed that despite an active effort on behalf of the Singaporean government to prosecute online bloggers for content deemed defamatory, it had the potential to motivate and inspire.
So far, Singapore’s apparent willingness to risk martyring the few has been criticized more or less exclusively within the domain of neutral international institutions and Human Rights organizations. However, several weeks ago this changed with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade making a public statement critical of the Singaporean government over the recent sentencing of the Japanese/Australian online publisher Ai Takagi. In what is a diplomatic rarity except in many well know cases of Singapore executing foreign nationals they stated, “We regret that Ms. Takagi was given a custodial sentence, given she is young, pregnant and had issued an apology,” stated a spokesman to Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald.
Ai Takagi set up the magazine “The Real Singapore” in 2012 whilst she was studying law in Queensland Australia. “We entered in December 2014 and stayed here (in Singapore) and we’re planning to return to Australia to continue studies in Feb 2015. I was arrested in early February and our passports were impounded”, she told Circus Bazaar. Now the pregnant 23-year-old will serve 10-months in a Singapore prison after being convicted of publishing seditious articles. The 10-month sentence is said to be the longest ever given under the sedition laws. But Ai Takagi says to Circus Bazaar that she is “mentally prepared” for her incarceration but described her sentencing as setting an example for others. “Upon the court’s decision, the judge in my sentencing said that she agreed with the need to set a deterrence sentence. The prosecution had been pushing for a deterrence sentence to be given and they got it”, she describes.
A well-known expression used in Singapore to describe what topics are permissible for public discussion is the Golf term “OB Marker” or “Out of Bounds Marker”. In use since the early 1990’s, these are openly referred to by politicians and commentators and are in constant flux, shifting according to the political climate of the day. Traditionally however, topics such as religion, race or anything that is interpreted as seditiously promoting hostility between differing societal groups are included. Homosexuality and alleged corruption and/or failings within its government are also widely recognized as falling outside OB markers in Singapore.
The Singaporean Prime minister need not indulge in sports metaphors to communicate what are views that significantly differ from what is considered the norm in much of the west when it comes to the role of media. “The press is free to report views that are different to the government but it is not their job to hold the government to account. Your job [as foreign media] is to report facts, not to get involved in Singaporean politics”, he told the British Publication the Telegraph in 2008, whilst discussing transparency in relation to its sovereign wealth fund. Some western sources with experience reporting from within the country describe the environment pertaining to freedom of expression as a misunderstanding between the establishments perception of great accomplishment and an external focus on a few troublesome individuals that are not representative of the political goods the state has provided for the many. This and deep-rooted Asian values such as respect for one’s elders and the maintaining of honor.
For decades, Singapore has maintained the strong branding of being somewhat a Disney Land with the Death Penalty for foreigners. There have been repeated cycles of international criticism for its perceived authoritarian methods, from the ban on chewing gum to the executions of foreign drug traffickers. Yet Singapore’s unique positioning in a region of ever growing geopolitical importance, its prosperous and welcoming status as a hub of Asian commerce and its rise from 3rd to 1st world status in just a few generations means perceptions of soft authoritarianism are a distant afterthought in the minds of those that admire its safety and stability. Just as the mandatory hanging of certain drug criminals by long drop at dawn on a Friday morning at its infamous Changi Prison has survived the criticism of much of the outside world, many would have also assumed its uniquely Singaporean style of dealing with hostile domestic or foreign socio-political internet personalities would too.
The Singaporean Prime Minister has found himself in a position in which the firm hand that has historically set examples of those that dare publicly defame him risks exposing him to claims of expounding special privilege to his sister if he does not seek equally firm legal recourse to her claims. Already in recent times, accusations of special privilege have been trolling throughout the Singaporean internet space. The death of a young Singaporean man caused by the “flouting of safety rules” during a military exercise, a serious Hepatitis C outbreak that left 25 infected and 8 patients dead at a public hospital and the apparent suicide of a 14-year old boy after being released from police custody are but a few incidents that government accountability is perceived by some as to be not equal to the standard being enforced upon internet bloggers.
The attack on Singapore’s official status as a country absent of corruption and holding strong meritocratic values has been challenged by the most unlikely of foes and how the Singaporean Prime Minister will legally move forward in the face of his sister’s claims is still yet to be known. The question being asked by the countries ever more outspoken online community is whether a former head of the National Neuroscience Institute that happens to be the daughter of a nation’s founding father and sister to a sitting Prime Minister will be held to the same level of legal account as any publisher, or is accountability in Singapore relative to family privilege.
Shane Alexander Caldwel
Shane Alexander Caldwell is the Editor of Circus Bazaar Magazine, host of the Big Tent Podcast and CEO of CB Media & Publishing.