NY Times pays damages to Singapore leaders, Times public editor responds

By Alex Kennedy

SINGAPORE — Last month, The New York Times Co. apologized and agreed to pay Singapore’s prime minister and his two predecessors approximately 160,000 Singapore dollars ($114,000) for a story that described the city-state’s leaders as an Asian political dynasty.

The Times, the editor of its global editions, and the article’s writer Philip Bowring agreed to pay SG$60,000 to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, SG$50,000 to his father Lee Kuan Yew, and $50,000 to Goh Chok Tong, a lawyer for the Singaporean politicians.

Lee Kuan Yew was prime minister from 1959 to 1990 and was replaced by Goh Chok Tong until 2004, when Lee Hsien Loong became prime minister. The leaders of the authoritarian city-state have sued journalists and political opponents several times over the years for alleged defamation. They have won lawsuits and damages against Bloomberg, the Economist, and Dow Jones & Co.

Listing the Lees as an Asian political dynasty in a Feb. 15 article “may have been understood by readers to infer that the younger Mr. Lee did not achieve his position through merit,” the Times said in an apology. “We wish to state clearly that this inference was not intended.”

The Times said that as part of a settlement with the three leaders for a 1994 article, Bowring had agreed that he would not say or imply that Lee Hsien Loong had attained his position through nepotism practiced by his father Lee Kuan Yew.

Because the Times agreed to apologize and pay the damages and costs, no suit was filed in court, lawyer Davinder Singh said.

On April 4, Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt responded to the readers who were “astonished that a news organization with a long history of standing up for First Amendment values would appear to bow obsequiously to an authoritarian regime that makes no secret of its determination to cow critics, including Western news organizations, through aggressive libel actions.”

Hoyt makes the point that though calling a political family a dynasty is commonplace in the United States, it is different in Singapore. Singapore has press laws that seem restrictive compared to those in the United States.

In his article, Hoyt points out that the Times has quoted Lee Hsien Loong as saying, “If you don’t have the law of defamation, you would be like America, where people say terrible things about the president and it can’t be proved.”

Readers are worried that the Times is showing deference to certain world leaders.

According to Hoyt, Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, said, “Nobody in this company has ever told me what our reporters can write — or not write — about Singapore. We don’t work that way.”

It is hard for publications to follow in Google’s example. Google pulled out of China because of censorship and put billions of dollars at risk.

Though small, Singapore is a financial hub, making it an important source of news, wrote Hoyt. More than 10 percent of the International Herald Tribune’s, the Times sister paper, circulation in Asia is in Singapore. By paying the $114,000, the Times avoided paying more if Singapore sued. ♦

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