Paper apologizes for a story that does not
appear to include libel|
In an unusual statement, the International Herald Tribune on March 24
apologized to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, his father
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for
a February 15 article by contributor Philip Bowring on dynastic
politics in Asia.
Although the article contains an analysis of dynastic politics in Asia,
nowhere does it say or imply that nepotism played a role in the Lee
family's – or any other family's -- political prominence in the region.
In that way, the case is reminiscent of another in which the Financial Times apologized for a September 2007
article in which there appeared to be no libel. The article merely
listed the names of Lee family members in high positions in the island
Philip McClennan, the newly installed chief editor of the IHT for Asia,
said the Hong Kong office was not empowered to talk about the letter and
referred requests to Robert Christie at the New York office of the New
York Times, which owns the International Herald Tribune. Bowring, who is
also a contributing editor and founder of Asia Sentinel, said he could
not comment on the case.
However, Reuters reported that the paper paid S$160,000 (US$114,000) in
damages. Davinder Singh, the lawyer acting for the Lees, told Reuters
that the IHT's publisher, editor of global editions, and Bowring also
agreed to pay damages of S$60,000 to Lee Hsien Loong, and S$50,000 each
to Goh Chok Tong and Lee Kuan Yew, as well as pay their legal costs.
In the apology, the paper said that in 1994 Bowring "agreed as part of
an undertaking with the leaders of the government of Singapore that he
would not say or imply that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had attained
his position through nepotism practiced by his father, Lee Kuan Yew."
In the 1994 case, the IHT hastily agreed to apologize to the Lee family
for Bowring's article even before they filed a lawsuit, laying the paper
open to legal action on the basis that it had already admitted
wrongdoing. Eventually the paper was forced to pay the equivalent of
US$678,000, the largest amount of damages Singapore had ever levied on a
Although neither Bowring nor the newspaper would comment on the case, it
is possible to speculate that the Lee family demanded that the language
over the 1994 case be included in the apology or that the paper risked
more expensive legal action.
The IHT was also sued in 1995 over an article by an Australian academic,
Christopher Lingle, and ordered to pay costs and fines over an article
on "intolerant regimes" in Asia that use "a compliant judiciary" to
bankrupt opposition politicians. Singapore was not mentioned in the
article. Nonetheless, Justice Goh Joon Seng said he had "no doubt" that
the American was referring to Singapore in his passage about a compliant
judiciary and that the reference had "scandalized the Singapore
judiciary" despite the fact that the Lees had repeatedly used their
courts to bankrupt opposition politicians.
Being charged in the Singapore courts is tantamount to being convicted.
As far as can be determined, neither the government nor the Lee family
have never lost a case against the press in their own courts, nor does
it appear that they have ever won one outside of Singapore. The
government or members of the Lee family have filed defamation or
contempt charges against virtually every major publication in Asia,
including the Financial Times, Time Magazine, the Economist, Bloomberg
News Service, the now-defunct AsiaWeek and any other publication that
refuses to toe the Lee line although none of the cases have been filed
in countries with rational legal systems.
The Far Eastern Economic Review, especially under the late editor Derek
Davies, was a particular target going back to 1988. Dow Jones
Corporation, the later owner of the magazine, which ceased publication
in December, paid US$175,000 in damages and costs on a ruling that the
magazine defamed Prime Minister Lee and his father in a 2006 interview
with Chee Soon Juan, the secretary-general of the opposition Singapore
In agreeing to the settlement rather than continue to fight the case,
Dow Jones issued the following statement:
"Dow Jones strongly disagrees with the decision of the Singapore Court
of Appeal upholding the ruling against the Far Eastern Economic Review
in the defamation case brought by Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Kuan Yew. The
Court casts significant doubt as to whether Singapore will ever
recognize the fair and honest reporting privilege accorded to
responsible journalism — a privilege available in the United Kingdom and
other Commonwealth countries with diverse histories and cultures.
Other fines paid by international news media include the Economist,
which was ordered to pay US227,000 in one case and US$125,000 in
another. Bloomberg was ordered to pay the Lees US$550,000 in 2002. In
several other cases, the damage settlements were not revealed.
In the statement on the IHT's March 24 editorial page, the newspaper
said that despite Bowring's promise not to imply nepotism had played a
role in the younger Lee's ascent to power, "Mr Bowring nonetheless
included these two men in a list of Asian political dynasties, which may
have been understood by readers to infer that the younger Lee did not
achieve his position through merit.
