Paper humiliated in struggle with Singapore regime

Published Aug. 21, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

Six days a week the International Herald Tribune serves up a tasty confection of news, features, analyses, editorials, reviews and sports put out by its co-owners, the New York Times and the Washington Post, plus its own correspondents and the wire services. Americans abroad can be reasonably sure of witty, erudite, informative coverage of just about everything _ so sure that many dedicated readers view it as the world's best newspaper.

Imagine, then, the shock of Tribune fans at seeing the paper humiliated in a struggle with the authoritarian regime of Singapore _ a mercantile city-state ruled by local Chinese. Last month, the Tribune carried straight wire service reports on a libel trial in which the Singapore Supreme Court ordered the paper to pay $679,542 to three plaintiffs: Lee Kuan Yew, the driving figure behind Singapore's economic success; his son, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong; and Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

The judge scolded the Trib defendants _ including publisher Richard McClean, executive editor John Vinocur and commentator Philip Bowring _ for having slandered the plaintiffs in a manner that was not only "unprovoked" but "could undermine their ability to govern."

In fact, the IHT had done nothing of the sort. Rather, Bowring's commentary had noted, "Dynastic politics is evident in "Communist' China already, as in Singapore, despite official commitments to bureaucratic meritocracy."

The offensive word was "dynastic." Lee Kuan Yew, who took on the title of "senior minister" after retiring as prime minister, remains a key figure in Singapore. No one doubts he would like to pass on power to his son. That's all in keeping with an authoritarian, Confucian outlook that one encounters in Asia. Authorities want the world to think the younger Lee has gotten where he is on merit.

Most shocking was the speed with which the IHT caved in. Long before Lee and company filed their libel suit, the paper issued what may be the most debasing apology in the history of U.S. journalism. Readers of the New York Times and the Post would never believe that a paper owned by both could state that "allegations" that Lee Jr. got his job "not on his own merits and purely because he was Mr. Lee Kuan Yew's son" were "completely without foundation."

The apology was signed by McClean, Vinocur and, more shocking, Bowring, intimidated into going along.

Nor was Bowring the only commentator to outrage Singapore authorities _ and compel the Herald Tribune into apologizing. Christopher Lingle, a visiting lecturer, subsequently wrote a commentary noting that some regimes in the region relied upon "a compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians." In response to the outcries from Singapore, the IHT complied with another apology. Still, the paper in January was found guilty of "criminal defamation and contempt of court" and fined nearly $14,000.

The Lingle case cost far less than the one involving Bowring but revealed more about the Tribune's underlying fears. Also found guilty in that one was a Singapore giant called Times Publishing that prints, along with the IHT, the Asian Wall Street Journal for regional distribution.

As a result of tight government control over the press, the publishing company enjoys a monopoly that includes ownership of its flagship, The Straits Times, plus a business daily and an afternoon tabloid. The point was that the company could refuse to print the IHT, and Singapore could ban its distribution there while forcing it to rely on distribution from its print site in Hong Kong. The bottom line: The Trib deemed it wiser to cling to its position in Singapore than to fight authorities over a couple of adjectives.

Abject surrender, however, may not really work in the end; Singapore has a long record of hassling foreign critics. The IHT may have to decide it can no longer buckle under to the pressures of an arrogant potentate. Otherwise, the case proves a point that Bowring, a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, made a year before writing his offending article. "As far as Mr. Lee (Kuan Yew) is concerned," Bowring wrote, "foreign media have no rights to be meddling in the affairs of his, or any other country." Who would have imagined the Trib's bosses would so easily succumb to Lee's dictatorship?

Don Kirk has covered Asia for 30 years. He is the author of Korean Dynasty: Hyundai and Chung Ju Yung.