Mindef was no victim – part 1

Back in late 2014, when I was informed that the Attorney General’s Chamber (AGC) had sent us a letter of demand about an article we had published on The Online Citizen (TOC), my first thoughts were, “Oh crap.”

And when I later read the letter itself, I was flabbergasted.

The AGC had threatened to use the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) against us if we did not comply with its demands.

I remember the first word which came to my mind after reading that letter.

“Sneaky”.

I was in disbelief – disbelief that this government would be so sneaky as to use a law, which was meant to protect the truly vulnerable, for itself, a government which is all-powerful, and which has unlimited resources.

Sneaky indeed.

And more than that, it was distasteful. It was pathetic. It was horrible.

Sadly, however, I also knew that if we were to fight the government in the courts over this – and I knew for a fact that the government would have a hard time convincing the courts that it was a vulnerable legal person in need of protection from harassment – it would require some funds (which we did not have), and a lot of time spent with lawyers and in the courts. This was going to take a few years, minimum.

So, my first instinct was to capitulate or acquiesce and say that we were wrong, kow tow to the AGC, and make whatever restitution the government demanded from us.

Personally, it was a horrible horrible feeling, to have to admit that what you did was wrong when in fact you know that it was not. And capitulate only because the other person was a big bully. Nothing more.

The article was published without malice. It was a genuine case, one which was of public interest, for it involved patent rights, and how inventors are to be protected.

Dr Ting, as far as we knew, was an upright man. Indeed, if you google for his name, you would see the many charitable and community work he has done throughout his life.

This was a man who felt he had been wronged by the system he was a part of and which he had trusted with his whole soul. But here he was, feeling like he had been punched in the gut, over something which he felt had been stolen from him.

We were just telling his story.

What upsets me was how the government chose to use the AGC to make demands of us. I am aware that lawyers write in certain tone, in such manner, making demands and reserving their clients’ rights and what not. It is to be expected.

My question then and now is: why couldn’t the government send us a normal letter asking us to clarify or include Mindef’s side of the story? We would have gladly done so. Indeed, we have done so in the past when government ministers approached us with corrections. This, of course, doesn’t happen too often, but it does happen.

Here is one example.

"Mr Tan said in a letter to The Online Citizen (TOC) on Monday ..."
Straits Times. “Mr Tan said in a letter to The Online Citizen (TOC) on Monday …”

In November 2014, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Sam Tan, sent TOC a letter whereby he took issue with an earlier article on TOC by Singapore exile, Ho Juan Thai.

The Straits Times later picked up the story and reported it here: http://www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/more-singapore-stories/story/minister-state-sam-tan-counters-political-exile-ho-juan-

Mr Ho later replied to this letter from Mr Tan: http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2014/11/why-no-court-proceedings-against-me-ho-juan-thai-to-sam-tan/

Mr Tan is to be applauded for taking the patience route to air the government’s side of the story.

The point is that TOC has always published responses, or letters, or clarifications, from the government, whenever it received them.

I do not recall ever refusing to publish these in all the 9 years that I had been with TOC.

In fact, TOC had always welcomed responses and clarifications from the government and its affiliates. Why do you think we always sent queries to them, including Mindef?

This is why when the AGC sent that letter of demand to us (TOC) back in 2014/2015, it was extremely disappointing. But on hindsight, I perhaps should not be surprised, given that it had come at a time when the government was obsessed with clamping down on critics and online commentators who were not on its side.

Do note that at the time – 2014 and 2015 – many bloggers, commentators and websites were hauled up by the authorities, or shut down, or threatened.

It was a time when the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) knew an election was going to be held, and it could not afford to lose further grounds after the momentous election of 2011 which saw its share of the votes dive to one of its lowest levels since independence.

So, the use of the POHA to curb what it claims were “false statements”, in my view, was bogus, as indeed the courts have found.

During my time with TOC, we have never deliberately published anything with malice, or with bad intentions to bring harm to our country.

For sure, we were critical, sometimes intensely so, of government policies and even individuals in government. But to us, that was fair game, for as long as you are on the public payroll, you are accountable, even if this government feels it should only be held to account once every five years.

I disagree.

You are to be held accountable every day.

Why?

Because you are supposed to be on your toes every day, not once every five years.

Going back to the case in point, if the government had sent us its side of the story the moment it saw the article on TOC, or when it received the email from TOC asking for its side of the story, all this unnecessary waste of the courts’ time and lawyers’ time, and taxpayers’ money would have been avoided.

The question then is: If, as the government is well aware from past cases, TOC was amenable and welcomed the government’s views on issues and would publish them (as Sam Tan’s case shows), why did it seek to use the legal route to make demands?

And why did it choose to sneakily use the POHA to do so?

It must have known very well that in the parliamentary debates on the Bill in 2014, there was not a single mention of the government, or government agency or ministry, or organisation affiliated to the government, being included as a potential victim which could invoke the POHA to protect itself.

Parliament’s intent – ie, the spirit of the POHA law – was to protect natural persons, human beings, who are vulnerable to abuse, stalking, harassment and bullying.

Instead, the government was trying to use the POHA to bully a website into submission.

Surely, with all the lawyers in the PAP ranks who had taken part in the debate in Parliament, including the Law Minister himself who is a distinguished Senior Counsel with a stellar resume in law, the government knew all along that the POHA was not meant to protect it.

I am thus glad and satisfied that the highest court in the country has stopped the government in its tracks, and called it out for pretending to be a victim of harassment.

It is indeed shameless of the government to do so.

In the next few parts of this article, I will write about the issues which this case has thrown up. They are worth pondering on as they have wide consequences for all Singaporeans.

Lastly, let me just say that we were able to come to such a fortunate conclusion in the courts because of the generosity of lawyers who gave of their time to come to our aid, who believed that the government was abusing the POHA, and who defended the law.

And to these lawyers, Eugene Thuraisingam, Choo Zheng Xi, Peter Low, Suang Wijaya, and their teams, I thank you for a fantastic job.

We would, as I said, have capitulated if not for you guys.

Thank you for standing up for the small people against a bully.

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