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Singapore tries five for revealing economic facts

TWO journalists and three economists went on trial in a Singapore district court yesterday in an official-secrets case that emphasises the government's determination to maintain control of information.

Patrick Daniel, 38, the editor of Business Times, Singapore's main financial newspaper, is among the five charged under the Official Secrets Act with illegally revealing the island state's rate of economic growth. In June last year the newspaper correctly forecast that Singapore's second-quarter growth rate would be between 4.6 per cent and 4.8 per cent. The official figure, announced some weeks later, was 4.7 per cent.

According to the prosecution, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, director of the economic department of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the de facto central bank, gave the government's 'flash estimate' of the growth rate to Manu Bhaskaran, an economist at a Hong Kong-based company, Crosby Securities. He in turn is accused of communicating it to Raymond Foo, a colleague, and Kenneth James, a journalist on Business Times. Mr Daniel is charged with receiving and printing the information. The case is scheduled to last three weeks.

The first prosecution witness, Lai Seck Khui, deputy secretary at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, which conducts the 'flash estimates', said he contacted the Internal Security Department (ISD) after being 'shocked' to read of the newspaper's estimate.

In August last year the ISD raided the Business Times's office. Journalists and foreign brokers were questioned and files seized in a heavy-handed investigation after the Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, said he would not tolerate the illegal disclosure of sensitive or classified information, adding: 'You can't run a government which is leaking all over the place.'

Singapore's Official Secrets Act is the same as the draconian British law passed in 1911. The journalists face two charges under the Act and the private economists three, each carrying a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment and a Sdollars 2,000 ( pounds 850) fine. The Attorney-General, Chan Sek Keong, making a rare appearance in a lower court, said the case had been brought to establish the principle that for the government to function properly, 'it must be able to keep sensitive information secret'.

The government's pursuit of what would be considered a routine leak in most developed economies is seen as a warning to local journalists.

The press had risked becoming more critical since Mr Goh took over in 1990 from Lee Kuan Yew, promising a 'more consensual' style, and Business Times was regarded as the most outspoken.

Mr Lee, who does not hesitate to criticise Mr Goh publicly if he considers his successor to be relaxing his grip, let it be known after last year's raid that the leak would not have happened if he had still been in charge.