Quite a long time ago, I wrote an article reasoning why then Presidential-hopeful Mr Tan Kin Lian should not resort to legal action over supposedly defamatory remarks made online. Perhaps, Kin Lian might have read the article and decided against taking legal actions, but we don’t know what went through his mind.
My article titled “Why Tan Kin Lian should take heed of McLibel” argued that prominent politicians and organisations should not take legal actions if defamed for two reasons. One, is that the latter should have higher threshold of acceptable criticism than ordinary citizens. Given the nature of their jobs, they must accept the fact that they are subjected to greater scrutiny and criticisms. For this, I cited examples of how the European Court of Human Rights reverse judgements which originally ruled in favour of governments or politicans who won their cases against ordinary citizens who have defamed them.
The second reason is that pursuing the legal route will result in greater damage to the prominent entity on the public relations front, which explains my McLibel title. McDonald’s filed a law suit against an environmental activist organisation which distributed pamphlets containing false allegations against the company. Although McDonald’s were awarded damages of 40,000 pounds, it did not collect the money because it was by then a public relations disaster for the company. The reason for the public relations disaster is quite simple – it looks like a powerful entity bullying another smaller and powerless one, and of course sentiments will turn towards the former.
The latest case involved Vincent Wijeysingha vs Tan Chuan-Jin where the former apologised unreservedly for describing the latter as “dishonest”, “deceptive”, “untruthful” over the complaints and issues involving the striking SMRT drivers. Wijeysingha accepted in a Facebook post that his remarks were totally false and has since retracted his original Facebook post. It has also been reported that Chuan-Jin is seeking damages from Wijeysingha. Thus now, we are looking at another McLibel in the making. It is looking like a pyrrhic victory for Chuan-Jin. For a prominent politician taking legal action for defamation, it is akin to a dog biting its tail, he will end up for the worse as the tide of public sentiments turns against him.
Chuan-Jin could have countered Wijeysingha’s remarks in a prominent medium which is far less damaging. Yet, he chose a route which could bite him back in the tail.
If one does up a dossier of successful law suits won by PAP politicians over their opposition critics, there is a common recurring theme about them – they are won over allegations made over the honesty and integrity of the prominent PAP politicians. To really summarise, if you allege that a particular PAP politician is “dishonest” or a “liar”, you will probably be served a lawyer’s letter to take down your post or article and apologise or be told to pay a certain sum in damages.
One wonders if the PAP is even aware of the very stereotype of a politician, regardless of whether we are in Singapore, UK, Australia, US or any other part of the world. Using the Wijeysingha vs Chuan-Jin example, since the remarks were made in a Facebook medium, obviously readers of the said defamatory remarks have a level of technology savviness. It is not too hard for them and for the tech savvy PAP politicians to go to a Google search engine and type “Politicians are dishonest”/”Politicians are liars”. The reality is that we have members of the public who already possess a stereotypical view of politicians. This link talks about the stereotyping of American politicians as liars, and then this one talks about how politicians lie that a Queensland law (Australia) has to be made to make lying illegal in parliament. Mind you, laws are made in consideration of a society’s sentiments. Obviously, even Australians think politicians are liars and see fit to put such a law in place. Then, we have this Guardian article that states from the outset that “All politicians are liars” and that Britons have to “listen the lying bastards lying everyday”.
I am not sure if the PAP subscribes to the idealised/utopian view that all politicians are whiter than white, but the truth of the matter on the ground is that the stereotypical view of a typical politician tend to be more cynical – “all politicians are liars”. However, of course, stereotypes remain as stereotypes, and there are exceptions to the norm – the clean, honest politicians, optimistically speaking, though the PAP surely promotes the fact that its politicians remain in this category.
However, if the stereotypical view of a politician is more cynical, i.e. “all politicians are liars”, then there should be greater threshold of acceptable criticism for any politician in this country, regardless of PAP or opposition. Any allegations that point out to the effect that a “politician is a liar” should be within the threshold of acceptable criticism since this already reflects the stereotypical, albeit cynical view. If the PAP needs any convincing, may I cordially invite the party members to go to the Google search engine and type “All politicians are liars”, “All politicians are dishonest”, etc. Maybe, the Google search results will change the Men in White’s perception of how a politician is stereotypically perceived, even for one from within their ranks. That will shatter the rose-tinted lenses…