Saga shows this law can also protect influential wrongdoers from public exposure. By Seah Chiang Nee.
Jan 2, 2006
In good times and bad, Singapore’s stability has rested on a strong legal system strictly enforced, including defamation laws that prevent the sort of wild politics that exists elsewhere.
It has created a society where people don’t make wild accusations against each other as a result of a government frequently setting the tone to sue offenders, big or small.
Since few citizens truly know what really constitutes defamation, it has resulted in a society that’s lavish with praise but short of even the slightest attack on any influential entity, whatever the circumstances.
An official spokesman recently reaffirmed that “the Government draws the ... conclusion that our libel law is what keeps the system clean and honest”.
This rationale has blurred somewhat in the wake of the National Kidney Foundation scandal involving its former CEO T.T. Durai and ex-board of directors, over which much has already been written.
It raised a question whether the republic’s defamation law is also – apart from preventing the innocent from any slanderous assault – protecting wrongdoings by the rich and powerful from being discovered.
Take the case of Madam Tan Kiat Noi. She was sued in 1999 for accusing the NKF of “paying ridiculously high bonuses” to its staff. At a time when his power was rising, the thin-skinned Durai sued.
Mdm Tan settled by publicly apologising and paying S$50,000 in damages as well as NKF's legal costs.
She wasn’t the only victim. Two others, Archie Ong and Piragasum Singavelu, suffered the same fate when they alleged that Durai had travelled by first class on charity money.
Again he sued for defamation, forcing both to settle out of court, pay damages and apologise. Ironically, these allegations, the high bonuses and first class travels, were true as revealed by the recent KPMG report.
Neither Durai nor NKF has apologised or tried to undo the injustice to these people, which led an angry writer to say, “What the NKF saga has proved is that people who win defamation lawsuits may not be innocent and those who lose may not be guilty.”
Actually the courts could not be blamed since these cases never reached any hearing. At fault was Singapore’s defamation law, which clearly favours the rich and powerful.
Like most citizens, Durai’s three “victims” simply could not afford to fight it out against a giant like NKF (with assets of S$240mil), irrespective of right or wrong.
Durai’s “victories” had an impact in convincing the public into believing that his outfit was properly run and its money was not wasted.
Truth had become a casualty when the defamation law became a weapon of the wealthy.
You don’t often see a bricklayer suing a property tycoon for libel or defamation, only the other way around. Even if he does and wins, his compensation can be a lot smaller than a defamed business leader.
Singapore is, of course, not an exception. Try suing Bill Gates for whatever reason!
Lawyer Siew Kum Hong wrote, “the defamation law is very skewed in favour of the plaintiff”.
He explained: “It is one of the very few areas of law (in fact, the only one that comes to mind readily), where the defendant has the burden of proving his innocence.
“The plaintiff only has to show that the defendant said or wrote something about the plaintiff that would tend to make people think less of the plaintiff. That is all he needs to do.
“To win, the defendant must prove that what he said was true, or that it was a fair comment on a matter of public interest, or that the circumstances of the statement made it qualified – for instance, it was said in Parliament or on the witness stand. That can be a real uphill task.”
For Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, this law is crucial. “If you defame us, we’re prepared to sue you, go into witness box and be cross-examined ... If you don’t sue, repetition of the lie [makes it credible]. It will be believed ...”
He and other government leaders have successfully sued and won defamation lawsuits against some of their critics, especially opposition figures and the foreign media.
Its frequent use has contributed to the sort of litigious society the government wants to avoid.
The law has also rendered whistle-blowing (an insider revealing a grave wrongdoing) either in a government department or in a large corporation a virtually suicidal task.
Because of the expenses, Singaporeans simply choose to turn a blind eye when they see something radically wrong, and society is the loser.
If any of Durai’s three victims had been able to afford a Senior Counsel, the truth about the NKF could have been exposed earlier, limiting the present damage.
A retired contractor who was hired to install Durai’s office bathroom 10 years ago gave The Straits Times the first hint that things were not really right.
He was quoted as saying that NKF was using a pricey German toilet bowl and a gold-plated tap.
“I started screaming my head off. The gold-plated tap alone cost at least S$1,000. It was crazy. You’re a charity using donors’ money,” huffed the man who was then a donor.
After his outburst, he was told to “just do” his job, but the taps were eventually “scaled down” to an upmarket chrome-plated model. He stopped donating from then on.
The defamation law remains in place to ensure orderliness in Singapore but it serves better those who can afford a good lawyer over those who cannot.
(This article was first published in The Sunday Star)