Crossroads for a more open and engaged media environment

By Howard Lee

This article is not about supporting or denigrating blogger Roy Ngerng who, you should know by now, has been issued a letter of demand by lawyers representing our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Neither is it about justifying which party is correct or more deserving of justice. I believe this has been too well-argued in online comments about the case, strangely futile as such comments might be. As well, the legal wheels are in motion, and all will come to be, with a day in court if it come down to that.

Instead, this article is about two things: What this case says about what we can expect of Singapore’s future media environment as one that is civilised, progressive and open; and of the relationship that the Singapore government and those in power have with an increasingly connected public.

Ngerng’s case is not the first. Before him was Alex Au, whose case is still pending an appeal by the Attorney General’s Chambers on charges of scandalising the judiciary. When Au was served legal notice, academic Cherian George registered his disappointment.

If Au – one of Singapore’s most conscientious and civic-minded bloggers – cannot avoid the contempt minefield, then perhaps the problem is actually with the law. Is it getting in the way of intelligent critique of important issues?… If he is charged with contempt, there would be a significant chilling effect on other citizens who do not consider themselves anywhere near as polished in their use of words.

Granted that Ngerng is a lot less polished than Au in his writing, but it pays to consider that we might be looking at a future where anything, from the measured to the blatant, that is remotely negative to the government would be viewed in purely legalistic terms. Have we, then, just witnessed the beginning of a slippery slope where any comment made against the authorities is not only not clearly rebutted, but summarily silenced through legal means?

Au, and now Ngerng, are clearly flagposts for how we want our media environment to be. Some have opted to paint this in extreme terms – if you dare to say it, then be prepared for the consequences.

But civilised society is not about extreme “yes’s” or “no’s”. It is about debate and exchange, proving your point rather than beating your opponent into silence through any means possible.

Resorting to the legal route is of course entirely the right of any human being. Indeed, it is far more civil than what our fellow journalists in other parts of the world have experienced. The death threats and risk of incarceration they face everyday on the job are a far cry from what we see in Singapore.

But it would be wrong to think that a civil suit represents civility. Using legal means to intimidate is no different in effect or intent from using a gun – the only difference is the physical result to the persons involved. Oddly, that the ability of lawsuits to silence criticism and conversations are even noted by those who support the PM:

RoyvsPM comment sc1

Do we want to risk a situation where we dare not speak our mind, even if we feel our points are valid, because we have seen those who take the risk fall? Do we want to encourage a society that takes to silencing as the first option, by any means possible and permissible under the law? If so, then we have regressed much as an open society.

Which then brings me to the second point: The alternative of engagement. Far too often, our government has been widely criticised for taking the knuckle-duster approach when it comes to engaging critics. We have hoped to see a change in engagement, particularly since PM Lee himself has indicated his desire to grow a thicker skin.

Screen capture from AsiaOne
Screen capture from AsiaOne

You must believe in what you’re doing. If you’re doing something which you believe is right, worth doing, then even if there are some naysayers, you must decide whether you’ve got the majority with you or not. If not, you have to try very hard to persuade people. There will always be naysayers – that’s the reality. If you want to do something for Singapore, for the population, you should not be deterred because there are some nasty postings. When you are in the public eye, you flame me, I’m flameproof.

It has been barely a year since PM Lee made those remarks, and yet what we see today is not him “trying very hard to persuade people”. What we see instead is that he does not see a need to persuade, so long as he feels he is right.

It is precisely this mode of thinking that has lost the People’s Action Party much ground in building trust with the people, and it would appear that the PM has no intention of gaining back that trust. It is hence shocking, or perhaps no surprise, that those who venture online to support the PM should spout such:

RoyvsPM comment sc2

RoyvsPM comment sc3

Trust is built and earned, not won by means of a legal procedure. The courts might have proven you right, or your opponent might concede defeat, but not every citizen would necessarily agree that truth and dignity are won this way.

No doubt, some will claim that it is an unfair state of being, that a public servant has to bear criticism and engage, while citizens accuse and question. However, there is a reason why one serves the people, why one is voted to govern. That reason is accountability; and in retrospect, the more one engages, the less he or she will have to do so in the future.

At the end of it all, the key issue surrounding such defamation cases remain unresolved. The accusations made do not go away with an apology and a retraction, even if the one making the accusation is silenced into submission. Accusations hang around with suspicion, they vanish with appropriate proof and rebuttal. We saw none of that, and we are not likely to see that in the near future.

The risk, however, is not just to Au and Ngerng, but to every Singaporean who wishes for a media environment that favours questions over silence, for more transparency in their government, and for engagement to be open and fair. If we allow ourselves to believe that there is no need for our government to be accountable to criticism and to engage these criticisms on an equal footing, simply because it alone says the criticism are invalid, then we are very far away from making Singapore a democracy.