Media outlets in Singapore have reported that the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) is looking into comments made by Mr Li Shengwu on Singapore’s court system. AGC's statement was made to the media outlets in response to their queries on Mr Li's Facebook post in regards to the court system in Singapore.
Mr Li, who is the eldest son of Mr Lee Hsien Yang and grandson of late Lee Kuan Yew, had made a private Facebook post on 15 July with a link to an article by Wall Street Journal. He wrote:
If you've been watching the latest political crisis in Singapore from a distance, but would like a summary, this is a good one. (Keep in mind, of course, that the Singapore government is very litigious and has a pliant court system. This constrains what the international media can usually report. - http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/04/opinion/04pubed.html)
Mr Li's post was first released by Facebook page, SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh and subsequently reported by a local news site, "Thoughts of Real Singaporeans" on the same day with a news commentary.
The site wrote:
"Shengwu, however, seems to be spoiling for the fight to continue, posting this appears to be in an attempt to provoke the Singapore Government and the Judiciary to do something. It screams “Come sue me for contempt of court lah!”"
Despite claiming that Mr Li is provoking the Singapore government to take action against his Facebook post, it fails to highlight that the post was a private post that was only meant for friends. SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh in its post, did not mention how it got hold of the private Facebook post.
Local news site, The Independent Singapore also reported on the Facebook post, referring to the "Thoughts of Real Singaporeans" as the source.
Surprised at AGC's comment on private Facebook post
In response to the media reports of AGC's statement, Mr Li posted on his Facebook to express his surprise that his Facebook post has been enough to trigger a response from the AGC.
He stated that his post was shared on "Friends only" privacy settings on Saturday and wrote, I'm surprised that the Singapore government is so petty. Would they also like to trawl my private Facebook feed for seditious vacation photos?"
He also corrected the mainstream media's report that his post was taken down, "It's never been taken down - if you're among my Facebook friends you can see it just below this one."
Mr Li's aunt, Dr Lee Weiling shared his post and wrote,
"I am surprised that AGC takes such negative reaction to a private post. Is there a government servant whose duty is to follow the Facebook activity of all people related to Hsien Yang and I, including our private musings. Also, what Shengwu posted is a common topic amongst Singaporeans who are well informed. Is this not an example of " big Brother government". Perhaps it is a case of "if the hat fits, take it."
While Dr Lee is apparently wrong that a government servant followed Mr Li's Facebook post because the post was initially published by SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh and reported by "Thought of Real Singaporeans" and TISG but her negativity towards the matter is understandable. Why should a private Facebook post warrant such attention from the government?
Who made the query to AGC?
Channel News Asia reported, "In response to media queries, the AGC said on Monday it is aware of the post and is looking into the matter."
Now, if one were to stop and think about it. Isn't the scenario kind of weird?
- The only source of the Facebook post has been from "SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh", therefore media outlets would have to first check with Mr Li before writing to AGC for comments.
- But even if Mr Li confirmed that he did make the comment, there is no news angle to the story because he merely shared a post from WSJ saying that it is a good summary.
- Media outlets do not over think or assume on context of comments, so it would be far-fetch to say that some media outlet will write to ask AGC if they will want to comment on a private FB post.
So in light of the above points, one will have to wonder which media outlet sent the query in the first place and what were the questions?
Observer.news, the media that sent the query to AGC?
An interesting article by Observer.news that was shared by SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh wrote, "It is understood that Shengwu’s comment is tantamount to contempt of court, more specifically, the offence of scandalizing the court in Singapore. The Attorney-General Chambers is looking into the post." which implies the site's stance on Mr Li's comment.
What is more interesting is that in this article and another article, "AGC looking into Li Shengwu's comments on Singapore Court System", a screen capture of Mr Li's post was featured which has higher resolution than the photo posted by SMRT Feedback and more information than what was shown.
A clear conclusion is that the originator of the Facebook post was from Observer.news and that SMRT Feedback posted the image first on its Facebook fanpage. While SMRT Feedback responded to Observer.news as a portal being interviewed for their views, one would just have to scroll through its page to see that SMRT Feedback shares content from Observer.news on a regular basis, one would even assume that both are of the same entity.
