Wednesday, January 9, 2013

PAP's self inflicted damage: next generation of big bullies threatening financial ruin?

Tan Chuan Jin should realise that an accusation of being dishonest, without sufficient plausible evidence, does not carry any weight  with any intelligent observer. It is all part of a robust debate. He should not imagine a gullible audience or readership.

However, being perceived as a high-handed bully intent on suppressing honest, probing and potentially embarrassing debate and on financially crippling political opponents (as exemplified by the cases of J.B. Jeyatretnam and Dr Chee Soon Juan) is a far more odious, indelible, and damaging character stain.

We are watching, and forming our view of the character and quality of the next generation of PAP leaders, including Tan Chuan Jin.

PAP should wake up to the era of sophisticated and intelligent voters, and stop behaving as if public opinion in Singapore is still dominated by its party propaganda apparatus masquerading as neutral mass media.

It should examine how political debates are conducted everywhere else in the free and democratic world. Singaporeans today are utterly familiar with such debates without having lived overseas. We expect, and demand, such debates in Singapore.


Has Tan Chuan-Jin suffered greater damage through legal action?

by Faisal Wali

New Asia Republic, Jan 8, 2013 (source)

Quite a long time ago, I wrote an article reasoning why then Presidential-hopeful Mr Tan Kin Lian should not resort to legal action over supposedly defamatory remarks made online. Perhaps, Kin Lian might have read the article and decided against taking legal actions, but we don’t know what went through his mind.

My article titled “Why Tan Kin Lian should take heed of McLibel” argued that prominent politicians and organisations should not take legal actions if defamed for two reasons. One, is that the latter should have higher threshold of acceptable criticism than ordinary citizens. Given the nature of their jobs, they must accept the fact that they are subjected to greater scrutiny and criticisms. For this, I cited examples of how the European Court of Human Rights reverse judgements which originally ruled in favour of governments or politicans who won their cases against ordinary citizens who have defamed them.

The second reason is that pursuing the legal route will result in greater damage to the prominent entity on the public relations front, which explains my McLibel title. McDonald’s filed a law suit against an environmental activist organisation which distributed pamphlets containing false allegations against the company. Although McDonald’s were awarded damages of 40,000 pounds, it did not collect the money because it was by then a public relations disaster for the company. The reason for the public relations disaster is quite simple – it looks like a powerful entity bullying another smaller and powerless one, and of course sentiments will turn towards the former.

The latest case involved Vincent Wijeysingha vs Tan Chuan-Jin where the former apologised unreservedly for describing the latter as “dishonest”, “deceptive”, “untruthful” over the complaints and issues involving the striking SMRT drivers. Wijeysingha accepted in a Facebook post that his remarks were totally false and has since retracted his original Facebook post. It has also been reported that Chuan-Jin is seeking damages from Wijeysingha. Thus now, we are looking at another McLibel in the making. It is looking like a pyrrhic victory for Chuan-Jin. For a prominent politician taking legal action for defamation, it is akin to a dog biting its tail, he will end up for the worse as the tide of public sentiments turns against him.

Chuan-Jin could have countered Wijeysingha’s remarks in a prominent medium which is far less damaging. Yet, he chose a route which could bite him back in the tail.

If one does up a dossier of successful law suits won by PAP politicians over their opposition critics, there is a common recurring theme about them – they are won over allegations made over the honesty and integrity of the prominent PAP politicians. To really summarise, if you allege that a particular PAP politician is “dishonest” or a “liar”, you will probably be served a lawyer’s letter to take down your post or article and apologise or be told to pay a certain sum in damages.

One wonders if the PAP is even aware of the very stereotype of a politician, regardless of whether we are in Singapore, UK, Australia, US or any other part of the world. Using the Wijeysingha vs Chuan-Jin example, since the remarks were made in a Facebook medium, obviously readers of the said defamatory remarks have a level of technology savviness. It is not too hard for them and for the tech savvy PAP politicians to go to a Google search engine and type “Politicians are dishonest”/”Politicians are liars”. The reality is that we have members of the public who already possess a stereotypical view of politicians. This link talks about the stereotyping of American politicians as liars, and then this one talks about how politicians lie that a Queensland law (Australia) has to be made to make lying illegal in parliament. Mind you, laws are made in consideration of a society’s sentiments. Obviously, even Australians think politicians are liars and see fit to put such a law in place. Then, we have this Guardian article that states from the outset that “All politicians are liars” and that Britons have to “listen the lying bastards lying everyday”.

I am not sure if the PAP subscribes to the idealised/utopian view that all politicians are whiter than white, but the truth of the matter on the ground is that the stereotypical view of a typical politician tend to be more cynical – “all politicians are liars”. However, of course, stereotypes remain as stereotypes, and there are exceptions to the norm – the clean, honest politicians, optimistically speaking, though the PAP surely promotes the fact that its politicians remain in this category.

However, if the stereotypical view of a politician is more cynical, i.e. “all politicians are liars”, then there should be greater threshold of acceptable criticism for any politician in this country, regardless of PAP or opposition. Any allegations that point out to the effect that a “politician is a liar” should be within the threshold of acceptable criticism since this already reflects the stereotypical, albeit cynical view. If the PAP needs any convincing, may I cordially invite the party members to go to the Google search engine and type “All politicians are liars”, “All politicians are dishonest”, etc. Maybe, the Google search results will change the Men in White’s perception of how a politician is stereotypically perceived, even for one from within their ranks. That will shatter the rose-tinted lenses…

Lawsuit threats put muzzle on diverse views
Braema Mathi
Jan 9. 2013, Today online (source)
MARUAH, a human rights organisation, is concerned over the Prime Minister's approach in demanding an apology and removal of the article and subsequent posts on the Action Information Management (AIM) and Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) matter on Mr Alex Au's website.

These demands were made under threat of a defamation suit ("Blogger Au to remove post after PM Lee takes legal action"; Jan 5). In the recent past, defamation suits by political leaders have exacted high monetary compensations from the affected individuals.

As the AIM-AHTC matter is an issue of national interest, threatening a defamation suit at this juncture on the matter is, firstly, untimely. It is not calibrated to meet the need for deeper discussions on what is seen as an issue with many unanswered questions.

The Prime Minister's action will have the attendant chilling effect on public debate and increase the cynicism among the citizenry at a time when there seems to be more political space for interaction, which will not always remain sane and palatable.

This defamation threat is also regrettable as there are avenues - Parliament, mainstream media, social media - available to politicians to address the AIM-AHTC matter and let the facts speak for themselves.

Secondly, Law Minister K Shanmugam recently likened defamation to stealing one's reputation. We say that reputation is not property that can be stolen or reinstated with defamation suits and monetary compensation alone. Anyone defamed does not automatically have his/her honour reinstated because an apology and/or compensation had been secured. 

Reputation is an issue of honour that can and should be protected by encouraging open, robust and transparent debates. 

There must also be a case to show the ill-will was highly prejudicial, based on malice and/or baseless.

Defamation suits in themselves are limiting and political figures, more than anyone else, will remain vulnerable to aspersions; it will be the merits of the case that will speak volumes. In this case, the AIM-AHTC matter merits a thorough sharing of information by both the ruling and opposition parties.

Thirdly, Singaporeans are discerning and capable of discarding baseless and nonsensical views. What is important is to develop higher thresholds of dealing with diverse views expressed in myriad ways and to use the available avenues to right one's reputation.

We, the Government and public, are on a journey towards greater political space. Threats of defamation suits can silence discussions of national interest, freeze our expressions and stunt our growth. That would be the greater pity.


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