Quis custodiet ipsos custodes: The long-term implications of suing citizens

Vincent Wijeysingha

There is, no doubt, a thin line that separates gratuitous or irresponsible comment from legitimate criticism of public authorities. Modern, civilised nations inspired by the rule of law have endeavoured to establish practicable doctrines that protect reputations while simultaneously allowing – even encouraging – private citizens and public interest organisations to evaluate the workings of public officials and public bodies. Thus did the poet, Juvenal, ask the question that is the title of this essay: Who guards the guardians?

Criticism, sometimes vigorous and forceful, achieved decolonisation; prohibitions against child labour; workplace safety and health standards; the abolition of slavery; better protections for children, widows and the disabled; the emancipation of women, and many of the contemporary civil liberties we take for granted.

In previous, more primitive, times colonial servitude; child labour; forced labour; slavery; fifteen hour workdays; children considered as the chattels of their parents or guardians, and the subjugation of women were taken-for-granted features of societies. Moves to eradicate them were considered so radical, so dangerous, so inimical to the established social order that men and women suffered imprisonment, torture, and execution to stamp them out.

Throughout the ages, these oppressive conditions served the interests of a particular group: colonialism favoured the foreign overlord; slavery benefited the landowner; child labour suited the industrialist, and the subjugation of women bolstered male rights. But as nations have matured and, indeed, as humanity itself has matured, the notion of human rights, residing in the very person of human beings by the mere fact of their personhood, have come to occupy a central place in the human value system that underpin our laws. These rights, generally of speech, assembly, association, but more widely protecting belief, movement, security, and Roosevelt’s freedoms from want, fear, ignorance and sickness, have come to be regarded as the undergirding of our communities and the stimulus to our public arrangements.

They are indivisible. They apply to all people at all times. They mandate our personal and corporate behaviour. As Irina Bokova (pictured left), Director-General of UNESCO, said in 2011, “Whatever the circumstances or complexity of the challenges that we face, the observance of human rights is not negotiable.” At the same time, there is equally no doubt that human rights, through common consent, may be modulated – or even suspended – in times of national crisis. A nation at war is one such example. At all other times, however, human rights remain inviolate. They have been the propellant which improved the conditions of the people.

In England, the consideration of human rights led to untold improvements in the quality of life for ordinary citizens. France, Russia and China got rid of despotic and evil monarchies. The nations of north America threw off their colonial yoke and built for themselves among the most prosperous and productive nations on earth. And in our very own Singapore less than six decades ago, where previously an Asian might never aspire to head his department, where she might never represent her fellows in Parliament, where their families should never enter the hallowed portals of the Cricket Club, our anticolonial leaders achieved for us independence, wealth and, most importantly, self respect.

The magnitude, the centrality of human rights in achieving for the children and grandchildren, and lately great-grandchildren, of our founding fathers the ability to live fulfilling, satisfying lives cannot be overestimated.

But in recent months, and particularly in the last fortnight, the heavy hand of government has been raised against numerous citizens who appear, on the face of it, merely to have exercised their right to the fundamental freedoms in order to make legitimate comment about the conduct of our public authorities. The trend is disturbing. It appears to hark back to the darker days of the earlier administration but without the conviction that underlay the worldview of the first Prime Minister.

In the era of the Lee Kuan Yew administration, the subordinate relationship of human rights to material advancement was articulated clearly and cogently. In the face of spiraling unemployment, widespread homelessness, poor public health, a geopolitical threat from Indonesia, and the expulsion from the Malaysian Federation, Prime Minister Lee made no bones of his conviction that what he saw as the more esoteric of human endowments should take second place to feeding, housing and educating a population newly emerged from colonial tutelage.

There was a seemingly tidy logic to his worldview and over the years citizens became habituated to the Lee worldview.  However, the desire for self-determination, never far beneath the surface, began to re-emerge. The 1984 general elections resulted in a substantial decline in the PAP vote and the entry of two opposition MPs to Parliament. Elsewhere in the region, cracks in the social compact began to show. In a spectacular display of ‘people power’, our neighbours in the Philippines threw out their dictator and the first democrat in twenty years entered Malacanang Palace.

Lee Kuan Yew, sensing his party’s grip on power loosen, acted to re-establish its authority and dominance. Having already corralled the print and broadcast media, he moved to contain the Law Society. Then he lashed out at a group of social activists. Later, Mr J B Jeyaretnam, the first opposition MP in almost fifteen years, was removed from Parliament. Subsequently, moves were taken to discredit the Singapore Democratic Party. There also followed a spate of defamation suits that frightened politicians and electors alike. For the next almost two decades, with the exception of the SDP which continued to raise matters of public liberty, civil society went into abeyance.

In the early years of the millennium, aided by the newly emerging internet, a new generation of activists began to emerge. Unfettered by memories of Operations Coldstore and Spectrum and motivated by a care and compassion for the less fortunate, movements to advocate for the rights of migrants, women, nature and animals began to form. A campaign to abolish the death penalty emerged. Bloggers began to express views consonant with the hope of a new era articulated by the activists.

In the 2006 general elections, internet campaigning was restricted. In 2009, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared a ‘cooling off day’ at the next elections. But there was a noticeable reduction in recourse to the courts. There was hope that a new dawn might imminently break and the new PM might depart from the methods of his predecessors.