Now if the media query was sent from Observer.news to seek an opinion from AGC, a relatively unknown news site and the post should be clearly understood by AGC to be private, why did AGC see a need to respond to their query? AGC could choose to keep their silence over the matter or just say no comments. If AGC had replied no comments, the media outlets would have no story to follow up on.
AGC's troubling comment on a private Facebook post
On 15 August 2016, Minister of Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam said in Parliament during the debate on the proposed Administration of Justice bill:
"Mr Louis Ng asked about putting up a Facebook post. I do not want to be standing here and giving legal advice but I cannot see how putting up a Facebook post poses a real risk of prejudicing proceedings unless you are the Prime Minister with a million followers and everybody reads what you say.
So, you look at who is saying it, you look at the reach, you look at the possibility of influencing the court, you look at the whole host of factors and these are best left to the court. But in the broad types of cases that Mr Kok has mentioned, just ask yourself what is the real risk of prejudicing the proceedings. And remember the other point – the law is the same before and tomorrow. So, Mr Miyagi, Mr Brown, whatever they have said, have they been charged?"
One can take it that what the Minister's stance is that one's reach and possibility of influencing public are considerations of whether one can be considered of prejudicing court proceedings. One would suppose that should be extended to scandalising of the court.
If that is so, why did AGC choose to reply that it is looking into the comments of Mr Li which was made to his friends on Facebook when the post was limited to friends? True enough that Mr Li is a person of importance but even in the case of the Prime Minister or the Law Minister, should they be taken to task for posts that are made in private and leaked out by friends who had ulterior motives to tar their good name?
Is AGC stating on record with their comment to the media that their stance on contempt differs from that of the Law Minister?
By issuing a statement on a private Facebook comment that is barely reported by the media outlet in Singapore, isn't it making a mountain out of an anthill, and further exaggerating any possible damage to the public perception of the court?
If indeed Mr Li's comments are deemed to be that influential for AGC to look into the matter, should it not at least wait till it has enough evidence or proof for further actions before making a comment? What the media is reporting now is pure verbatim of what AGC has to say about looking into the matter without a clue as to what is the basis of the investigation.
It is common knowledge now that the current Attorney General, Mr Lucien Wong is the personal lawyer to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the matters of 38 Oxley Road and the Deputy Attorney General, Hri Kumar was a former People's Action Party Member of Parliament. Is the AGC not in anyway concerned that it is perceived to be abusing its authority to fix citizens whom are in dispute with the government or the establishment?
Would this not warrant a statement from the AG and DAG that they are recusing from the statement made by AGC and the investigations upon the comment made by Mr Li in his private space?
Singapore becoming like North Korea?
With the media going ape-shit over AGC's response without much input into the legality of the matter, citizens who are unaware of their rights and the law surrounding contempt of court are likely to tighten their lips further and will warn each other not to engage in discussions on the matters of court, lest they be charged by the government for an offence that only needs the endorsement of the AG, a former (or maybe current) personal lawyer to the PM.
Noting that AGC's unwarranted comment on Mr Li's Facebook post was elicited from the leak by SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh and "Thought of Real Singaporeans", another question that one might have, is whether the upcoming bill to legislate "fake news" will cover news/commentary sites like SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh, Observer and "Thought of Real Singaporeans", sites with agendas that favor the establishment and paint the oppositions and dissents in a bad light.
During the debate of the Administration of Justice bill, Minister K Shanmugam said in support of the offences listed in the bill,
There is a recent psychological study led by a Vanderbilt University researcher. It showed that false statements which were repeated even when the participants knew better caused participants to later believe the statements were true. This is called the “illusory truth” effect.
Assume there are blatant and unsubstantiated falsehoods about the judiciary repeated often enough, it will affect public confidence in the judiciary.
But the Minister should also understand that by constantly attacking individuals over subtle comments of the court and its system, may also give an impression to the public that there is really something to hide.
17/7 9pm - Update of article to reflect the source of the Facebook post leak.