How Singapore dealt with a voice of dissent

Opposition leader in exile after pounds 3.5m fine Strap Book locked to grid strap Book locked top grid

"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."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - 3-4 Month Fixed Contract - £30-£35k pro rata

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a 3-4 month pro rata fi...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £26,000+

£16000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map