Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Libel and Defamation in Singapore

A Yawning Bread article about Chee Soon Juan and Gopalan Nair got me intrigued about the legal definition of defamation in the world. What a tangled mess! It is not a simple matter, of course, because where emotions are concerned, particularly in the heat of the moment, it is hard to apply common sense. By common sense, I refer to the determination of malicious intent to harm another's feelings and reputation. Anyway, here's a quote from wikipedia where Singapore's concerned:

Singapore

Singapore has perhaps the world's strongest libel laws. The country's leaders have clearly indicated to the public that libel, as they choose to define it from time to time, on the Internet will not be tolerated and that those they deem responsible will be severely punished. On March 6, 1996, the government made providers and publishers liable for the content placed on the Internet. Even the owners of cybercafes may be held liable for libelous statements posted or possibly viewed in their establishments.[20]

In 2001, a Singapore bank was fined SG$2 million (approx. 1 million euros or 1 million US$ at the time) for accidentally publishing a mildly libelous statement during the heated discussion of a takeover bid. The mistake was corrected very quickly, and there was no intent to do harm. In fact, it was reported that no harm seems to have been done. Nevertheless, the offended parties were awarded SG$1 million each. Apparently confirming the stringency of Singapore’s defamation law, Business Times declined to report on the matter because one of the libeled parties objected.[21]


Please refer to the Wikipedia page for access to the citation links 20 and 21.

I am rather disturbed by some of it, particularly since this does apply to myself as I delve into some issues that may be controversial. I tend to write off-of-my-head (quite unlike Mr. Au of Yawning Bread, who writes with great eloquence and structure, often backing his articles with sources of fact and citations - the proper thing to do). While I generally try to avoid being angry or unreasonably critical of others in my posts, I know I do get caught up in emotions from time to time. The "obvious" solution to "shut up" is unappealing and I feel infringes on my rights. However, I do recognize the fact that I will on occasion say something that hurts another and unfairly too. In those cases, I do not see reason why I cannot simply apologize, amend or retract my statements humbly and sincerely but instead have to face the possibility of getting hauled to court. Of course, there are those things where people choose to be offended by. What aspects of the law protects me from malicious attempts to claim that I had maliciously defamed them instead!?

Finally, a personal opinion on Chee Soon Juan and the Singapore courts: I generally agree on a need for the concept of "contempt of court". If a court is held in contempt, then what is the point of engaging in the judicial process? However, it brings me great discomfort that a court does not seem to have to do anything to show that it should not be held in contempt. I know little to nothing of the court system. My questions are: Is there a way to seek redress if one considers a judge unfit or biased without causing undue disruption to the judicial system? What is the body that can act as a counterweight or oversight to the courts should the latter become corrupt and unworkable? Do we have a transparent means in Singapore to ensure that it is possible to verify if rulings are openly fair and made in good faith?

Where Chee Soon Juan is concerned, it is my opinion that he is likely guilty. From what I have seen, he has never come across as logical and methodical where his anti-government, anti-LKY/LHL statements are concerned. As far as I can tell, he is the epitome of political theater. He says the things he say, but never really presenting any compelling facts that proves he is right. Some of the responses to him, however, feel heavy-handed to me. I hesitate to use the term "unfair".

4 comments:

Kaffein said...

You wrote:
"He says the things he say, but never really presenting any compelling facts that proves he is right. Some of the responses to him, however, feel heavy-handed to me. I hesitate to use the term "unfair".
"

At least he has asked questions that I've always wanted to ask. Have you heard your MPs ask about them - CPF, investments, global wealth, HDB pricing, etc?

Not that I support him, but should not the government give us the citizens a full account of our monies? And mind you, not one of the current MPs even know about how our wealth and policies work.

So if you can't get your facts or details, what are you going to prove, pray tell me?

Kaffein

Chee Wai Lee said...

omg! A reader! hehe.

I totally agree with you. One of the problems I have had with the Singapore govt has been "access to details".

The reason I say "access to details" rather than "transparency" is because I have been proven wrong on the latter before (and I think that's what catches many vigorously vocal critics who are not careful). There is a lot of information "out there" and I believe in the form of government gazettes (which people have to buy, which sucks) and other publications that there's just no easy/convenient access to, for the public.

For example, it took me quite a while to finally get hold of the CSJ vs LKY/LSL court transcripts (which turned out easier than a lot of other stuff I have been interested in).

Anyway, on facts, I believe it is important that when you have no facts, then the task at hand is to demand them (while stating very clearly that you do not have the facts). Only past that point, can you begin to try to prove something.

It takes a lot of work too, something I have unfortunately not done myself (for which I worry, cos in this blog, I kinda like to casually talk off the top of my head).

Nice to make your acquaintance, Kaffein!

Chee Wai

kwayteowman said...

However, I do recognize the fact that I will on occasion say something that hurts another and unfairly too.

Defamation is not the same thing as hurting someone else's feelings. Defamation must involve some injury of reputation -- and in the context of politicians, reputation matters and if someone says something malicious and false then it might hurt the person's re-election chances if the false statement is interpreted as true by the general public.

If you make unflattering, but TRUE statements about the politicians, you are in no danger of defamation -- unless you cannot prove them in an open court. But you are better off not saying things you cannot prove/defend to begin with. :-)

In those cases, I do not see reason why I cannot simply apologize, amend or retract my statements humbly and sincerely but instead have to face the possibility of getting hauled to court.

Well, if you apologize and you are forgiven, then you won't be hauled to court. Suppose you drive along and knock someone down and the person is hurt and not dead. Maybe a bleeding knee but no broken bones. If your victim doesn't want to report you to the police or haul you to court, can he/she? Yes. But the ball is in the court of the injured party, as it rightfully should be. :-)

Of course, there are those things where people choose to be offended by.

It's not about choosing to be offended. Defamation is not simply about whether you feel shiok or not.

What aspects of the law protects me from malicious attempts to claim that I had maliciously defamed them instead!?

There is a legal process. If someone wants to haul you to court, then then person first has to prove that there is an action which can be consider defamatory, i.e. something you said, something you posted.... if this action cannot be proven to exist, then clearly no case.

Next, he/she has to prove that the action/statement is in fact defamatory, i.e. that it is FALSE and also injures your reputation. Or perhaps in the Singapore context, you might have to prove what you said is TRUE -- but if you think about this, would it necessarily be unreasonable to expect that if someone wants to say something slanderous about a politician that the person be required to prove the authenticity of the statement instead of having the politician prove the falsity of the statement? Think about it a little bit. :-P The US tradition of mud-slinging really makes me wanna puke.

After the defamation is proven, then there's the question of damages, which like all instances of tort will depend on the extent of the injury. :-) It's not quite so simple. In the KTM's opinion, most of the fellas (other than fellas TT Durai sued) who get sued for defamation pretty much deserve what they got. No sympathies here. :-P

Chee Wai Lee said...

What you have described are also the normal "reasonable" assumptions that I understand to be true for defamation. However, I have been surprised by case-by-case outcomes before ... not just in Singapore (well, my assumptions tend not to hold water in Singapore's legal context, which I admit I do not understand oftentimes) but in a fair number of countries. Anyway, thanks for clearing it up.

By the way, it is apparently not considered defamation to say about someone so completely false, outrageous and out-of-context that it is unreasonable to consider it true. Kinda like "Mr X. is a giant space turnip with bright red leaves for a brain" hehehe.