Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Inter-Religious Organisation's 70th Anniversary Gala Dinner at the Fullerton Bay Hotel on Mon (Aug 26).

Joseph Nathan: Why can’t we agree to disagree and avoid unnecessary conflict?

by Joseph Nathan

When the Press Secretary of Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong asked The Online Citizen (TOC) to remove an allegedly “libellous” article and Facebook post, and apologize by this Wednesday or face legal action, many Singaporeans were left puzzled and confused. Suddenly, many started inquiring about the content of the original posts and the whole “inquisition” suddenly went viral on social media. Sadly, it gained more traction than the original post by TOC.

Many Singaporeans are unable to see how TOC’s mere reporting on a Facebook’s thread by PM’s wife that necessitate an overview of the siblings’ quarrel between PM Lee and his siblings, as reported by his siblings, can be considered defamation. Many cans of worms were opened and the whole issue is now one big mess.

When Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) clarified that PM Lee had already addressed the issue in parliament and that the case is “settled”, more questions were being asked as to how can that be since PM Lee’s siblings were not present in parliament to rebut or defend their allegations.

Legality and more legality

To begin with, the whole saga was triggered by a Facebook posting by PM’s wife where she talked about cutting ties with toxic family members. Naturally, any eagle-eye journalist would jump on such a media opportunity since Ho Ching is considered a very powerful lady in Singapore. In order to make sense of her comment, the young journalist shares the background of Lee’s siblings’ quarrels which was covered extensively previously.

If the “trigger” is by PM’s wife and the “content” of their quarrels is from his siblings, TOC at best can only be faulted for either biased or one-sided reporting. To be holding them liable for defamation raises many legal issues.

If PM Lee or PMO feel strongly about the whole issue, then rightfully all parties involved should be served with the same demand or risks facing the same legal action too. This means that PM Lee should have served his demand on his own wife and siblings too. By only holding TOC liable, more legal questions are being raised.

Now that an “Alex Tan” had deliberately posted TOC’s original article on his Facebook page in defiance of PMO’s demand and warning, PM Lee will now have to also sue this person and be seen as being impartial.

This is the sad part about taking legal action – there is no end to suing and the result will always be short of goodwill or near anything desirable. We seriously need to find a better way to resolve conflicts and differences. At the end of the day, our capacity to embrace our diversity shows our progress as a forward-looking nation.

Has PM Lee compromised his own rights?

From a layman’s perspective, if PM Lee has not taken action against his siblings earlier, isn’t his right to defend compromised by his earlier inaction? Take an IP owner as an example. If he chooses not to take legal action when his siblings infringed upon his IP rights earlier but then decided to take action against others later, wouldn’t he have deemed to have already compromised his rights to defend?

If so, why would those legal advisors in PMO take such a hard stance by giving TOC such an ultimatum? Are they taking our PM for a ride or are they out to embarrass him publicly? Now that they have put PM Lee in a tight spot, who is going to get him out and take responsibility for all this boo-boo?

Institutionalized Reporting?

Even if PMO think that they have a case against TOC, then every editor in Singapore ought to be asking PMO how their journalists are going to report on such cases in future, and whether PMO is going to issue a non onerous SOP for their journalists so that no one will have to face legal action from PMO in future reporting. Is this even tenable as an option?

It is good that TOC took down the article on their website to help de-escalate the issue. This affords all parties a cooling-off period to rethink about the whole saga.

What would LKY do?

As mentioned several times in my other posts, it is time for PM to question his advisors and their competency, and why are they are always putting him in such a tight spot, again and again.

During LKY’s time, he would go down to the ground and talk things out personally, man to man. In so doing, he gets to see and hear first-hand accounts of what is actually happening on the ground and reassess any issues at hand. PM Lee could have done the same and meet Terry Xu in person. Such a sincere gesture would have magnified his sincerity.

If he had done so earlier, it is a no-brainer that this whole saga would not have blown so out of proportion and PM Lee would have gained the respect of many Singaporeans for being so magnanimous and sincere. It is still not too late for PM Lee to exercise his discretion and salvage the situation.

Embracing our Diversity

Given that this is supposedly an election year, surely PM Lee would also not want regional or international media or NGOs to accuse him of being overbearing on alternative media.

Singapore is already divided into many issues. We do not need this saga to aggravate or divide us further. I think it is time that everyone can find in them the capacity to “agree to disagree”. This is the foundation of being an open and inclusive society, which coincidently is also what PM Lee has pledged as the cornerstone of his premiership.

Since he is planning to retire after this election, will he break away from his current protocol and find a less antagonizing way to resolve conflict and show future leaders how the conflict should be managed?

I guess whatever happens in the next few hours, before the ultimatum come into force, will set the tone of the upcoming election. In my humble opinion, I hope we can truly be an open and inclusive society, one that Singaporeans truly deserve.

This was first published on Joseph Nathan – Hard Truths of SG’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.