By John O'Callaghan
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore's long-ruling government is reacting to discontent about rising prices, foreign workers and a sluggish economy with unprecedented openness but threats of lawsuits show it remains testy with critics deemed to have crossed the line.
In power since 1959, the People's Action Party (PAP) was hit in 2011 by its worst election result in history, prompting the government to launch an "Our Singapore Conversation" campaign to consult citizens on policy and the future as they find new freedoms online and in public.
"A bye bye party for PAP pigs," a person with the moniker unemployed777 wrote in an online forum this week about a snap by-election set for January 26 after the speaker of parliament resigned over an extramarital affair.
That comment and others similarly strident on a portal run by state-linked Singapore Press Holdings would not have appeared until recently. But how far the limits can be tested is still a big question for a government accustomed to playing a pervasive role in the wealthy Asian city-state of 5.3 million people.
Twice this year and several times last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other PAP members have threatened critics with lawsuits for defamation, continuing a practice that rights groups see as a tactic to stifle dissent.
PAP figures have said they take legal action to protect their reputations. Any suggestion of nepotism or corruption is often the trigger.
In most of the recent cases, apologies and retractions warded off lawsuits - a break from the past when action was taken regardless and damages in the hundreds of thousands of dollars led some opposition politicians to be declared bankrupt and therefore ineligible to run for election.
"The jury is still out on whether we're seeing a sustainable change in government attitudes towards their critics," said Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson.
"But it's clear that Singapore's youth, and the Internet-fuelled information culture they revel in, are less accepting of government heavy-handedness when it comes to censorship."
THEN AND NOW
This month, Lee's lawyers sent a letter to blogger Alex Au citing "very grave libels" in a post he wrote and in comments by his readers about the sale of computer systems used by PAP-run town councils to a company owned by the ruling party.
Au, who was threatened with another lawsuit last year by the minister for law and foreign affairs, removed the post and published an apology. The prime minister has since ordered an inquiry into the deal.
Saying sorry may not help the treasurer of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) over his blog about Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin and a strike by bus drivers from China. Tan is seeking costs and damages.
Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding leader and father of the current prime minister, set the tone years ago by suing political foes and foreign media organisations.
"We decide what is right," he told the Straits Times newspaper in 1987. "Never mind what the people think."
Much has changed, even if politics was not on the agenda of the public conversation the government convened as part of a broad review of policies it plans to unveil soon.
Steps have been taken to cool the property market, restrict foreign workers and enhance social programmes. But with disquiet still obvious, the PAP faces a test in this month's by-election.
The PAP may well keep the seat, especially if opposition parties split the vote. But Chee Soon Juan, the SDP's secretary-general, said the lawsuit against his party's treasurer "will not help the government's case".
"We look forward to a Singapore where politics can be debated, where we can really have reasoned argument, instead of legal action being taken," said Chee, who was declared bankrupt in 2006 for failing to pay damages for defamation.
(Additional reporting by Kevin Lim; Editing by Robert Birsel)