At first sight, Singapore's decision to pursue a libel action against one of the world's great newspapers over an inoffensive remark appears counter-productive.
By forcing the International Herald Tribune to apologise and pay US$114,000 in damages for merely including founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his son, the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, in a list of Asian political dynasties, the government appears to tarnish the image of Singapore, not defend it.
(The offending article - which the Lees say implies nepotism - has been removed from the IHT website but is available on the Asia Sentinel website. The whole episode reads like a re-run of the IHT's 1994 set-to with the Lees, which cost it S$950,000.)
However, the canny Lees know more than anyone else when they must lose the short-term public relations battle in order to win the long-term war for control of the international media.
Doubtless, this latest in a long line of libel victories by Singapore's rulers will be condemned by press freedom campaigners and human rights groups. On message boards and blogs, some Singaporeans will mock "old man" Lee and his son for their thin skins.
But, after a few days, it will be forgotten. And all that will remain is the fact that the Singapore government has once again cowed one of the world's leading publications.
The IHT, owned by the New York Times, will think even harder before publishing anything vaguely critical of Singapore again. Other publications will take heed, particularly in these straitened times.
Papers like the IHT are simply not willing to risk being barred from distributing in Singapore or losing the crucial advertising revenue from Singapore government-owned companies such as Singapore Airlines.
So they toe the line, in cloying fashion. Here is the IHT's "Apology" in full:
In 1994, Philip Bowring, a contributor to the International Herald Tribune’s op-ed page, 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 a February 15, 2010, article, 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 Mr. 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.
Read it and weap. And then, replace "Singapore" with any other country in the world and the Lees with any other political dynasty and imagine how ridiculous it would look.
If I was a lawyer in Singapore, I would be on the phone now to the members of the other political dynasties mentioned in Philip Bowring's IHT aritcle: Pakistani Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il.
Think how much money you could make bringing a class action defamation lawsuit against the IHT on their behalf in Singapore.