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.