How Singapore dealt with a voice of dissent

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The Independent Online
"Most people don't understand these things," said Tang Liang Hong. "But I know the game they're playing. They use the police, the law of defamation and legal process. They claim to be of upright character and moral authority, but what kind of morality is this?"

South-east Asia still has its share of villains, and such words might be used by the critics of any one of a handful of regional regimes. But Mr Tang, a 61-year old ethnic Chinese from Singapore, is not talking about Burma or Indonesia. The objects of his invective are some of the most respected rulers in Asia: the leaders of Singapore and its helmsman of the last three decades, Lee Kuan Yew, who will meet Tony Blair on a trip to Britain next week.

The immediate reasons for Mr Tang's fury are straightforward. In March, he was sued for defamation by senior members of Singapore's People's Action Party (PAP) after calling them liars during the general election campaign in December. On Thursday, a Singaporean judge awarded combined damages of 8 million Singapore dollars (pounds 3.5m) to 11 plaintiffs, including cabinet ministers, two deputy prime ministers, the prime minister, and Mr Lee himself.

At first glance, Mr Tang's words look like the whingeing of a beaten man. But Mr Tang's supporters have pointed to a report issued earlier this year by the US State Department which referred to the government's "attempts to intimidate the opposition through the threat of libel suits".

The story begins last December during the campaign for elections to Singapore's parliament. Nominally a multi-party democracy, the country 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, in what was considered a bad showing, the PAP held a mere 79 of the parliament's 83 seats. The party was determined to improve this situation and Lee Kuan Yew's anointed successor as Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, led an aggressive campaign against the opposition. In one constituency, Mr Goh warned that districts which returned opposition candidates would find themselves at the back of the queue for improved housing.

"The whole of Singapore will be bustling away," he said, "and your estate, through your own choice, will be left behind. They'll become slums." But he concentrated his fire on one man - Tang Liang Hong, who was standing for the opposition Workers' Party (WP).

One of the remarkable things about Singapore under the PAP is the social harmony which it has maintained, despite a mixed ethnic composition. Three- quarters of the 3 million Singaporeans are Chinese, but the use of English as the common language of education and business has smoothed over potential differences with the sizeable Malay and Indian populations. Mr Tang has made no secret of his reservations about the dominance of English and English-educated Christians.

As the campaign heated up, Mr Goh called Mr Tang a "Chinese chauvinist" for his "radical views", and Mr Lee accused him of being "anti-English and anti-Christian". Mr Tang then alleged they were lying. It was at this point that their full legal fury was unleashed. The WP narrowly lost in his constituency but this was only the beginning of Mr Tang's troubles. He already faced libel suits over remarks he made about property transactions and the Lee family.

After he left Singapore, for Britain, Malaysia and now Hong Kong, his wife's assets were frozen and her passport confiscated because, the government claims, he had transferred some of his assets to her name. A week ago, he was charged with 33 counts of tax evasion, carrying potential prison terms of three years each.

Singapore's leaders have never made any secret of their preference for one-party rule.

One of the PAP's rising young stars, Rear Admiral Teo Chee Hean, said: "A two party system would put us on the dangerous road to contention, when we should play as one team." And Mr Goh was once quoted as saying: "If you land us a blow on our jaw, you must expect a counter-blow on your solar plexus."