Defamation, a tool to hide the truth and “beat” whistle-blowers into submission?

By Ghui

In the last decade or so, Singapore has seen its fair share of scandals that have outraged Singaporeans. Notable examples of such debacles would include the TT Durai / National Kidney Foundation (NKF) saga and more recently, the Roland Poon / City Harvest incident.

In each of these cases, the entities in question were both institutions in positions of trust whereby the public expected a certain level of morality standards. Heads of both these entities led seemingly extravagant lifestyles that attracted the ire of the general public who expected circumspection. This was especially so because these entities were not profit-making. Their very existence were dependent on public funds and the public therefore rightfully had the expectation to know how that money was to be spent!

Roland Poon apologies for “allegations” on newspapers


Added to the mix were accusations of questionable accounting standards, which later proved to be true and led to criminal prosecutions. As many of us would no doubt be familiar with the facts of the cases, I will not dwell on these. What I would like to focus on however is the issue of defamation and its misuse.

Singaporeans are no strangers to the looming threat of defamation suits. Most of Singapore’s more well-known opposition politicians have all had the spectre of defamation suits hanging over their heads. Leading opposition politicians such as Dr. Chee Soon Juan and JBJ have all made the intimate acquaintance of this draconian legal hammer.

While most Singaporeans would equate the dreaded defamation action with politics, we must remember that defamation can also be misused as a tool for those in power to cow potential whistle-blowers in all aspects of society.

As such, the shadow of defamation remains a very relevant concern in Singapore life despite Singaporeans being relatively familiar with it.

Before TT Durai’s dirty linen was aired for all and sundry, there were already numerous individuals who had taken issue with his flagrant spending of NKF’s funds. They were however silenced before the public at large was ever made aware of the now-infamous NKF chief’s extravagances. In 1999, Ms Tan Kiat Noi was made an unfortunate victim of the heavy hand of the defamation suit. She was forced to pay $50,000 in damages and take up a full-page advertisement in the Straits Times to soothe the bruised ego of Mr Durai. As events would later transpire, she was right all along. (read more)

However, justice was delayed because Mr Durai was able to misuse the defamation action to protect his own position! It is also unlikely that Ms Tan ever recouped her $50,000 or received compensation for the trauma that she no doubt had to endure!

This misuse can also be seen in the recent City Harvest trial. Both the court of public opinion and the real courts have found Kong Hee and his posse guilty but lest we forget, all this could have been avoided if Mr Roland Poon had not been so unceremoniously silenced all those years ago.

Poon had rightly raised questions on the church’s over-the-top spending on Sun Ho aka Geisha’s failed pop career.

Sadly and shamefully, the church’s senior members closed ranks and threatened to sue him for – you guessed it – defamation! Such is the unfortunate success of defamation for those in power that Poon rightly feared its consequences. He promptly took out public apologies in all the major newspapers in Singapore to the tune of over $30,000! This is a blatant misuse of the law to hide impropriety. There is also something uncomfortable about the house of God using legal means to bully a former member. Yet again, the availability of the defamation suit led to delayed justice and unnecessary trauma for the whistle-blower who was right all along!

In light of all these incidents, it is high time for Singaporeans to consider whether the protection of one’s subjective reputation should trump the need for transparency in public institutions.

While I am not suggesting that baseless accusations be tolerated, one really has to question if defamation is too easily accessible to those with the money to utilise it against the financially weaker members of our nation.

Besides, aren’t there other laws such as the Protection from Harassment Act or the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, which can be used to protect against such concerns? We are now in the digital age and any type of defamation would most likely be in the online sphere. Now that Singapore has criminalised online harassment, there is an additional layer of protection for those who may feel that they have been unduly and wrongfully victimised by false rumours.

With the relative ease of blogging and social media, giving your own version of events is also a very effective means of protecting your reputation to a world that is increasingly engaged online.

The defamation suit is a very antiquated piece of legislation. In fact, it barely exists in the United Kingdom where we inherited this legal tool from in the first place!

Should the defamation suit still be so easily available to those with the resources to pay for it? It is still relevant or necessary?

To bolster protection for would be whistle-blowers, should we also be thinking about means to protect both the persons in question and the requisite information? Perhaps, we can start with a moratorium against defamation in public organisations where such information may be of public interest.

In the UK, there is legislation in place to safeguard the interests of whistle-blower while also protecting the publics’ right to knowledge on public interest issues.

Given that Singapore has inherited most of its legal system from the UK, perhaps we should also implement something similar in this regard.