Details revealed by former editor of The New Paper of how the press was manipulated by PAP in 1997 to fix Workers’ Party politicians

Bertha Henson former Associate Editor of The Straits Times wrote on her blog, Bertha Harian, about the upcoming book written by former editor of The New Paper, Mr P N Balji called The Reluctant Editor.

The book promises stories from Mr Balji’s times as editor in both Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) Mediacorp – described by Ms Henson as ‘nuggets of information that had been kept from the public eye’.

The Reluctant Editor, says Ms Henson, contains stories about the relationship between the Government and local media which were generally not openly talked about, stories that she thought ‘journalists would take to their graves’. The fact that he, and others like him in the past, chose to share these stories is a mark of courage, she said.

One story in particular that Mr Balji expands on in his book which Ms Henson was part of is the incident of the 1997 General Elections when The New Paper ran a story on their front page about the police reports filed against People’s Action party ministers by Workers’ Party politicians Tang Liang Hong and JB Jeyaretman.

What happened in 1997?

Before we can go further, we need to know what happened in 1997. The General Election that year was notable for the incident involving Tang Liang Hong who now live in exile. At the time, Mr Tang stood for elections alongside the late JB Jeyaretnam in Cheng San GRC. Mr Tang was attacked constantly by the PAP for being an anti-Christian Chinese chauvanist.

The day before polling day, WP held a rally during which Mr Jeyaretnam had said that police reports had been filed against 11 members of the PAP. He said, ““Mr Tang Liang Hong has just placed before me two reports he has made to the police against, you know, Mr Goh Chok Tong and his team”.

However, he did not go into further detail. People were guessing over the content of the report but there was no way for journalist to get their hands on it unless Mr Jeyaretnam handed it over to them directly. The police, after all, do not release report details on request.

Ms Henson went on to describe how the next day, Mr Balji received a home call suggesting that he could get the police reports. He need only ask. Ms Henson highlighted, “This was a strange offer of a scoop offered to TNP, a newspaper which at that time was sold at lunch-time.”

She continued, “Balji admits that the idea of a scoop stirred journalistic passions. Which editor would not welcome the chance to get one step ahead of its rivals, especially the broadsheet Straits Times, which had already gone to print by then?”

As the deputy at the time, Ms Henson got in touch with the police to get the report but was denied. Mr Balji then made a phone call and a little later, the reports were faxed to them. TNP published the reports on their front page that day.

The aftermath

Ms Henson says that while she and Mr Balji did not get in trouble for publishing the police reports, Mr Tang and Mr Jeyaretnam did. While WP earned a non-constituentcy MP seat which Mr Jeyaretnam took, he was also slapped with 11 suits.

Ms Henson said, “That was when it began to dawn on us that we had been made use of to disseminate a supposed libel to an even wider audience, which could mean higher damages if the PAP side won.”

What followed was a massive legal battle waged against Mr Tang and Mr Jeyaretnam by the PAP leaders of the Singapore government for alleged defamation.

Ms Henson recalled at the time that Mr Balji ‘wondered if he would be called to the stand by the defence to declare how he had obtained the reports’ but he was never summoned.  “Nobody talked about the content of the reports; just its announcement,” she wrote.

The courts found Mr Jeyaretnam liable and ordered him to pay $20,000 in damages. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong at the time described that sentence as “derisory”. The PAP then appealed and the damages were raised to S$100,000 plus $20,000 in costs.

As Ms Henson says, Mr Tan had fled the country and Mr Jeyaretnam was ‘taken to the cleaners’. In 2001 he was declared bankrupt after failing to meet his instalment payments. Consequently, he lost his NCMP seat as undischarged bankrupts are barred from serving in Parliament. He couldn’t stand for the 2001 general elections and in October of that year, he resigned as Secretary General of the WP.

Regret over the decision to publish

Over 20 years later, Ms Henson says the events still ‘grated’ on her.

She said, “Playing it back, I wondered if we could have said no. Our journalistic instincts, scoop mentality and deadline pressure overwhelmed our ethics. We wanted to be first with the story. But we found that the fleeting euphoria was nothing compared to the stone that had been lodged in our hearts since. We did a terrible thing.”

In the Particulars of the Statement of Claim served on 21 July 1997, the late Lee Kuan Yew conceded for the first time that he and ESM Goh Chok Tong who was then Prime Minister had procured the release of the police reports. The ESM Goh made a similar admission in an affidavit he swore in August 1997.

This was also pointed out by Mr Tang in an interview he had given to freelance writer Chris Lydgate (originally commissioned by Asia Online but never publish) which was eventually posted on the Singapore Election blog in 2006.

Similarly, the Singapore-Window website recounted Mr Tang’s lawyer George Carmen’s statement to the High Court which pointed out the ‘fundamental error in the case’. He noted that while under oath, PM Goh has admitted in Court that he has authorised Mr Lee Kuan Yew to release Mr Tang’s police reports.

“Mr Carman said the prime minister and Mr Lee, his predecessor, “shot themselves in the foot” by releasing the report over which they are now seeking legal damages,” said the site.

The press is a tool for politicans

As it was already established way back then that it was Mr Goh who had authorised the release of the reports to the press. This, coupled with Mr Balji’s recounting of the events in his book and Ms Henson’s sharing on her blog, adds further evidence to the Mr Tang’s claim that he was set up with a cleverly orchestrated plan.

If anything, this reinforces the fact that the press has always been a powerful tool not just for critics of the administration but for the administration itself.  So it’s not a stretch at all to consider that politicians would want to be able to harness this tool and utilise it for themselves while preventing others from using it.

You can see where this is going, I’m sure. The heavily debated Clause 61 in the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) states:

So apart from the sweeping powers that would be granted under the act to any minister to declare falsehoods, ministers are also able to exempt individuals and groups from the act.

This is a power that would be easily abused as a means to avoid holding the government accountable for potentially spreading falsehoods. For example, in the case above of the government claimed in Court that the announcement made by Mr Jeyaretnam at the WP rally was the problem when actually it was the administration that released that information to the press in the first place, making way for a libel suit.

As it stands, there is a high potential of the law being misused by a minister seeking to advance an agenda.

As Associate Professor of Law at Singapore Management University and former NMP, Eugene Tan said in an article by the South China Morning Press, “Any law can be misused for rogue purposes. Ultimately, a price will be paid by the government of the day if the law is misused to clamp down on dissent. How it is applied will also be subjected to the court of public opinion. Hence, governmental action must not only be in conformity with the law, but also endowed with legitimacy.

Note: While Ms Henson said that TNP revealed the police reports in their noon issue, TOC could only find mention of it in Straits Times and other Chinese newspapers.