SINGAPORE Jan 11 Singapore's long-ruling
government is reacting to discontent about rising prices,
foreign workers and a sluggish economy with unprecedented
openness but threats of lawsuits show it remains testy with
critics deemed to have crossed the line.
In power since 1959, the People's Action Party (PAP) was hit
in 2011 by its worst election result in history, prompting the
government to launch an "Our Singapore Conversation" campaign to
consult citizens on policy and the future as they find new
freedoms online and in public.
"A bye bye party for PAP pigs," a person with the moniker
unemployed777 wrote in an online forum this week about a snap
by-election set for Jan. 26 after the speaker of parliament
resigned over an extramarital affair.
That comment and others similarly strident on a portal run
by state-linked Singapore Press Holdings would not have appeared
until recently. But how far the limits can be tested is still a
big question for a government accustomed to playing a pervasive
role in the wealthy Asian city-state of 5.3 million people.
Twice this year and several times last year, Prime Minister
Lee Hsien Loong and other PAP members have threatened critics
with lawsuits for defamation, continuing a practice that rights
groups see as a tactic to stifle dissent.
PAP figures have said they take legal action to protect
their reputations. Any suggestion of nepotism or corruption is
often the trigger.
In most of the recent cases, apologies and retractions
warded off lawsuits - a break from the past when action was
taken regardless and damages in the hundreds of thousands of
dollars led some opposition politicians to be declared bankrupt
and therefore ineligible to run for election.
"The jury is still out on whether we're seeing a sustainable
change in government attitudes towards their critics," said
Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson.
"But it's clear that Singapore's youth, and the
Internet-fuelled information culture they revel in, are less
accepting of government heavy-handedness when it comes to
THEN AND NOW
This month, Lee's lawyers sent a letter to blogger Alex Au
citing "very grave libels" in a post he wrote and in comments by
his readers about the sale of computer systems used by PAP-run
town councils to a company owned by the ruling party.
Au, who was threatened with another lawsuit last year by the
minister for law and foreign affairs, removed the post and
published an apology. The prime minister has since ordered an
inquiry into the deal.
Saying sorry may not help the treasurer of the opposition
Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) over his blog about Acting
Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin and a strike by bus drivers from
China. Tan is seeking costs and damages.
Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding leader and father of the
current prime minister, set the tone years ago by suing
political foes and foreign media organisations.
"We decide what is right," he told the Straits Times
newspaper in 1987. "Never mind what the people think."
Much has changed, even if politics was not on the agenda of
the public conversation the government convened as part of a
broad review of policies it plans to unveil soon.
Steps have been taken to cool the property market, restrict
foreign workers and enhance social programmes. But with disquiet
still obvious, the PAP faces a test in this month's by-election.
The PAP may well keep the seat, especially if opposition
parties split the vote. But Chee Soon Juan, the SDP's
secretary-general, said the lawsuit against his party's
treasurer "will not help the government's case".
"We look forward to a Singapore where politics can be
debated, where we can really have reasoned argument, instead of
legal action being taken," said Chee, who was declared bankrupt
in 2006 for failing to pay damages for defamation.
(Additional reporting by Kevin Lim; Editing by Robert Birsel)