"We wish to state clearly that this inference was not intended. We
apologize to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan
Yew and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for any distress or
embarrassment caused by any breach of the undertaking and the article."
The offending article was taken off the International Herald Tribune's
website. However, it has been reprinted by many other publications which
subscribe to the New York Times news services. Asia Sentinel reprints
the IHT piece here for readers to judge:
All in the Family
By PHILIP BOWRING
HONG KONG — Are political dynasties good or bad?
Election time in the Philippines is a regular reminder of the roles that
feudal instincts and the family name play in that nation's politics.
Benigno Aquino, son of the late President Corazon Aquino, is the front
runner to succeed President Gloria Arroyo, daughter of Diosdado
Macapagal, a president in the 1960s.
Senate and Congressional contests will see family names of other former
presidents and those long prominent in provincial politics and
But the Philippines is not unique. Dynastic politics thrives across Asia
to an extent found in no other region apart from the Arabian peninsula
The list of Asian countries with governments headed by the offspring or
spouses of former leaders is striking: Pakistan has Prime Minister Asif
Ali Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, herself the daughter of the
executed former leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bangladesh has Sheikh
Hasina, daughter of the murdered first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur
Rahman . In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak is the son of the
second prime minister, Abdul Razak. Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong is Lee
Kuan Yew's son. In North Korea, Kim Il-sung's son Kim Jong-il commands
party, army and country and waiting in the wings is his son Kim Jong-un.
In India, the widow Sonia Gandhi is the power behind the technocrat
prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and her son Rahul is showing political
promise and being groomed in the hope of leading the Congress party and
eventually filling the post of prime minister, first occupied by his
great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru.
In Japan, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is the scion of a Kennedy-like
political dynasty: His father was a foreign minister, and his
grandfather was a prime minister.
Indonesia's last president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, is the daughter of
its first, and family ties could well play in the next presidential
election when the incumbent, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, must
retire. In Myanmar, the durability of the opposition to the military
owes much to the name of Aung San Suu Kyi's independence-hero father as
well as to her stoicism.
Thailand lacks obvious political dynasties but that is likely because
there is already a monarch. South Korea's rough and tumble democracy
would seem to leave little scope for dynasties but even there, the
political career of Park Chung Hee's daughter, Park Geun Hye, has
benefited much from her father's reputation.
With the exception of North Korea, Asian dynasties are a phenomenon of
countries that are more or less democratic.
In China, family connections help immensely but the party is still a
relatively meritocratic hierarchy. Vietnam is similar. In the
Philippines, it is easy to blame dynastic tendencies for the nation's
stark economic failures. But its problems go much deeper into the social
structure and the way the political system entrenches a selfish elite.
It is a symptom not the cause of the malaise.
In India, the Gandhi name has been an important element in ensuring that
Congress remains a major national force at a time when the growth of
regional, caste and language based parties have added to the problems of
governing such a diverse country. In Bangladesh, years of fierce
rivalry between Sheikh Hasina, daughter of one murdered president and
widow of another, have been a debilitating factor in democratic
politics. But their parties needed their family names to provide
cohesion and without them there could have been much more overt military
intervention. Ms. Megawati was a poor leader but just by being there
helped the consolidation of the post-Suharto democracy.
Dynasties can be stultifying too. In Malaysia, the ruling party was once
a grassroots organization where upstarts like former Prime Minister
Mahathir Mohamad could flourish but over time it has become a
self-perpetuating patronage machine. Too many of the key players are the
offspring or relatives of former leaders.
There are more fundamental problems, too. Most current Asian dynasties
trace themselves to the post-1945 political transformation. In that
sense they have become a crutch, reflecting a failure to devise systems
for the transfer of power to new names, faces and ideas.
Dynasties are a poor commentary on the depth of democracy in their
countries. Without parties with a coherent organization and a set of
ideas, politics becomes about personalities alone and name recognition
more important than competence. Parties run by the elite offspring of
past heroes easily degenerate into self-serving patronage systems.
So dynastic leadership in Asia's quasi-democracies can provide a focus
for nations, a glue for parties, an identity substitute in countries
that used to be run by kings and sultans. But it is more a symptom of
underlying problems than an example to be followed.