Political storm over a teacup

Richard Lloyd Parry in Singapore finds that you are are treated differently in the courtroom if you are Prime Minister
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Mr Goh's teacup made its appearance last August at the most celebrity- studded hearing the High Court of Singapore has seen all year. The case was a libel action between Goh Chok Tong, plaintiff, and Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, defendant.

The latter is a well-known lawyer, one of three opposition MPs in Singapore; the former is a leading member of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) who is also Prime Minister. Mr Goh was being cross-examined by the British libel lawyer, George Carman, QC, when the teacup appeared.

It was carried on a tray by a court attendant described by one observer as "an extraordinary Mr Punch figure in a pillbox hat"; steaming fluid, poured from a teapot, was sipped by Mr Goh during cross-examination. Insignificant, on the face of it - but High Court witnesses are not usually treated to warm beverages, and certainly not served by uniformed attendants.

"It shocked the lawyers I spoke to that the judge should allow such a thing," says Stuart Littlemore, an Australian QC who observed the trial for the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). "It's not trivial, because it was a symptom of the court's deference." In his report for the ICJ, published after Mr Goh won his case last week, Mr Littlemore wrote: "He came to court as an ordinary citizen, not as Prime Minister, but it was impossible to escape the impression that the judge treated Mr Goh as a litigant of higher status than he was entitled to."

On Friday the Prime Minister's office insisted that the pot contained only warm water. "Mr Goh was never served with tea," protested his press secretary, "let alone milk and sugar, which he does not take." A full "point by point rebuttal" of Mr Littlemore's report is promised. For, literally and metaphorically, this is much more than a storm in a teacup. At stake is an argument about justice and freedom in one of the most successful and respected small nations in the world.

Singapore is a clean, safe, and efficient country in a region of grime, crime and disorder. One reason is the absence of corruption. Under its founder, Mr Goh's patron and predecessor, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's police, politicians and officials have become fiercely proud of their incorruptibility and impartiality, as have its judges, whose courts and legal system are still based on English law.

But for several years, and increasingly over the last 10 months, more and more people have concluded that Singaporean justice has become vulnerable to government politicians who use compliant courts to stamp out their political opponents.

Amnesty International, which is preparing a report on the recent case, expressed concern about the "chilling effect" Mr Goh's victory would have on freedom of speech. In its annual report on human rights, the US State Department observed that in 1996 "the Government continued to intimidate opposition parties and their candidates and to restrict the independence of the judiciary in cases with political implications". Last week Mr Littlemore added his voice, on behalf of the ICJ, a Zurich-based organisation which promotes freedom of the judiciary.

The dispute began last New Year during the election campaign. Constitutionally a multi-party democracy, Singapore has, for much of its 32 years of independence, resembled a one-party state. Between 1966 and 1981 there were no opposition MPs; in the previous election the PAP had held 79 of the 83 seats. As leader of the Worker's Party, Mr Jeyaretnam addressed a eve-of-election rally, alongside a fellow opposition candidate, Tang Liang Hong, who was engaged in a bitter dispute with Mr Goh and colleagues.

Mr Tang had just filed a police report after being accused by the Prime Minister of being, among other undesirable things, a "Chinese chauvinist". He denied this, describing Mr Goh and his colleagues as liars out to assassinate his character, for which alleged slander he was eventually ordered to pay damages of S$8m (pounds 3.2m). Mr Jeyaretnam's alleged defamation, for which he was ordered last Monday to pay S$20,000 plus costs was to have said before the crowds: "Mr Tang Liang Hong has just placed before me two reports he has made to the police against, you know, Mr Goh Chok Tong and his people."

Mr Goh's lawyer, Tom Shields, another British QC, argued this amounted to defamation by innuendo. Mr Carman insisted it was a statement of fact, but in his cross-examination of the Prime Minister he went much further. MPs who have been bankrupted, as Mr Jeyaretnam may be, must forfeit their seats; the case, he suggested, was "a method of causing financial oppression on this 71-year-old man because you wanted him out of Parliament". Mr Goh won; 10 other suits by his PAP colleagues are pending.

In his report for the ICJ, Mr Littlemore, himself a defamation expert, is scathing. The judge "betrayed an almost total ignorance" of the technicalities of defamation law. Moreover, he did the work of Mr Goh's lawyers for them, constructing an argument against Mr Jeyaretnam which they did not present, and against which he had no opportunity to defend himself. He was ordered to pay "aggravated damages" because Mr Carman's questions were held "to denigrate the Prime Minister and the way he governs Singapore". "The most troubling aspect," wrote Mr Littlemore, "is the judge's undue deference."

"I have not the slightest doubt," said Mr Littlemore last week, "that the suit was politically motivated. In any other comparable jurisdiction, the remarks in question would have been seen as no more than the rough and tumble of any election campaign."

Mr Goh's argument was that he has no reason to crush Mr Jeyaretnam, who is no threat. Mr Jeyaretnam's supporters argue that by applying such pressure to even the mildest critic, the PAP stifles dissentbefore it is born.

During his cross-examination of the Prime Minister, as he was sipping his hot water, Mr Carman referred to the "climate of fear" in Singapore. The judge interrupted, swiftly: "I will not allow questions on that subject."