Who owns the copyright to Lim Chin Siong’s writings?

On 2 August, Sahabat Rakyat, a non-profit NGO based in Malaysia, published “Fragments of Lim Chin Siong’s Q&A Posthumous Manuscript” (in Chinese), together with an editor’s note and six pieces of corresponding illustrations and captions. The website subsequently received legal notice from a law firm representing Lim Chin Joo, Lim Chin Siong’s brother and the copyright owner of the published content, claiming that the site has infringement of Lim’s copyrighted works, and requesting for the content to be removed.
Sahabat Rakyat published a response to say that it has published the content because it was interested in Lim Chin Siong, “a prominent leader in 1950s to 1960s who led the people of Malaya (including Singapore) in the anti-colonial struggle against British colonists and the struggle for democracy and human rights via constitutional approach”, and his political demise at the hands of his political comrade, Lee Kuan Yew.
The following is a letter written by Tan Wah Piow, currently a lawyer and a former Singapore student leader who lives in political exile in London since 1976, in response to the whole issue. Tan highlighting the need to move away from the legal action and focus on the legacy of Lim Chin Siong and understand what he would have done in the circumstances.
Mr Tan has given us permission to reproduce his article on TOC. It was also published in full, with Sahabat Rakyat’s notes, on the NGO’s website.
* * * * *
By Tan Wah Piow
The current dispute between Lim Chin Joo and the blog Sahabat Rakyat Malaysia (SRM) over the publication of the late Lim Chin Siong’s writings is most unfortunate as it has the potential to sully the collective memory of Singapore’s most well known and respected left wing icon.
Lim Chin Joo is the brother of the late Lim Chin Siong. Lim Chin Joo is asserting that his copyright is breached when SRM reprinted a manuscript written by his late brother.
Lim Chin Joo is quoted as saying that he spent over s$100,000 on the publication of his 442 page memoir which also carried Lim Chin Siong’s manuscript in a separate section. 8000 copies of the book were printed. The book My Black & White Youth, published in Chinese, was launched in July 2014.
As a copyright owner, like all property owners, he is legally entitled to zealously protect his interests. Hence when he discovered that the section covering Lim Chin Siong’s Q&A manuscript was published in the SRM website without his prior approval, his lawyer fired the first salvo threatening legal action.
From a legal perspective, Lim Chin Joo may have a cause of action. However, diving into litigation may not necessarily be the most prudent move. As a lawyer myself, my advice to clients has always been to shun litigation whenever possible.
This is not an ordinary copyright dispute. Neither party is motivated by monetary gain. Lim Chin Joo has pledged to donate all the profits from the sale of the book to a school in Johor As the publisher and author, he understandably has legitimate concerns that any unauthorised reproduction of Lim Chin Siong’s manuscript could have an adverse impact on the sale of his book.
At the other end of the scale, SRM is a not-for-profit website with equally altruistic interests, albeit with a narrower objective of propagating the late Lim Chin Siong’s legacy. The backdrop to this dispute is the handling of the intellectual legacy of Lim Chin Siong who, at the prime of his political life, was destined to be the first prime minister of Singapore. His political life unfortunately was cut short by detention without trial, exile, and after his return to Singapore, he had to maintain his silence till his death. Even in death, his comrades had to conduct the memorial function in Kuala Lumpur.
Lim Chin Siong was vilified by the Singapore government both in life and in death. In about 1992 when he prepared this manuscript, he made a remark to a close friend that he might have to embark on a second exile if he had it published. It was not published. It is only now eighteen years after his death, that the manuscript sees the light of day.  Once the manuscript was made available through Lim Chin Joo’s book, SRM seized upon the opportunity to publish the manuscript with proper acknowledgement of the source, but without Lim Chin Joo’s consent. SRM’s motto appears to be – Publish & be praised and/or Publish and be sued.
