PM Lee defends the civil servants who defended him

When Catherine Lim wrote an open letter to PM Lee (‘An open letter to PM Lee from Catherine Lim‘) expressing her views that Singapore is in the midst of a crisis where the people no longer trust the government, she received a quick succession of rebuttals from members of the establishment.

The first rebuttal came from civil servant, Jacky Foo, who is the Singapore Consul-General in Hong Kong. He insisted that Ms Lim was wrong and that Singaporeans do trust and respect the government (‘SGs trust their leaders – PAP Govt has won many GEs‘). He even cited a study, the Edelman Trust Barometer, to show that trust in the Singapore government was high. He also mentioned that the PAP has won successive general elections, reflecting the people’s trust and respect for the PAP government.

Then, on 13 Jun, The Economist published an opinion piece (‘A butterfly on a wheel‘) on the recent legal actions taken by PM Lee against blogger Roy Ngerng. It observed that PM Lee, Goh Chok Tong, and Mr Lee’s father, Lee Kuan Yew, have all taken legal action in the past to defend their reputations and that of the government as honest. “They have always been successful,” it said.

However, the article also noted that Roy’s case may be different from past cases. It observed that in Roy’s case, the CPF issue which he has been discussing on his blog, “is one of burning concern to many Singaporeans”:

Nobody seriously thinks Mr Lee is stealing CPF money. But Mr Ngerng’s argument that the fund pays an inadequate rate of interest and needs reform resonates with many people.

Another observation is that unlike previous cases, Roy is not a politician.

The Economist is also of the view that Singaporeans these days are much less scared than they used to be in the past, in opposing the Government:

Even many Singaporeans who think Mr Ngerng is wrong have some sympathy for him and feel the prime minister is bullying him. He managed to raise 80,000 Singapore dollars to cover his legal costs, mainly from small online donations, in less than a week. Since most people would suspect that the source of these donations could be traced by the government, this suggests that many Singaporeans are much less scared than they used to be of the consequences of opposing it.

The article agreed with the views of Catherine Lim in her recent open letter to PM Lee, suggesting that the PAP Government was “hardening its position and going back to the old PAP reliance on a climate of fear maintained by the deployment of the famous PAP instruments of control, notably the defamation suit.”

The Economist concluded:

Even if she (Ms Lim) is right, of course, the government may well see short-term benefits in the effect of the suit, if its critics think twice before committing their thoughts to the internet.

In other words, The Economist thinks that the lawsuit may make critics think twice when writing on the internet in future and this itself is a “short-term” gain for the PAP Government.

Last Friday (20 Jun), ST published a formal reply from PM Lee’s Press secretary, Chang Li Lin, refuting the Economist’s article. It said that the libel is not an allegation and that Roy has already publicly admitted to accusing PM Lee of criminal misappropriation (‘PM’s aide rebuts Economist article on defamation suit‘).

Mr Chang rebutted:

This was a grave and deliberate defamation, whether it occurred online or in the traditional media being immaterial.

What is at stake is not any short-term positive or negative impact on the government, but the sort of public debate Singapore should have. When someone makes false and malicious personal allegations that impugn a person’s character or integrity, the victim has the right to vindicate his reputation, whether he is an ordinary citizen or the prime minister. The internet should not be exempt from the laws of defamation. It is perfectly possible to have a free and vigorous debate without defaming anyone, as occurs often in Singapore.

After civil servants Jacky Foo and Chang Li Lin issued those public statements, many netizens began to ask if it’s appropriate to get civil servants to essentially write to the public in defence of PM Lee on what seems to be a PM’s private matter – his own defamation lawsuit against Roy.

The Reform Party even issued a press statement (‘RP: Call to investigate breach of Ministerial Code of Conduct‘), demanding to conduct a presidential investigation of concerns that PM Lee may have breached the Ministerial Code of Conduct by getting the press secretary to write in defence of his private defamation suit.

Today (25 Jun), with mounting criticisms against PM Lee, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a public statement arguing that it’s entirely appropriate for civil servants, Jacky Foo and Chang Li Lin, to write those recent letters [Link]:

This is in response to media queries over the propriety of recent letters by the Prime Minister’s press secretary to the Economist magazine, and the Singapore Consul-General in Hong Kong to the South China Morning Post.

The Economist article was on the Government’s Central Provident Fund policies. It referred to PM’s defamation suit over an allegation that the PM had misappropriated public moneys. When aspersions are cast on the integrity of the Prime Minister and his Government’s policies, an official reply from the PM’s press secretary is completely in order. This is no different from what press secretaries in most other Governments do.

Likewise, when a foreign newspaper carries an article with misrepresentations about Singapore, it is important that our diplomatic representative defend Singapore’s interests by correcting misrepresentations and providing a balanced view. Our Consul-General in Hong Kong did just that when he responded to the South China Morning Post article.

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