By Dr Wong Wee Nam
14 June 2014
There is an old Chinese saying which goes like this: “When a leopard dies, it leaves behind the skin, but when a person dies, he or she leaves behind a name.”
In Chapter Nine of The Romance of The Three Kingdoms, Wang Yun told Lu Bu, “If you, the general, can help the Han Dynasty, you are a loyal minister and will leave a good name in history and to posterity (流芳百世).” To do otherwise (and support the tyrant Dong Zhuo), Wang Yun said, “You bequeath your stench that will last for tens of thousands of years.” (遗臭万年)
The bidding “To leave a good name to posterity” is what most people aspire to do, whilst the idiom “To bequeath a stench that will last a thousand years” is what people would not want ascribed to them.
Thus, we can see that even in ancient times, having a good reputation is something to cherish. The Western legal system has also evolved the law of defamation to allow a person to sue for damages if his or her reputation has been wrongfully tarnished.
There are many ways one can leave behind a good name. Many famous people choose to write memoirs or publish their diaries. Others just let history take care of that.
Those who want to leave a good name should learn from the past how reputations are earned. Good people are revered because of who they were and what they did.
Qu Yuan, the poet, and Yao and Shun, the two legendary emperors, left behind good reputations because they were benevolent and showed concern for the welfare of the people. They believed in the democratic rights of the common folk or what was then known as “the will of the people”.
On the other hand, history is filled with the names of tyrants, despots and traitors that will stink forever.
Some despotic chieftains may think that history will be kind to them as long as they do something good amidst all their other deeds.
This is not necessarily so. Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of a unified China, is remembered more for his tyranny than his creations. As emperor, he constructed a lot of monuments, built a network of roads and erected the Great Wall. Yet people remember through folklore and songs the suffering, sweat and blood of the workers that went into these constructions.
Qin Shi Huang’s contribution was not small. He unified China, standardised and simplified the written Chinese script, standardized weights and measures, and minted new copper coins. Yet people remember him for his cruelty and brutality and hold him as an example of what a good ruler should not be. He suppressed alternative views and voices by burning books, stoning intellectuals and burying Confucian scholars alive. These brutal actions did not enhance his image in any way. On the contrary, they only added on to his long list of atrocities.
Shakespeare was right to say: “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.”
So the lesson is: Do the right thing. Be benevolent.
In a recent letter to the South China Morning Post, the consul general of Singapore revealed the government of Singapore had scored a respectable 75% on the international benchmark of trust in governments. Being held in such high esteem, surely the reputation of the government must come very close to Yao and Shun?
With such a formidable reputation, surely the government should be flame-proof and even the dirtiest of mud thrown at it would not stick. Critical remarks should be just like water over a duck’s back, and the government should see them as no skin off its nose.
Therefore, with a good and solid reputation, there is no necessity to sue to protect its integrity. What would that achieve? Suing a person would not necessarily enhance the reputation of the person alleged to be defamed. The aggrieved person merely gains some monetary compensation and also derives the personal satisfaction of punishing and impoverishing the person who had libelled him. There is not much to gain in terms of reputation.
On the contrary, by accepting an apology and by not suing, it would have enhanced the stature of a person greatly to be seen as forgiving and magnanimous than to be seen as being a Goliath going after a gnat with a sledgehammer.
Defamation is not a crime or a harm to the State, yet the punishment is grossly punitive. A government servant cheating the State may be fined only $5000 for corruption, but a person with a careless tongue or a careless pen can be made a bankrupt and suffer the double jeopardy of losing his job in a private suit involving two individuals.
When I was young, my neighbours quarrelled frequently. During these quarrels, defamatory remarks were often hurled at each other from across the roads. Most of these remarks had to do with mothers’ private parts and bestiality. The frequently used phrase is “throw your mother’s smelly shoes” in Cantonese. None of these defamatory remarks ended up being challenged in a court of law. After the dust had settled and everything returned to normal, the reputation of the mothers of these disputants remained impeccable and they were not shunned by their community.
Perhaps it is not a bad idea to learn forbearance from our forefathers for a united country.