April 26 (Bloomberg) -- The opposition Singapore Democratic Party, contesting elections May 6, said it will fight legal action being considered by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father Lee Kuan Yew, founder of modern Singapore.
Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan and other officials had until 10 a.m. yesterday to apologize for statements made in the party newspaper and pay damages to the Lees. Lawyers were hired to contest any action, the party said in a statement.
``We won't apologize,'' Chee said in a phone interview on April 24, a stand the party reaffirmed today. ``It's in their court, and they will be issuing the writ after that and we will respond to it.''
The prime minister and his father last week demanded an apology from Chee and the other 11 members of the Singapore Democratic Party's central executive committee for statements made in The New Democrat newspaper. The spat has overshadowed campaigning for the city-state's upcoming elections.
The Lees said they would sue unless a public apology was forthcoming, according to the Straits Times newspaper, which cited their lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh. Singh couldn't be reached today in his office.
Three of the Singapore Democratic Party's executive committee have apologized so far. Kwan Yue Keng, Abdul Rasheed Abdul Kuthus and Lai Kin Kheong published statements in the Straits Times saying they ``unreservedly'' withdrew the allegations and apologized to both the prime minister and his father.
The three also agreed to pay an undisclosed amount in damages to Lee Hsien Loong, who became prime minister 20 months ago, and Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister from 1959 to 1990.
Legal action may also be taken against the printer of the political newspaper, Chee said in a statement on the party Web site.
Both Lees are members of the People's Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since independence about four decades ago. The party has 82 of 84 elected seats in Parliament and is expected to secure a landslide win in May elections, though opposition groups have been trying to increase their popular support.
``The opposition is hoping to put a tougher challenge this time around,'' said Bruce Gale, a Singapore-based independent political consultant covering Southeast Asia since 1988.
Chee faced a defamation suit during a 2001 election. He was ordered to pay S$500,000 ($315,000) in damages for defaming the elder Lee and former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, Agence France- Presse reported last year.
Previous lawsuits by leaders of the ruling People's Action Party have been criticized by human rights groups, the European Union and billionaire George Soros, who called for Singapore's government to allow more freedom of expression during a visit in January. He said then that Singapore, ranked 140th out of 167 countries in a 2005 press freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders, doesn't qualify as an ``open society.''
The prime minister and his father have both made recent statements saying they need to defend their reputations.
``If we do not act and the lies and defamation are repeated throughout and in election rallies and spread around, I think the government's reputation goes down and its standing must go down,'' Singapore's Sunday Times quoted Lee Hsien Loong as saying. ``It must lose its moral authority to govern because these statements have been made and you have not reacted and that means there must be some truth in it.''
Singapore also has restrictions on unauthorized public assembly and earlier this month limited the use of the Internet in the election campaign.
``Freedom of expression is extremely limited. Freedom of assembly is extremely limited,'' said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. ``What's missing from the government's position is an end-date for all of this. It was always implicitly the argument that Singapore could grow into a developed society where people could be trusted.''
Singapore barred the use of so-called podcasting, or the distribution of audio files over the Internet, in political broadcasts. The ban during the election period also extends to the distribution of online video messages, as well as blogging, or posting political opinions on Web sites, the government said.
``People will have their diverse opinion and some will want to share their opinion. But people should not take refuge behind the anonymity of the Internet to manipulate public opinion,'' Balaji Sadasivan, senior minister of state for information, said in Parliament on April 3. ``It is better and more responsible to engage in political debates in a factual and objective manner.''
To contact the reporter on this story:
Linus Chua in Singapore at email@example.com.