IN 2006, MR Lee Hsien Loong and Mr Lee Kuan Yew sued the SDP for defamation over an article we published in our party’s newspaper, The New Democrat, about the National Kidney Foundation and governance in Singapore.
The PM’s lawyer Davinder Singh said then that the words in the piece, in their ordinary meaning and innuendo, alleged that Mr Lee was dishonest and unfit for office.
Specifically, Mr Lee said that the article had accused him of being “guilty of corruption, nepotism, criminal conduct, dishonesty, and had advanced the interests of [his] family”.
The suit relied on “innuendo” because nowhere in the article had we mentioned him (or anyone else for that matter) by name. Mr Lee read it to be that he was the one referenced and, thereby, had to sue to protect the government’s reputation.
He said: “We have to act because they are alleging corruption. If we do not act, and the lies and defamation are repeated throughout and in election rallies and spread around, I think the government’s reputation goes down.” (emphasis added)
This utterance 11 years ago has now come back to haunt Mr Lee in his current dispute with his siblings. Both Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang have not resorted to innuendo – the accusations they level at their brother are direct and plain. The words employed are, or at least should be by PM Lee’s own assessment, defamatory of him and the present government.
That the PM seems unenthusiastic on the legal front is telling. Dr and Mr Lee’s allegations, if made by anyone else would have been met by a writ of defamation and the legal process well under way by now.
His defenders argue that Mr Lee is in an untenable position; one doesn’t sue one’s siblings. Such a quarrel is disingenuous. His reputation as prime minister and – in his own words – the reputation of the government is at stake. State affairs cannot be subordinate to familial relations.
Seen another way: If this was a criminal matter, the government would have to prefer charges against the wrong-doers and prosecute them in a court of law regardless of whether the perpetrators are the PM’s siblings or not.
After all, Mr Lee did, upon his swearing in as PM, take the Oath of Office to discharge his duties “without fear or favour, affection or ill-will”.
To this end, the gold standard of defamation for the government was sealed by former PM Goh Chok Tong in 1999: “…if a minister is defamed and he does not sue, he must leave cabinet…if he does not dare go before the court to be interrogated by the counsel for the other side, there must be some truth in it. If there is no evidence, well, why are you not suing?”
PM Lee is staring at his predecessor’s damning indictment in the face as he ponders his next move. (At the minimum, he must convene a public inquiry where his accusers have representation.) Absolving himself in Parliament does not quite meet Mr Goh’s clear edict.
Which brings us to the bigger issue of character.
When politicians step down from all the jousting and verbal combat and, more consequentially, bow out of the stage of life, what do they leave behind? Do they impart values that uplift humanity? Do they inspire decency and compassion amongst the people? Do they embolden citizens to speak truth to power even if – and especially when – they are the ones wielding that power?
Or are they more interested in strengthening their political purchase by silencing dissent and crushing their opponents?
The former speaks to character while the latter to reputation. This is what I meant when I said in a rally during the general elections in 2015: “Reputation is temporary, but character is permanent”.
At that time, Mr Lee riposte was: “I agree. Of all people, Dr Chee should know character is permanent, doesn’t change.”
With the current mess that he finds himself and the predicament he has placed the nation, let us hope that the Prime Minister, going forward, treats the matter of character less glibly.