Written by Ng E-Jay
21 May 2009
Last weekend, Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong made a police report on defamatory comments about him posted online, which allege that he is corruptly receiving foreign funding from a Swedish politician, and that he is a “mole” of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) who has agreed to “represent” them in Parliament.
Mr Siew has issued strong rebuttals to these spurious allegations on his blog. In his post “The line has been crossed” dated 18 May 2009, he said that the attacks are “vile, vicious and malicious attacks“, and are “nothing short of character assassination“. He also said that the “latest attack goes beyond anything that a reasonable person could possibly perceive as being a valid or legitimate exercise of the right to free speech“.
I agree with Mr Siew’s assessment of the situation and feel that he has done the right thing by approaching the authorities. Although he has thus far not indicated whether he would be pursuing legal action against the perpetrators of those vile lies, his police report sends a signal that he is willing to defend himself in a court of law. I hope the perpetrators would be wise enough do the necessary to prevent this outcome.
In the wake of the latest developments, some netizens have expressed the view that Mr Siew should not have done that, that by bringing law enforcement into the picture, it would create a climate of apprehension and uncertainly that could discourage others from engaging and expressing themselves freely on the internet.
The Singapore Democratic Party shares this sentiment as well. In their article “Let’s refrain from making police reports” dated 19 May 2009, the Singapore Democrats argue that Mr Siew Kum Hong should have engaged the perpetrators head-on and refuted their allegations with facts and reason. The silliness of the attackers will be made plain for all to see if they insist on carrying on the attacks.
The Singapore Democrats assert that anonymity on the internet is of value because it enables people to deliver information and opinions to the public that they would otherwise be too afraid to articulate. If the police start launching probes on reports of defamation and revealing the identities of the perpetrators, over time, this could make the internet lose its usefulness as a alternative source of news and analysis as people become fearful and start looking over their shoulders whenever they make critical remarks about the powers-that-be.
The SDP does not mince its words when it says: “Get the police involved and we destroy the promise that the Internet offers.”
I have the utmost respect for SDP’s view in this matter and must say that their adherence to their democratic ideals is admirable. As plainly stated in their article, the SDP is a party whose members have suffered the brunt of numerous personal attacks, but never have they deviated from their principles of respecting the rights of every human being and arguing their case by facts and reason, never by recourse to the strong arm of the law. Their ideals are enshrined very succinctly in the following paragraph:
Through the years, we (the SDP) have had to endure not just words but punitive actions as well. We have no recourse to the police because sometimes they are our accusers. In such instances, what do we do? We hold on to the truth and speak it at every opportunity we get.
But much as I admire the SDP’s steadfast adherence to their democratic ideals, I believe we should also recognize that not everyone can hold on to such a moral high ground all the time. There sometimes comes a point when it is difficult to continue riding the high horse when others insist on taking the low road.
The SDP and I both recognize that the law is often used by the ruling clique to stifle political dissent. That certainly muddles the picture greatly whenever we speak about the rule of law in Singapore. But that does not mean we avoid recourse to the law when clearly a crime has been committed, as I believe is the case for Mr Siew’s latest saga. We do not negotiate with facts and reasons when a rapist threatens to violate our dignity — we call the police.
Mr Siew Kum Hong has every right to call in law enforcement and also to take legal measures to defend himself, given the serious nature of the defamatory comments passed. I do not believe the perpetrators are interested in reason or facts. They are clearly out to defame and destroy.
Neither, in my opinion, should Mr Siew be blamed if the latest saga involving the police results in some netizens holding back their views out of fear of reprisals from the powers-that-be. Netizens should realize that the people who are destroying free speech on the internet are those who have resorted to criminal attacks on others under the cloak of anonymity, not individuals like Mr Siew who have the right to self-defence when their character has been impugned.
In October 2008, media articles carried reports that Korean movie star Choi Jin Sil had committed suicide over internet postings alleging that she had been a ruthless loan shark responsible for the suicide just a month earlier of another actor, Ahn Jae-hwan (see here and here). The cyber attacks were apparently too much for her to take.
There are also occasional reports of cyber bullying in local schools, resulting in students becoming distressed and being unable to concentrate in their studies.
These examples, though not involving politicians, serve to justify the concept that the rules and laws that apply in the offline world should apply equally in the online world, especially laws regarding criminal intimidation and defamation, and that it is not injurious to free speech to insist that basic standards of human decency are adhered to even in cyberspace.
Furthermore, one should also bear in mind that by allowing the perpetrators of hate speech to go scot-free, we might indirectly discourage responsible commentators from engaging on the internet, out of fear that they might become the target of a malicious campaign should anyone disagree strongly with their views. The words of Alex Au sums it up the best:
It is not in Singapore’s interest to allow politics to become a snakepit of malicious innuendo, wild accusations, scare-mongering and hate speech demonising minorities and their defenders. Bad speech has a tendency to crowd out reasoned debate. It is entirely justifiable to apply the law.
— Alex Au, Yawning Bread, “Libel is an enemy of free speech and civilised society“, 18 May 2009.