The State is Not Fragile

I’ve made this point several times before, but in the wake of Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong suing blogger Roy Ngerng for defamation and demanding damages, the time has come again to argue that defamation suits are not the response.

This post is not about the merits of Ngerng’s argument. He alleged that Lee stole monies from the Central Provident Fund, by comparing how CPF funds are handled with the current City Harvest scandal. Having missed the original article before Ngerng took it down, I won’t comment on it. But I will say that from a policy perspective, defamation suits benefit no one.

The Question Remains

Whether Ngerng actually defamed Lee is ancillary to the issue. Many Singaporean bloggers, such as Leong Sze Hian and gdy2shoez of Everything Also Complain, are raising questions about CPF mechanisms and investments. Ngerng’s post is simple one of a long line of similar posts — the only difference being that Lee’s lawyer saw cause to lay down a defamation suit.

Lee may feel his reputation had been hurt. A defamation suit, with a demand for damages, is the government’s traditional means of addressing this. However, even if the offending speech could be erased and the speaker made to pay damages, the issues remain. No number of defamation suits and no dollar amount can satisfy these questions. If anything, the use of defamation suits makes the state look as if it has something to hide, and that it is actually trying to silence dissent.

The Face of the State

The government, through the Prime Minister, may feel it needs to protect its reputation — its ‘face’, so to speak. But people today are less likely to be view defamation suits from authority figures in a positive light. If aimed at a popular blogger like Ngerng, the state is courting political backlash by creating the impression that it is perpetuating a kind of soft tyranny, rolling over dissidents with the combined power of law and money.

There are signs of backlash already. Other Internet personalities are taking to social media to express their support for Ngerng. Some miscreant(s) vandalised several bus stops in support of Ngerng. I feel people are becoming increasingly frustrated and angry at a government that seems to have reneged on its promise of a ‘light touch’ on the Internet, and is throwing defamation suits and letters of demand at every possibility. Ngerng is simply the last of a long line of bloggers, from Alex Au to Temasek Review Emeritus, Tan Kin Lian to Vincent Wijeysingha.

The eyes of the people are on the state. How an action is perceived is just as important as its intended effect. The government may pride itself on doing ‘the right thing’ instead of pandering to populist demands, but what is ‘the right thing’ here? Is it choosing to break out the legal hatchetmen? Or rising above concerns of reputation and addressing the root questions?

Earning the People’s Respect

The state is not so fragile that a single comment would bring it down. The Prime Minister’s rule is not so tenuous that his authority is threatened by a single blog post. If Singapore were to ever reach that stage, then that Singapore would not be the Singapore founded on the ideals of democracy and meritocracy. But the first step to getting to that hypothetical Singapore is to suppress political opposition and define the boundaries of speech with every instrument of the law.

Openness is power. Transparency follows legitimacy. Dialogue empowers citizens. The proper response to defamation is not to try to shut it down straight away; such a defensive move can and will be interpreted as the state trying to silence opposition and to cover up reality. The more appropriate response is candour. Tan Chuan Jin discussed how CPF is used in Singapore on the Internet. This should have been the first response. As is, it is overshadowed by the drama over Ngerng’s case, and its impact muted.

The answer to offensive speech is more speech. Instead of trying to shut down offensive people, the government should instead identify and address the real issues. This means being frank with government mechanisms, making statistics publicly available, and discussing policies. It also means actually talking to opinion leaders, either online or offline, instead of shunning them or bringing down the hammer. Starting discussions and addressing issues earns respect. It builds face. It also opens up the marketplace of ideas, letting people understand and decide the truth and hopefully persuade detractors. This is a win-win situation for everybody.

If the state were indeed defamed, such an approach would show the people that there are no grounds for spurious allegations, preserving or even enhancing its moral standing. Ordinary people around the world have been doing this on the Internet for over a decade, and the majority of opinion leaders had had no need to resort to letters of demand to handle offensive speech. The use of lawsuits would, in the new age of new media, have to be a very deliberate approach, if indeed attempted at all.

The government, in the person of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, holds every advantage over a single lowly blogger. The only real harm the government faces is self-inflicted, harming its own reputation through legal demands. It’s time for Lee and the state to place their law firms on the burner, and to step out of their offices and start talking to the people who put them there.

The State is Not Fragile

8 thoughts on “The State is Not Fragile

  1. BC

    The basic problem with the original post was that it implied that PM lee was the same as the CHC parties committed to trial. So your argument is incorrect, it is not the govt of Singapore which is suing.

