* Originally published in The New York Times (June 5, 1997)
If the consequences were not so serious, the political machinations of Singapore’s leaders would be laughable. In the latest twisted use of the country’s libel laws, they have obtained a $5.7 million damage ruling against an opposition politician who had the temerity to deny accusations that he was bent on producing racial discord.
Singapore’s leaders are masters at using libel suits in a compliant court system to silence or intimidate their domestic opponents and to discourage critical commentary about Singapore in foreign publications that are distributed or have business interests in Singapore. It saves the trouble of throwing opponents in jail, and has provided the leaders with a tidy source of outside income. Several foreign news organizations have been intimidated by this tactic, including The International Herald Tribune, which is jointly owned by the New York Times and Washington Post companies.
The libel damages imposed last week take the practice to a new plane by penalizing someone for defending himself against attack by the ruling People’s Action Party. The victim, Tang Liang Hong, is one of Singapore’s few outspoken opposition politicians. He nearly won a parliamentary seat in elections earlier this year.
When party leaders called him a ”Chinese chauvinist” intent on stirring unrest among Singapore’s large ethnic Chinese population, he rejected the accusation and called the leaders liars. Last week a court awarded $1.6 million in damages to Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore and its longtime autocratic ruler. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was awarded $1 million. Mr. Tang fled to Hong Kong after the election.
The court’s grandiloquent justification captured the absurdity of Singapore politics. ”This court,” the judge intoned, ”must show its indignation at the injury inflicted on the plaintiffs.” In Singapore, no one can afford to oppose the rulers.