One law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression?

By Teo Soh Lung

“One law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression” – William Blake

The speed at which the Singapore government’s spokespersons responded to reports and comments on Singapore by foreign journalists is pretty incredible. They appear to have nothing better to do than read foreign publications with magnifying glasses. They diligently write letters to correct whatever they feel should be corrected. It was a well-tested and effective method of control of press freedom in earlier times. I am referring to the 1980s. But alas, with the advent of the internet, such a practice has become outdated, ineffective and irritating.

In the 1980s, many foreign publications were forced to publish letters from the government in full. Some tried to exercise editorial discretion by deleting parts of these letters. They seldom succeed. Every letter must be published without amendments or deletions. The government behaved like a spoilt child, always demanding its way. It never compromised, no matter how reasonable the exercise of editorial discretion may be.

The rare occasions at which the foreign press got their way resulted in stern retaliatory actions. Parliament was put to good use, or rather misuse. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Amendment Bill 1986 was introduced. Its sole aim was to teach the foreign press a lesson that they will never forget. The bill sought to empower the minister to gazette any foreign publication which “commented on domestic politics”. What amounts to “commenting on domestic politics” was not explained. A publication that is gazetted can only be distributed and sold with the approval of the minister. The power to gazette rests solely with him. There is no appeal against such decisions.

No one opposed the bill except The Law Society of Singapore. Under the leadership of Mr Francis Seow, it issued a press statement arguing that the new law was unnecessary as there was already existing laws to take care of any foreign press that meddle in the internal politics of Singapore. (see here)

The press release started an “avalanche” of letters to the editor of The Straits Times. The letters were both for and against the society commenting on the bill and not the effect of the new law on foreign publications. It was an irrelevant debate but it was nevertheless a serious debate. The Society’s stand was that it had the legal duty under the Legal Profession Act to comment on legislation. The government took the view that it was meddling in politics and condemned it for going off its professional course. Goh Chok Tong, the first deputy prime minister advised lawyers to form their own political society in order to comment on politics and not “make use” of the society with its 1200 members as “shock absorbers.” (see here)

Needless to say, parliament with the overwhelming majority of members from the People’s Action Party (PAP), passed the amendment bill to the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. Soon, foreign publications were gazetted one by one. The government did not stop there. To rebut the criticism that it was curtailing information, it instructed the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) to photocopy foreign publications sans advertisements and sell them at about a dollar per copy. The government thus legalised its infringement of copyright laws. It was an immoral way of humiliating the foreign press.

The right of the government to respond to articles it dislike was the order of the day in the 1980s. Debates ceased after all the courageous foreign publications were gazetted and several were sued for defamation before the High Court. Foreign publications were booted out of Singapore! It took about another decade before the restrictions placed on foreign publications were lifted.

With the widespread use of the internet in this 21st century, the “right to reply” should have become obsolete. There are so many ways that the Singapore government can make its opinion heard and read. I was thus very surprised that Jacky Foo, Singapore’s consul general to Hong Kong bothered to write to the South China Morning Post (SCMP) on 13 June, to rebut the opinion of our famous author, Ms Catherine Lim. Ms Lim had earlier argued that the PAP has lost the trust of the people. Was there a necessity to rebut her opinion in the SCMP? (see here)

What was even more surprising was the letter to The Economist a few days later (19 June) from the prime minister’s press secretary, Ms Chang Li Lin. On behalf of the prime minister, she took issue with the opinion expressed by the magazine.

In using his press secretary to write the letter to The Economist, the prime minister has abused his power and misused public funds. His conduct is worse than Dr Chee Soon Juan’s use of employer’s postage stamps and over claiming taxi fares. Dr Chee was dismissed by the National University of Singapore. The prime minister’s defendant, Roy Ngerng met the same fate. He was dismissed by Tan Tock Seng Hospital for using office time to conduct his private work.

In view of the serious consequences that fell on Dr Chee and Roy Ngerng, should the prime minister be subject to disciplinary action? Should he not be required by the president or the chief justice to apologise to the people of Singapore for abusing his power and misusing his staff for his personal gains? Or is it the case of “One law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression?”

Finally, in carrying out the prime minister’s instructions to respond to The Economist, Ms Chang Li Lin has commented on a matter that is pending before the High Court and should be charged for contempt of court. Roy Ngerng’s counsel has filed his defence and the matter has not been heard by the Court. The Economist is absolutely right in using the term “alleged ‘serious libel’” as no judge has ruled that Ngerng has defamed the prime minister. Ms Chang is wrong to say that Roy Ngerng had admitted defaming the plaintiff. I hope the attorney general will take immediate action against the prime minister and his press secretary. Many bloggers have been subjected to investigations and charges for contempt of court. One case that is pending before the High Court is that against blogger Alex Au. I will be utterly dismayed if both the prime minister and Ms Chang get away scot-free.

Singapore prides herself as a first world country with a first world judicial system. The government boasts that our laws apply equally to the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless. The conduct of the prime minister and Ms Chang Li Lin deserve the attention of the attorney general and the courts. If they get away without even a warning, the world will know that we have “One law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression.”


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