    Further, the so called net citizens who are up in arms, will be up in arms anyway, as long as any govt official issues any such letters of demand.

    Further, since when is truth advanced when such libellious insinuations can be issued willy nilly.

    You forget that when it is such a clear cut case, the supporters also need to be placated.

    Questions and criticisms are fine and they have kept their word in the eyes of fence sitters as they are issuing specific letters of demands for specific articles rather than the previous shotgun approach.

    However, all parties are asking for freedom of speech yet wish to deny the same freedoms to those who disagree with them.

    1. I’m not talking about this case in particular, rather general principles. While I take your point, I will point out that Lee or, indeed, anyone from the government who sues an individual will be seen as a de facto government attempt to silence that individual. With Lee being in the limelight, and with the government refusing to separate government, state and party, it becomes impossible to separate a government official’s personal and public identity.

      Yes, netizens will be up in arms anyway, and yes, libel can be issued as easy as typing a random burst of words on the Internet. Again, the wider point is: there is still no need for lawsuits when an open dialogue will help.

      As for any other points you might be making, I’m sorry to say I can’t see the line of logic and I cannot off the top of my head recall who these ‘all parties’ are and what they are saying. I also have to get to work, so if you wish a response, please clarify.

  2. BC

    You are not clear that your comment is in general considering that you rely on the specific case above.
    Furthermore, considering that the author usually creates more bile than light, he is definitely a prime target who has gone too far.

    The other parties refers to epoynomous others which this vocal author tries to ride on

    1. I might have been relying on the case to introduce and bridge arguments, but I felt the title points towards principles of governance, and the arguments I have laid out are about principles and not specifically about Ngerng’s case. Since you interpreted that essay to mean I was commenting on Ngerng and not the government’s strategy of lawsuits, it seems there was a degree of misunderstanding involved.

      I must ask you to be clearer too. Who is ‘the author’? What is ‘prime target who has gone too far’? Why do you say ‘usually creates more bile than light’? Who are these ‘epoynomous’ others? You’re talking in language and abstractions beyond me, and I think you’re using ‘eponymous’ in place of a more appropriate word. Please provide specifics if you want to continue this thread.

  3. BC

    Will not proceed any further, to clarify meant RN as the author, others meant his online supporters but no cash.

    The so called motivation per the blogger Anyhow Hantam

    Ms Han Hui Hui, Roy’s NMP proposer, fellow protest organiser and close confidant has revealed that the reason for ‘upping the ante’ and provoke the lawsuit is for Mr Ng to seek asylum in Denmark.

    So why do all these things? I slammed Ms Han on Saturday, for her post on Roy’s FB page about the 1 million hits, which would aggravate things. She replied that Roy wanted to seek asylum. I thought maybe, he’s just so overwhelmed by all this legal matters, he just wants to go away to another country where he can have more freedoms, so I left it at that. Then today when the fresh demands came out and touched on some of the points I’d been slamming Ms Han and Roy for doing after 1st receiving the letter, I again chided her for her stupidity and immaturity. Below is what transpired next:

    HHH: Roy wants to be a martyr and seek asylum. Is he who ask me to help him one.

    Me: Where he wants to seek asylum in?

    HHH: Leslie ask him go Denmark.

    Me: Leslie? Leslie who? His bf? (Mr Ng is gay)

    HHH: Leslie Chew the cartoonist.

    Me: Ah. So Denmark will offer him asylum or he hopes they will if he’s a political victim here?

    HHH: That’s why they wanna provoke lor.

    Me: F***ing hell! So all this a bloody show to win sympathy! He’s just making use of everyone for his selfish ends? Don’t f*** care about the CPF, fighting for the people. All this just ‘wayang’
    His real intention was to seek asylum!
    Disgraceful and disgusting behaviour.
    Worst is you. Instead of stopping him, you helping him cheat ordinary Singaporeans, trying to win sympathy for some cheap gimmick!

    With this final piece of the jigsaw, now everything becomes clearer and explains the series of rash statements and actions since he received the letter. With the reason given by his close confidant, whose been actively drumming up support for him non-stop, condemning the PM for taking action. She’s even called for ‘a global campaign’ by bloggers to ‘spread the word of the PM suing Roy Ng’ for his writings and speaking about transparency and accountability in Singapore.

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