By Dr Wong Wee Nam
06 July 2013

People don’t normally call another person in the middle of the night unless it is something very important. Or, unless you are feeling hungry and want someone to go with for supper. Most of the time, it means bad news. In my case, whenever there is such a call at such an unearthly hour, it means either there is an emergency or someone is in trouble, dying or has died.

I, therefore, find it a little strange that a Law Minister should call up a lawyer/blogger at midnight to discuss the consequence of disseminating an article written by a foreign journalist in a foreign newspaper. Even if he had insomnia over the article, could he not have waited till the next day to discuss it? But then someone told me it is common for lawyers to talk to each other at midnight. I am not sure if he was pulling my leg.

The phone-call was not to discuss a matter of life and death. In the end it was just to tell the lawyer/blogger the article was libelous and he should ask his friends not to spread the article around. This is a strange request. Cyberspace is a borderless place and has such intricate connections that surely asking someone to stop his few friends from re-posting the article would be no more effective than trying to scoop water with a sieve.

If the minister had wanted to kill the article, what he should have done was to ask the lawyer/blogger, in his professional capacity, to take out a suit on his behalf against the writer of the original article instead.

It is easier to get rid of the flies by clearing away the shit than to swat each insect individually.

The late Dr Goh Keng Swee, a former Deputy Prime Minister and a brilliant thinker, once told a group of young people that the best way to solve a problem is to deal with the person in charge or the ringleader, and not the subordinates.

Many centuries before that, Du Fu, the Tang Dynasty poet, in one of his poems wrote:

If you want to shoot a man, shoot the horse first; if you want to seize the rebels, seize the chieftain first.

唐•杜甫《前出塞》诗之六:“射人先射马,擒贼先擒王。

Perhaps the minister thought he could stop the spread of the article by talking to the lawyer/blogger. Unfortunately, this is really a futile move because the lawyer/blogger is not the chieftain of the internet world. So how could he be expected to swat everyone who chats on facebook or emails? The people one needs to deal with should be the writer and the newspaper.

Having said all this, is suing for defamation the best course for clarifying or settling matters? It is not. This is because winning or losing a case does not make anyone come nearer the truth. If it is used as a process to challenge opinion, it merely ends up stifling the freedom of discussion. If discussion is blocked, it could also give people the impression that there is something to hide. The best way to come to the truth is through open discussion to clarify things. Even if an opinion is true, if it is not debated, it will become, as John Stuart Mill said “a dead dogma”. According to him, differing opinions keep both sides reasonable, and dissent, even if it is false, keeps alive the truth against which it dissents.

Not everyone knows something completely. People only know partial truths. In an open discussion, therefore, people will benefit from hearing other fragments of truth.

J.S. Mill wrote “Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness, and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners.”

The age of the Internet is changing how lives are being managed. It is also determining how politics should be conducted. This is the age where problems are solved and truth is determined through open discussion and freedom of information. Gone should be the days when political opinions are suppressed through the incarceration of opponents and comments are stifled through the use of defamation suits.

In politics, Singapore must move from the third world to the first. The Court of Appeal has taken a giant step in this direction with its judgement in the Vellama vs The State case.


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