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The revelation about press manipulation back in 1997 bears striking similarities to 2017 AGC investigation on a private post by Li Shengwu

Just recently on 25 April, former Associate Editor of Straits Times Bertha Henson published a ‘confession’ on her blog Bertha Harian about the incident that happened during the 1997 General Election when Worker’s Party politicians Tang Liang Hong and JB Jeyaretnam were caught up in a defamation scandal.

Ms Henson recounted in her post how Mr Tang was constantly targeted by the People’s Action Party (PAP) who tried to paint him as an ‘anti-Christian Chinese chauvinist’. She described how the day before polling day, Mr Jeyaretnam spoke at a Worker’s Party rally where he said that police reports had been filed by Mr Tang 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”. HE did not disclose details of the report.

The next day, however, The New Paper (TNP) were offered a scoop to publish the contents of those police reports which they did. What followed was the beginning of the end of Mr Tang and Mr Jeyaretnam’s political careers. Mr Jeyaretnam was slapped with 11 suits by PAP members for alleged defamation. Ms Henson said Mr Tang fled the country while Mr Jeyaretnam was found liable in the suits and was ordered to pay a hefty S$100,000 penalty for damages and an additional S$20,00 in costs.

In 2001, Mr Jeyaretnam was declared bankrupt after failing to meet his installment 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.

Decades later, the same tactics?

Hearing Ms Henson’s recollection of the events in 1997 reminds us of what happened with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Yang’s eldest son, Li Shengwu more recently in 2017 when the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) said they were looking into comments made by Mr Li about Singapore’s court system. The comment in question was made in a private Facebook post on 15 July with a link to an article by the New York Times.

Mr Li 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 the Facebook page SMRT Feedback by the Vigilanteh and was subsequently reported on by local news site “Thoughts of Real Singaporeans” (a pro-PAP fanpage) on the same day. Following these public sharing and reports on Mr Li’s comments, Channel NewsAsia reported that the AGC, in response to media queries, said it was “aware of the post and is looking into the matter”.

At the same time, local news site called Observer managed by the same team behind SMRT feedback also reported on the comment saying, “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’s Chambers is looking into the post”, which implies the site’s stance on Mr Li’s comment. It appears that SMRT Feedback regularly shares content from Observer.news which would lead to the assumption that both are of the same entity.

At the time, TOC highlighted that the AGC’s move to make a comment on the matter stoked the flames for more media coverage. In fact, the post by Mr Li was set on Facebook’s ‘friends only’ privacy setting, meaning it was not a public post and would not have been public knowledge without SMRT or Observer reporting on it.

While Mr Li is in fact a public figure, should the same sort of response and approach be taken by the AGC in cases of comments made by prominent ministers such as the PM or Law minister when their private posts are leaked by individuals who had ulterior motives?

By issuing a statement on a private Facebook comment that is barely reported by the media outlet in Singapore, isn’t the AGC making a mountain out of a molehill and further exaggerating any possible damage to the public perception of the court?

What the media started to report after that was the AGC’s comments in verbatim saying that they are looking into the matter but without any explanation or indication as to the basis of their investigation.

Was the press manipulated again?

Drawing comparisons to what happened back in 1997, were Observer.news and SMRT Feedback by the Vigilanteh somehow involved with the government in setting up Li Shengwu to be investigated by the AGC the way TNP was used to set up Mr Tang and JB Jeyaretnam all those years ago?

After all, if the Facebook page and local new site had not shared the private post that Mr Li had made, the AGC would have no reason to investigate Mr Li. Just as how if TNP had not published the police reports back then, there would be no grounds for the 11 PAP ministers to file a defamation suit against Mr Tang and Mr Jeyaretnam.

Also, will the AGC call on the hidden council/management behind Observer.news and SMRT Feedback to share how they obtained the private post by Mr Li or will they be forgotten just as how TNP was when they chose to pick up the scoop they were offered in 1997 of the details of those police reports?

Note: It appears that all traces of Observer’s coverage on the story of Mr Li’s post has been removed both from their Facebook page and website.