The Spider and the Fly

by Teo Soh Lung

The Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods (DOF) have invited Human Rights Watch (HRW) to give oral evidence before them. On 5 March 2018, PAP Policy Forum submitted its report (PAP’s report) accusing HRW of publishing deliberate online falsehoods.

It is clear from the PAP report that the government is incensed by the HRW report “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” which was published in December 2017 and wants to interrogate the representative of HRW.

HRW eventually declined the invitation. Looking at the manner in which Minister Shanmugam cross-examined Simon Milner, the representative from Facebook, it may be a wise decision.

Mr Milner had voluntarily appeared before the committee to assist the government in their inquiry into DOF. Instead of sticking to the disclosed intent of the Green Paper, the minister grilled him about Cambridge Analytica telling him that he had read the transcript of the proceedings before the UK committee. A multitude of irrelevant questions were asked. The minister was rude and treated Mr Milner as a criminal on trial. He repeatedly demanded a “Yes” or “No” answer which was unreasonable as his questions were long and imprecise.

Mr Milner to his credit, took it all in his stride and did not lose his temper though at times he appeared frustrated. He answered questions politely and stood his ground. At times, he told the minister that he was in no position to respond and would not speculate on answers that he was in no position to give.

I find the interrogation of Mr Milner troubling. It reminded me of the hearing before the parliamentary select committee in 1986 when the late Mr Francis Seow, myself and other members of the Law Society of Singapore were grilled by the late prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. We were treated badly and made to stand in the witness box when we gave evidence.

Happily, most of us stood our ground too as we were telling the truth. I think we won the debate which was partially televised on state television at prime time.

A few months later, four lawyers were arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act. The following year, another two (including Mr Francis Seow) were arrested, thus making a total of six lawyers.

Coming back to the invitation to HRW, I am very glad that they did not volunteer to give evidence before the committee. By all means, suggest a neutral venue. Be the wise fly in the nursery rhyme, The Spider And The Fly.

“Will you come into my
said the Spider to the Fly,
“Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I’ve many things to show you when you are there.”

“Oh no, no,”
said the little Fly,
“to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down

Mary Howitt

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