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Cross Singapore Off The Itinerary

This column is the reason I may never be able to visit Singapore. My firm cannot consider opening an office there, and I must refrain from dispatching staff to meet with Singapore-based clients should the opportunity arise.

Even my travel-loving daughters ought to think twice before touring the Southeast Asian city-state, though I doubt they would actually have trouble there because of my actions.

All this may be a mild disappointment to the government of Singapore, which is hoping for a 20 to 30 percent increase in the number of visitors this year.

I must stay beyond the reach of Singaporean justice, which is an oxymoron when that term is applied to the Western concept of press freedom. By making this statement, I probably have just committed libel in Singapore. There will be more Singaporean libels in this commentary, though none would be actionable in North America, Japan or most of Europe.

Singapore is what China probably wants to be when it grows up: an authoritarian government, ruled by a single party and dominated by an entrenched political elite, whose people accept strict limits on self-expression in exchange for political stability and economic prosperity.

Remarkably, Singapore has succeeded in imposing its system of press self-censorship on major Western news organizations that do not hesitate to bluntly criticize leaders in China, Russia and a host of nasty regimes around the globe, not to mention their own governments. Just last week, the New York Times Co. issued an apology and reportedly paid monetary damages and legal fees after three of Singapore’s leaders claimed that an article printed in the Times’ international edition, The International Herald Tribune, was libelous.

The People's Action Party has dominated Singapore’s politics since the country gained independence in 1965. During that time, Singapore has had three prime ministers. The present prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is the son of the first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Both former prime ministers continue to hold important posts in the government, the elder Mr. Lee as the cabinet's official mentor, and the second prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, as the senior minister in the cabinet.

Based on these facts, Philip Bowring, former editor of The Far Eastern Economic Review and a freelance contributor to The Herald Tribune, included Singapore in a list of Asian countries characterized by dynastic politics. While the op-ed piece, entitled “All in the Family,” has been removed from the paper’s Web site, repostings elsewhere on the Web show that Singapore was only briefly mentioned as one of many examples of superficially democratic nations where power has been passed across generations of the same family. But Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong argued that the article damaged the government’s reputation by implying that the younger Mr. Lee benefited from nepotism.

As part of a 1994 settlement involving a similar article by Bowring, also published in the Herald Tribune, Bowring promised that he would never again imply that Prime Minister Lee had attained his position through family connections. The apology printed in the Herald Tribune noted that “Bowring nonetheless included these two men [Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong] in a list of Asian political dynasties, which may have been understood by readers to infer that the younger Mr. Lee did not achieve his position through merit.”

In addition to The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and The Economist have also been forced to apologize for articles deemed libelous in Singapore.

The claims by Singapore’s leaders would never get out of the starting gate in American courts. Statements of opinion (for example, “George W. Bush is a terrible president”) are never libelous here. Statements that purport to be fact (perhaps “George W. Bush is a clown”) are only libelous if they are both false and defamatory. If an ordinary reader would interpret “George W. Bush is a clown” as a statement of fact rather than opinion, then maybe the statement is libelous. But it is only libelous if it is false (does George W. Bush ever, in fact, don a clown suit?) and if it is defamatory (is there something disgraceful about being a clown?). Unless the statement is both false and defamatory, it cannot be libelous.

In the case of public officials and other public figures, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that even a false and defamatory statement is libelous only if the person making the statement acted with “actual malice,” either because the statement was known to be false or because it was made with reckless disregard of whether it was true.

As a practical matter, public officials here can almost never sustain a libel claim, and few try. Libel suits usually serve only to give more publicity to the alleged libel. I will not be surprised to see more libel suits here in the future, as unprofessional blogs and Web sites run afoul of even our generous rules, but in those cases the libel suits will serve the useful purpose of discouraging truly outrageous behavior. Our system is designed to protect press freedom as the foundation of all political freedom.

Singapore is a successful and prosperous place, but it is not a free society in the Western sense. So why do foreign media outlets subject themselves to Singapore’s oppressive rules?

Although it has a population of only 4.7 million, Singapore is a significant economic hub where U.S. media companies want to continue to be able to do business. I do not believe Singapore could convince American courts to enforce its libel judgments. But as long as the New York Times Co. and others want to be able to operate there, they find themselves subject to Singapore’s rules — even to the point that The Times is willing to delete an offending story from the Web site that serves Times readers in New York.

This self-censorship is exactly what Singapore’s system is trying to achieve.

So I cannot go to Singapore. If I do, I will be subject to that country’s courts, which will (if the government cares to pursue a case) smack me with a whopping fine, along with an order to retract and apologize for this commentary and to delete it from this Web site. If I don’t comply, I will likely enjoy the hospitality of a Singaporean jail.

As long as the current regime remains in power, and while Western governments and media allow the city-state’s courts to apply their powers against anyone who falls into their clutches, be skeptical of any glowing reports you read about Singapore. A lot of the good stuff may be true, but you cannot tell what has been left unreported.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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