The troubles of a fast-rising, sometimes sassy publication here may provide a clue to the future of a free press throughout Southeast Asia.
With one of its contributors booted out of Thailand, another appealing a threatened ouster from the Philippines and two more under arrest in Singapore, the Far Eastern Economic Review seems to be sliding into a confrontation that may set the tone of efforts to inform opinion - and money-makers in this important area.
The review is fat with ads and sells 32,000 copies a week, making it the most successful of regional Asian publications. Its contributor network of itinerant Americans and Britons and hustling Asians has become perhaps the most important news-gathering force in the area, with influence not only on what is printed here but on British and American publications that reach millions of non-Asian readers.
The Review, printed in this last bastion of an unrestrained press in Southeast Asia, now finds itself both friend and foe of the nations where it wants to be sold. This string of countries around the rim of China and Indochina combines the best and worst of what, to many Western eyes, life seems to hold in the next few decades for the entire Third World.
After years of colonial exploitation the home grown entrepreneurs of Southeast Asia are eagerly getting into business for themselves. They like the detailed, week-by-week accounts of economic news in each of the area's markets provided by a publication like the Review. But they also like the stable governments that make doing business and attracting foreign capital so much easier. In a continent of Communist monoliths, religious and ethnic feuds and political factions, that desire for stability has created increasingly authoritarian political systems, and made the Western-style political criticism and muckraking found in the Review less and less welcome.
The problem all came to a boil last week with the detention of two former Review contributors in Singapore on what appears to be suspicion of a Review attempt to blacken the reputation of Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew and create ill feeling between Singapore and neighboring Malaysia. The Review responded with a detailed, six-page denial and a charge of "growing irrationally" in Singapore that one Review editor says "means we'll probably be banned" in the market that accounts for 15 per cent of the magazine's sales.
Under detention in Singapore are Arun Senkuttuvan, correspondent of Britain's Financial Times and The Economist and until September a Review contributor, and Ho Kwon Ping, the Review's Singapore correspondent until his arrest in January for possessing "protected" information.
Ho pleaded guilty. The Review accepted his resignation and paid his $3,000 fine. He was released, but was arrested again March 12 and his desk at the Review office was searched after a starting confession signed by Senkuttuvan was released by the government.
Senkuttuvan said he had aided the Communist cause in Singapore by slanting the articles he wrote for the Review and by distributing Review editor Derek Davies's taped recollections of an off-the-record interview with Lee Kwan Yew. The Davies tape was intended to create "ill will and suspicion" between Lee and leaders of neighboring Malaysia, the Singapore government said in releasing Senkuttuvan's confession.
In a detailed response published in last week's Review, Davies said there was nothing on the tape to suggest ill will between the two nations. He called it "inexplicable" that a man as intelligent and politically secure as Lee would take such action, and suggested that the crackdown on the Review sprang from Lee's contempt for the press and Singapore's resentment of a magazine based in the city that rivals its economic success.
When the Review's correspondent in Thailand, a Briton named Norman Peagam, was expelled last month, and an American contributor in Manila, Bernard Wideman, was denied a visa extension - which he has appealed - the magazine did not respond nearly so vehemently.
Peagam, who has also contributed to The New York Times, and Wideman, who still contributes to The Washington Post, are part of a scattered band of reporters supported by the Review whose local contacts have become so widespread that diplomats and visiting journalists regularly solicit them for tips. When one of the best connected of this group, M.G.G. Pillai of Malaysia, went to the United States on a fellowship this year, one Malaysia-based diplomat complained to a visitor that "we just don't get as much information with Pillai not around."
Such reporters come into contact with the opponents of the current government and, following the rules of Western journalism, report the dissenters' points of view.
Review deputy editor Russell Spurr says, however, "There is a growing feeling that Western values do not apply to Asia . . . and the increasingly authoritarian governments in the region resent it that foreigners are able to operate in a way their own local reporters cannot operate."
So far the two sides have maintained a delicate balance. Governments have tried to restrain their impulse to silence critical journalists to avoid more bad publicity and to nurture coverage of economic developement by influential journals like the Review. Publications like the Review, edited largely by Westerners, in turn try to restrain their urge to preach, so that they can maintain access to sources and newstands.
Now, something has to give.
"The Review isgoing to hit back," said Spurr. "The Review has been silent too long."
The next move is Singapore's, and other governments in this part of the world will be watching the response of Lee Kwan Yew.