Yawning Bread. 8 November 2009

Sucking demigods' toes




I sometimes wonder why people don't seem to feel embarrassed. They hold high positions; they can't be stupid to have gotten to where they are. Yet they kowtow to their political masters so low, they not only kiss their feet, but suck their toes.

They would say the most absurd things to defend their masters against criticism, not in front of a classroom of kids, but in front of a plenary of lawyers visiting from the United States. In doing so, they achieve the exact opposite of what they think they are doing. Instead of fending off criticism, they give their audience proof that Singapore is a banana republic.

I am of course referring to the suck toes speeches made by both the Law Minister K Shanmugam and the Chief Justice when the New York Bar Association held their convention in Singapore a week or two ago.

Other bloggers have torn apart Shanmugam's speech [1], so I need only to keep my comments short. Basically, he said since investors, Americans among them, come to Singapore, therefore, we can't possibly be "a repressive state that controls the people's thoughts".

"They do not have to come here. We do not have any natural resources. Our main selling point is that there will be good value added when they invest here, their investments will be protected and that we are a stable democracy."

The Law minister must be living in a bubble that does not include places like China, Vietnam, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Angola. He may also think that the American lawyers convening in Singapore are geographic duds who have never heard of such places either, because these places would prove the lie. Lots of investors, Americans among them, head for China, Vietnam, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Angola, reasonably confident that their investments will be safe and profitable.

By Shanmugam's measure all these places are stable democracies too that make no attempt to control people's thoughts.

* * * * *

Amazingly, another officer of the law tried to outdo Shanmugam, difficult though you might think that to be. He was none other than the Chief Justice, Chan Sek Keong.

Referring to defamation suits by government leaders against opposition figures bankrupting the latter through enormous awards of damages, the Straits Times [2] reported that:

He also touched on the law of defamation versus free speech, describing it as 'a much misunderstood subject'.

While defamation law here is based on English common law, those who drafted the Constitution here placed 'a higher social value on reputation than on free speech, where they conflict'.

'The law of defamation is really about balancing the value of free speech and the value of reputation in a democratic society,' he said.

CJ Chan said that how this balance is to be struck would depend on the political, social and cultural values of a place. This differed from society to society and at different times of their development.

'It may be the case that the critics have missed the point, and that criticising the Singapore courts is really criticising them for recognising the political, social and cultural values of Singapore society as expressed in its laws,' he said.

Two things struck me, assuming the report to be correct. Firstly, where in the constitution is there placed a "high social value on reputation than on free speech"?

Let's look at Section 14 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore. What does it say?

Freedom of speech, assembly and association

14. (1) Subject to clauses (2) and (3)  

(a) every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression; 

(b) all citizens of Singapore have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms; and 

(c) all citizens of Singapore have the right to form associations.

(2) Parliament may by law impose  

(a) on the rights conferred by clause (1) (a), such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or to provide against contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence; 

(b) on the right conferred by clause (1) (b), such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof or public order; and 

(c) on the right conferred by clause (1) (c), such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof, public order or morality.

(3) Restrictions on the right to form associations conferred by clause (1) (c) may also be imposed by any law relating to labour or education.

Does any plain reading of those words tell you that there is "a higher social value [placed] on reputation than on free speech, where they conflict"? How does our Chief Justice read the constitution?

Chan also referred to the "political, social and cultural values of Singapore society" as a yardstick with which to determine the balance between defamation (and appropriate damages) and the freedom of speech. He suggested that our values are different from other societies, in that ours value freedom less and reputation more. Thus, our high sensitivity to libel and slander and hefty damages imposed on culprits.

My question would be this: How does he know that? What surveys have been done to support this view about values? Or have our courts merely taken our government leaders' words at face value -- that Singaporeans prefer the balance to be struck in a certain way?

Is merely taking the prosecution's or plaintiff's case at face value how our courts go about weighing evidence? Wouldn't such a habit be grossly contradictory to the rule of law?

* * * * *

It needs pointing out: Too many people in Singapore don't realise how we have internalised a tendency to treat Lee Kuan Yew and similar top leaders as demigods. We've lost the ability to be skeptical of what they say -- which frankly is how any politician should be treated. Instead we treat their words as revealed "truths".

It is this blindsidedness that makes otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people look like fools. Or at least, inexcusably careless.

The authors of the book Men in White were probably misled by the same tendency. Yoong Siew Wah, a former director of the Internal Security Department in the 1970s was surprised to find himself mentioned in the book in what he described as an "unflattering" way, in an episode linked to Francis Seow, a former Solicitor-General turned opposition politician, incurring Lee Kuan Yew's ire in doing so.

According to Yoong's blog, the passage in Men in White read:

But in 1971, after a police raid on his (Francis Seow's) woman friend's apartment, he used his influence and friendship with the then director of the Corrupt Practices Investigations Bureau, Yoong Siew Wah, to have the four officers who had conducted the raid sacked. The attorney-general Tan Boon Teik intervened to reinstate the four officers. Seow was allowed to resign rather than have his actions investigated because of his track record in the Legal Service. Yoong was also asked to quit.

