Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy

What to make of Singapore’s first and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died Monday morning in the city-state? Under the banner of the People’s Action Party, Lee held government power for three decades. After stepping away from the prime minister’s office in 1990, he held positions of senior minister and later “minister mentor” until 2004, when his son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister. Under their rule (and the interregnum of Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong–not a Lee family member, but hand-picked for the role, with the elder Lee looming over his shoulder for 14 years), Singapore emerged from Southeast Asia’s post-Second World War tumult as its most successful economy, a combination of authoritarian government, democratic trappings, and free markets that some predict will be the next century’s model for growth and stability. And Singapore’s media policies are being replicated across much of Southeast Asia.

Singapore enjoys a reputation as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. But without aggressive media coverage, who is watching over the government, other than the government?

As the global plaudits roll in, it is important to remember the relentless string of lawsuits against foreign and domestic media that dared to insinuate any nepotism or misconduct during the Lee family’s rule.

Over the years, he and his family sued and won damages in Singapore courts, or notched rich out-of-court settlements, against the International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Bloomberg news service and the Economist magazine. Nor has the government been beyond refusing visas to foreign journalists it does not like.

Domestic journalists felt even more of the wrath of the Lee family. As Singapore emerged as a model modern city, its anti-media attitudes kept up with the times. New regulations have been aimed at reining in Internet-based news outlets and defamation suits are logged against bloggers who poke around state financial bodies or dare to question the judiciary. That control arose early on: In 2002, Singapore’s High Court ruled that reporters do not have the right to protect confidential sources in civil cases if the court decides the documents are “relevant” to the proceedings. And despite having some of the most technically sophisticated Internet connections anywhere in the world, the World Wide Web has been anything but free. In 2001, regulations were implemented requiring websites with political content to register with the government, and the ensuing lawsuits and prosecutions have only made the restrictions tighter.

Print, broadcast, digital–it made no difference to the Lee family and the governments they headed. Some of the cases brought were civil, others criminal, and no slight has been too small to warrant harassment: You would think that questioning possible malfeasance in the finances of Singapore’s National Kidney Foundation would be within the realm of political discourse. Not so for the opposition New Democrat, whose backers wound up facing “aggravated defamation charges” for doing exactly that.

What is the role of journalists in such a society, litigious and wary of the disruptive fallout from political dissent? Back in 2006, in explaining his reason for dropping the column of Lee Kin Mun from the government-owned free newspaper Today, K. Bhavani, press secretary to the Minister of Information, Communications and the Arts, explained, “It is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the government.”

Whose role is it, then?