It is, I hope, not disrespectful to say that the public interest in the dissemination of the manuscript of Lim Chin Siong far exceeds any potential interest in Lim Chin Joo’s memoir. Sale of political memoirs, especially in the Chinese language, do not normally exceed a two thousand copies.  By combining his own memoirs with his brother’s manuscript in one publication, Lim Chin Joo’s book could therefore reach out to a far wider audience. This is an astute and respectable publisher’s marketing strategy since both documents are complimentary. In his own right, Lim Chin Joo had contributed and made sacrifices as a student and later as a trade union leader in the 1950s and 60s, and was detained without trial for 9 years by Lim Yew Hock and Lee Kuan Yew.  His side of the story is equally important for the understanding of Singapore’s history, and the history of the leftwing movement
SRM argues from the point of public collective right and justice. Their main argument is that Lim Chin Siong was the leader, and part of the anti-colonial national liberation movement in Malaya including Singapore. The writing of Lim Chin Siong was part of that historical legacy, and should therefore be widely shared.SRM’s argument is politically attractive, but law and justice are often two separate issues. Although SRM’s argument will be frowned at by most lawyers, it is certainly well received by many in Singapore and Malaysia who were political activists at the material time, and who continue to speak fondly of Lim Chin Siong. To the ardent supporters and former comrades of Lim Chin Siong, the niceties of copyright law is a capitalist construct, and Lim Chin Siong was the leader of the leftwing, socialist leaning movement.
So long as Lim Chin Joo can prove that he owns the copyright of his late brother’s manuscript, any defence raised by SRM based on common ownership of a political legacy is unlikely to gain much mileage in court.
Short of a miracle, SRM will be in trouble if Lim Chin Joo were to carry out his threat and sue.
But in this cyberspace age, netizens tend to favour freedom of, and free information. The courts move at a snail’s pace, whereas in cyberspace, information is unstoppable, moving freely and swiftly, at times elusively. Any attempt to curb the dissemination of materials of this nature invites swift and harsh criticisms from netizens.
As an example, the erstwhile well-known London-based leftwing publisher Lawrence & Wishhart was bombarded recently with over 4000 hate mails when it sent a similar lawyer’s letter to a radical not-for-profit American website demanding that they remove, from their electronic archives, the 50-volume set of Karl Marx and Engels Collected Works which Lawrence & Wishart had over many years, painstakingly translated, published in hard copies in the 1970s, and latterly digitised. The law is with Lawrence & Wishhart, and they are progressive publishers as well, yet they face unfair abuse from the very readers they hope to serve. Fortunately, unlike Lawrence and Wishhart who need the income to support their skeleton staff, Lim Chin Joo’s concerns are not monetary.
While the anguish of Lim Chin Joo is understandable, resolving the problem through the courts might just unleash the type of unwelcome response received by Lawrence & Wishhart.
This is the conundrum confronting Lim Chin Joo. One well educated Lim Chin Siong’s supporter who would otherwise have bought the book was so infuriated by the threat of the lawsuit that he swore not to buy a copy, and instead would borrow it from the library. This is probably not an isolated expression of anger. I am sure Lim Chin Joo is mindful of the risk of not just alienating the core market for his book, but a legal action could be interpreted as crossing the Thin White Line. This may also cause discomfort and embarrassment to members of the clan of the late Lim Chin Siong.
Many are already asking. What would Lim Chin Siong do in the circumstances? In the first place, the manuscript comprised of notes prepared for Q&As for a television interview in Singapore which never materialised. This was because Lim Chin Siong wanted the interview to be broadcasted live instead of a pre-recording as was proposed to him at the time. His motivations were purely political and he wished to achieve maximum public impact. Friends who discussed with him at the time did not recall any mention of remuneration. He was only concerned that the integrity of his message would not be cannibalized by his political enemy.
This begs the question of whether dragging the dispute through the courts could be prejudicial to the honour and reputation of the author. This is not a defence available to SRM as they are not part of Lim Chin Siong’s estate. Even if they were, it is unlikely to run its full course in court. But strange things can sometimes happen in the course of litigation, we just have to wait and see, and hope that the process would not tarnish this much cherished political icon. Of course it is everyone’s interest to avoid litigation.
Meanwhile, instead of discussing the manuscript of Lim Chin Siong, our attention is directed to this copyright issue. This is most unfortunate. By the way, what did Lim Chin Siong say about Lee Kuan Yew?
Image – Left to bottom right: Tan Wah Piow, Lim Chin Siong and Lim Chin Joo. Montage extracted from Sahabat Rakyat’s website.

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