Yoong blogged that he wrote to the publisher, Singapore Press Holdings, to point out the error:

On 28-9-09 I wrote to the Chief Executive Officer of the Singapore Press Holdings drawing his attention to this disparaging statement about me and requesting that a correction be made in his newspaper. I explained that the CPIB was duty-bound to investigate all formal complaints. Mr. Francis Seow made a formal complaint and CPIB carried out investigations of the four detectives. The investigation papers were sent to the Deputy Commissioner of Police who made the decision to dismiss the detectives. There was a prima facie case against the detectives. There was no question that I was asked to quit. I was appointed Director of Internal Security Department following my CPIB stint.

My letter was passed to Mr. Richard Lim, one of the three authors of the book. Mr. Lim replied on 1 October that the material for the disparaging statement was taken from a speech made by the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the Select Committee Hearing of the Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill which was published in the Straits Times on 10 October 1986 of which a copy was attached.

It did not come as a surprise to me as the then PM Lee Kuan Yew was like a god to some people and the accuracy of his denigration of a person's reputation was invariably taken at its face value.

The book authors just failed to check. If Lee said so, it must be right -- is the subconscious attitude. And do you know why that subconscious attitude is so seductive? Because it frees us from the risk of finding out that Lee was wrong. That would create a dilemma: to stand by your research or to please the demigod.

* * * * *

Law minister Shanmugam revealed the government's touchiness when he devoted a good part of his speech to Singapore's low ranking in the Reports Sans Frontieres Press Freedom Index (Singapore is rated 133 of 173 countries this year), and to our equally low ranking in Freedom House's index (Singapore 151 out of 195).

This reminded me of a rather bizarre way the Straits Times concluded a feature article recently. The bizarreness only served to underscore how not independent our press is.

Bylined Jonathan Eyal, Straits Times' Europe correspondent, the feature 'Europe opens up to gay politicians' (14 October 2009) provides an overview of the trend in European countries where out gay politicians reach high office.

Mayor Bertrand Delanoe of Paris and Mayor Klaus Wowereit of Berlin are openly gay. So is Mr Peter Mandelson, effectively Britain's deputy prime minister.

Germany will soon acquire a foreign minister, Mr Guido Westerwelle, who is gay. Following in the steps of women and ethnic minority leaders, it is now the turn of Europe's gay community to make large inroads into the public arena.

In permissive nations such as the Netherlands or Scandinavia, gay MPs have been out of the closet for decades.

Pointing out that in earlier generations, suspected-to-be gay politicians often kept their sexuality under wraps, because illustrious careers could easily be ruined. This, even when rumours were untrue. General Guenter Kiessling, the commander of Europe's allied ground troops, resigned in 1983 amid false accusations of his homosexuality, the article recalled.

Attitudes changed only as a new generation of Europeans - raised in an age when homosexual acts and same-sex marriages are legal - began to see matters differently.

The feature article then discussed outsiders' perception of this trend.

The fear in some countries is that Europe will now seek to promote a gay agenda by imposing its standards on the world. This is one reason the current president of the United Nations General Assembly, Libya's Dr Ali Abdussalam Treki, proclaimed last month that being gay 'is not acceptable'.

But Europe's gay politicians are not single-issue activists: They are ordinary statesmen, who happen to be gay. On the face of things, there is no reason, therefore, why a new German foreign minister could not establish a good working relationship with, say, ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia.

After what was a reasonably informative discussion of the matter, the last sentence suddenly turned to Singapore, even if it didn't actually name us:

The Europeans may believe that where they lead, all should follow. But whether this turns out to be the case is still a choice for other governments, and them alone.

It's completely unnecessary. It comes across as a hand-holding "Oh, don't worry, we can still control our own fate and fend off this contagion." It reeks of defensiveness and fear.

It is also wrong, for it is not quite a choice for governments as that last sentence said, it's a choice for the people. When people's attitudes change, so will opportunities for gay politicians change. Was this mistake deliberate? It could well be -- a sort of prostration before our demigods acknowledging that yes, sir, you should be the ones in control of Singapore's fate.

I have the faint suspicion that the last sentence was not even written by Eyal, but inserted by a local editor, horrified that the article might be seen by his political masters as an attempt to "normalise" homosexuality. That might be seen as "championing" a cause, something which our "independent" media have no independence to do. It is this palpable fear in the hearts of journalists and editors of crossing invisible lines that lead intelligent men and women to produce such sycophantic prose.

Yawning Bread 




  1. As reported in Straits Times, 28 Oct 2009, Repressive? Our people know better. 
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  2. Straits Times, 28 Oct 2009, Raffles, MM Lee and the rule of law.
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