During and following the 2011 general elections where the PAP had its poorest showing since 1963, the Cabinet, including younger ministers entering Parliament at those elections, appeared to take an about turn. What can only be described as a charm offensive seemed to take place. The PM apologised for his government’s lacklustre performance; tears of remorse were shed; bloggers were invited to the Istana, and younger ministers sought to engage the blogosphere and even participate in it through their own blogs and Facebook pages. Tan Chuan Jin made a visit to a migrant worker organisation in Little India and Chan Chun Seng began a series of discussion forums. Although the government opened a debate about a possible Code of Conduct for the internet, it dropped it shortly thereafter. A new mood was in the air: people began to speak of a new normal.

But the Singapore Spring may not come so soon. Ministers and MPs began to decry criticisms of them on the internet, protesting their bona fides, and one new MP even went so far as to say that the government need not listen to complaints from citizens. And things appear to have ratcheted up a notch in these last several months. As I said, a trend is emerging.

Shortly before the 2011 elections, Alan Shadrake, was convicted for statements made in a book on the death penalty in Singapore. In late 2012, Alex Au, the widely-read blogger, was threatened with a defamation suit by none other than the Prime Minister himself. And in the last fortnight, a blog commenting on a case recently before the courts was ordered by the Attorney General to take its post down; activists involved in supporting the SMRT strikers were threatened with legal action; the Council for Private Education is seeking to sue a blogger for defamation and, perhaps most alarming of all, a political cartoonist was arrested for sedition and questioned for three days over the content of his cartoons which he publishes on the internet.

Why should these events even concern us? Are they not esoteric legal wranglings over issues that have little – if any – bearing on our day-to-day lives? Do not those who take it upon themselves to comment on matters political deserve the heavy hand of the state upon their backs? Should they not mind their own business? Have they forgotten that prosecutions await those who dare criticise the government? Have they forgotten Catherine Lim?

To a large extent, the longevity and success of the PAP government has depended on three factors: (a) the ability to deliver material benefits to the people; (b) the ability to control information; and (c) the preparedness to use political measures against critics. Among the more memorable examples are the numerous sovereign investments that went sour. We suffered the ignominy of learning about them from foreign journals courtesy of the internet. Another was the allegation against Tang Liang Hong that a speech he gave showed him to be an anti-Christian Chinese chauvinist so as to discredit his parliamentary candidacy. When the speech was made available some years later, also on the internet, we found that his text contained no anti-Christian sentiments or Chinese chauvinism whatsoever. In recent months, the AIMS saga highlighted worrisome dealings at the heart of the governing party.

Were it not for the internet, Singaporeans would never have come to know of their existence. It has weakened the government’s control of information. And therefore, its control of the citizenry. The general elections of 2011, where the internet allowed for a fairer representation of candidates (notwithstanding The New Paper’s attempt to smear members of the Singapore Democratic Party), saw the government suffer its worst defeat in 50 years. The internet, as a vehicle of public information, is re-balancing the relationship between state and citizen.

Fundamentally, citizen criticism of public authorities helps to improve the quality of government. No one individual or agency can claim to know all and therefore be able to act with absolute correctness in all situations. Not all policy outcomes can be envisaged by planners at the time of their enactment or subsequent operation. People make mistakes. Therefore, feedback is crucial to progress. In the courts, properly and respectfully criticising the decisions of judges leads to better law. This principle is nowhere more respected than in the scientific community: the ability for other scientists to test your findings and falsify them is a cornerstone of the scientific method.

In 1976, when British Prime Minister Jim Callaghan devalued the sterling, he ignored the voices from the ground. He went on to suffer a massive electoral defeat which saw his Labour Party out of office for almost twenty years. In the late 1980s, the recently deceased Margaret Thatcher ignored the opposition to her community Poll Tax. She was unceremoniously thrown out of office in an internal coup engineered by her own party colleagues. In 2010, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown who had channelled vast amounts of money to the irresponsible banks involved in the global financial crisis himself lost office. When Sherron Watkins (pictured below) blew the whistle on irregular accounting practices at Enron Corp in 2001, she was silenced by senior management and her report covered up. By the end of the year, the company which employed 20,000 people and posted profits at one third of Singapore’s GDP became bankrupt. These instances occurred in countries with a far freer press than ours and yet such devastating outcomes occurred. What more the situation in Singapore with this renewed attempt to stifle legitimate criticism?

We Singaporeans have always been asked to place human rights at second place to bread and butter issues. Perhaps at one time some may feel that this was justified. However, as time marches on and a community becomes more educated, better housed and fed, healthier, the equation starts to change. Or, indeed, should. There is no more stark example of their close congruence in our current age than when we consider how the suppression of legitimate criticism led to crises in other nations.

In short, when governments not only decline to listen to their voters but expressly try to silence those who critique public behaviour, one can safely surmise that crises will eventually arise. It is the phenomenon told in the story about the Emperor’s New Clothes. The government takes shelter in the argument that to criticise the public authorities or the courts is to place their reputation in jeopardy. This is a circular, self-seeking argument with no merit. When Alan Shadrake was jailed, I wrote in a local blog that serious criticism of public authorities should be taken seriously and attempts made to ascertain the truth and correct any mistakes. If mistakes are found, correcting them leads to better governance. Holding the proposition that public bodies cannot be criticised because this leads to a decline in their standing is, in logical terms, a nonsense because if the criticism is found to be true, then their standing is indeed wanting and requires remedy. It is the refuge of the insecure and it puts the long-term stability of our nation at risk.


Dr Vincent Wijeysingha is the SDP Treasurer and Head of Communications Unit.


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