Persecution through legislation: A continuation of political vendetta against the Jeyaretnam family

Persecution through legislation: A continuation of political vendetta against the Jeyaretnam family

The People’s Action Party (PAP) appears to have turned to using the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) to persecute Kenneth Jeyaretnam, echoing the tactics that led to his father’s bankruptcy through defamation suits filed by former political leaders of the party.

Mr Jeyaretnam, Chief of the Reform Party, was recently hit with his eighth POFMA Correction Direction on 4 July 2024. This latest move, directed by Minister for Transport and Second Minister for Finance Chee Hong Tat, targets statements made by Mr Jeyaretnam in a Facebook post dated 15 June 2024, labelling them as falsehoods.

In the press statement accompanying the correction direction against Mr Jeyaretnam, it has been said that the POFMA Office and the Singapore Police Force are actively seeking his cooperation for investigations under POFMA and the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act 2016. Both laws were introduced by Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam. These investigations might result in prosecutions against Mr Jeyaretnam, with jail time and heavy financial penalties.

Kenneth Jeyaretnam being cancelled for being a government critic?

Since December 2023, Mr Jeyaretnam’s website, The Ricebowl Singapore, and his social media accounts have been designated as “Declared Online Locations” under POFMA. This designation prohibits financial contributions to these platforms, effectively curtailing their operational capabilities. While Mr Jeyaretnam does not make money from his blog or social media channels, the POFMA regulations require social media platforms to restrict access to the online locations, reducing the exposure of his views and opinions.

Mr Jeyaretnam’s persistent critique of government policies, particularly those related to land prices and public housing, has made him a target for POFMA’s heavy-handed enforcement, especially when it comes to mentioning Ridout Road, which includes Mr Shanmugam. Five of his Correction Directions are related to the Ridout Road saga, not to mention how Mr Jeyaretnam’s blog post last year was the reason why Singaporeans became aware of the controversial matter of how the PAP ministers live in state-owned estates that are large enough to be called palaces.

In his recent Facebook post, Jeyaretnam criticized government policies and mentioned the two ministers’ estates at Ridout Road rented by Ministers K Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan.

He argued that properties on Ridout Road could be better utilized for public housing, potentially providing over 1,700 HDB flats. Additionally, Jeyaretnam raised concerns about the transparency of endowment and trust funds, suggesting that these financial structures obscure the true use of public funds.

According to the MOF’s rebuttal, land prices for HDB sales are determined by the independent Chief Valuer, and endowment and trust funds are transparently reported in public financial statements. The MOF also defended the preservation of heritage properties, denying any strategy to artificially inflate land prices.

The repeated use of POFMA against Mr Jeyaretnam highlights a troubling trend in Singapore’s political landscape. Initially introduced in 2019 to counteract falsehoods and safeguard public safety, POFMA has increasingly been used against political parties, their members, and critics.

Rather than issuing Correction Directions against blatant falsehoods or videos using deepfake technology, as examples given by the People’s Action Party in the passing of the bill in 2019, many of the directions other than those concerning COVID-19 have been about criticism of the establishment and different views of policies and interpretation of public data.

Persecution of the Jeyaretnams

Mr Jeyaretnam’s late father, JB Jeyaretnam, was a prominent opposition figure who faced relentless legal challenges from the PAP.

In the 1980s and 1990s, he was subjected to multiple defamation suits that resulted in hefty fines, ultimately leading to his bankruptcy and disqualification from Parliament twice. This strategy effectively neutralized a powerful political adversary and set a precedent for the use of legal mechanisms to suppress opposition.

Since stepping into politics in 2008, Mr Jeyaretnam has contributed in his way without issues with the law, avoiding the pitfalls his father faced, and went ahead to contest in the general elections heading the Reform Party.

However, the repeated use of POFMA against Mr Jeyaretnam shows how he is now constrained by a new law that never existed during his father’s time. This strongly suggests that the new law is not meant to protect Singapore from foreign actors but instead acts as a tool for the suppression of political dissent and the erosion of free speech, which is protected under Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution.

As Mr Jeyaretnam continues to challenge government policies, the threat of criminal prosecution under POFMA looms large for him. The parallels between the legal battles faced by JB Jeyaretnam and the current challenges confronting his son suggest that the use of legal mechanisms to stifle opposition remains a persistent feature of Singaporean politics.

The continued persecution of the Jeyaretnams underscores the need for a critical examination of Singapore laws such as POFMA’s application and its impact on democratic principles in Singapore and the introduction of amendments to existing laws.

Take, for example, the amendments to laws such as the Maintenance of Racial Harmony Bill, which could likely make the criticism of the ongoing genocide of Palestinians in Gaza by the Israeli military illegal under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA).

While the PAP government is strongly supportive of the Israeli government despite the atrocities happening in Gaza, it is surely concerned about the wave in the Western hemisphere, where voters demand actions from their governments to put a stop to the hostilities in Gaza and the cutting of support and collaboration with Israel. Rather than stating clearly that it would accept Palestine’s statehood, it is playing a delaying tactic to say to wait for the right time as Palestinians are massacred and chased out of their homeland.

Just last month, three women were charged under the Public Order Act for organizing about 70 people to deliver letters supporting Palestine to the Istana without a permit. Had it not been for the amendments introduced in 2009 — again with the involvement of Mr Shanmugam, the three might not have been charged in this instance.

In light of the upcoming general election, the PAP would surely want to ensure such criticisms of its position on the Gaza conflict are snuffed out by the threat of persecution under the new amendments, just as Singaporeans are being intimidated from speaking out in fear that they become like Mr Jeyaretnam.

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