In the past, there were no “ifs” or “buts” about it; but PM Lee seems to have put a caveat on when ministers should resort to defamation suits
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said ministers must sue for defamation if “a serious allegation” is made against them – “unless there are other special considerations.”
Mr Lee was responding to a question on Tuesday by Workers’ Party Member of Parliament, Chen Show Mao. Mr Chen had asked the Prime Minister to explain when a minister should resort to court action, and when he should clear the air in Parliament, when he or she is accused of impropriety.
Mr Lee added:
“He may also need to render account in Parliament, particularly if the matter concerns his discharge of public duties and is of public interest. These are not mutually exclusive options. In all cases, there must be public accounting.”
Mr Lee was in the centre of allegations made by his siblings during the recent public spat between them over the fate of the house at 38 Oxley Road.
His siblings, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, had accused their brother of abusing his power as Prime MInister for a personal political agenda.
Mr Lee had then called for a sitting of Parliament where he (and his ministers) answered questions from MPs about the allegations.
At the end of the two-day session, Mr Lee declared that there was no impropriety on his part. He had also rejected calls from several MPs for a Commission of Inquiry to be convened to look into the allegations.
Mr Lee’s answer to Mr Chen on Tuesday indicates a subtle but significant change in position insofar as when a minister should sue for defamation is concerned.
Mr Lee added a caveat to the previously emphatic position held by Mr Lee’s father, Lee Kuan Yew, and that of his predecessor Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong.
The elder Lee, who passed away in 2015, was known for his hardline stance against what he saw as defamatory behaviour, particularly from opposition members.
Mr Goh, during his tenure as Prime Minister, was emphatic and insistent that a minister must sue for defamation if his integrity is impugned.
Indeed, Mr Lee’s position had mirrored that of his father and Mr Goh’s, until now – with the inclusion of the caveat: “unless there are other special considerations.”
What are these “special considerations”?
Mr Lee did not elaborate in his reply to Mr Chen.
We can get a clue from Mr Lee’s statement to Parliament during the dispute with his siblings. Then, Singaporeans had asked why he was not suing his siblings who had made very serious allegations against him and his government.
Mr Lee told the House then:
“In normal circumstances, in fact, in any other imaginable circumstance but this, I would have sued immediately.”
Mr Lee, notably, said the allegations were not just an “attack” on him, “but on the integrity of the whole Government.”
Then he gave 2 reasons why he would still not sue his siblings, despite the attacks being directed at him and the Government:
His first reason was that doing so “would further besmirch our parents’ names.”
The second reason was that a lawsuit “would also drag out the process for years, and cause more distraction and distress to Singaporeans.”
If these are the “special considerations” which Mr Lee alluded to on Tuesday, then it would be puzzling, and in fact unconvincing.
Let’s take the second reason first – that suing his siblings “would also drag out the process for years, and cause more distraction and distress to Singaporeans.”
This is not quite true. There have been defamation cases which were expedited by the courts, such as the Tang Liang Hong case in 1997, where Tang was sued by 8 PAP leaders in 11 defamation suits. The case was heard and settled by the courts within a year. Tang was then ordered to pay $11 million in damages. This was later reduced to $8 million.
In any case, that a court case would go on for “years” is surely no excuse not to pursue it, especially one where the very integrity of the “whole Government” was being assaulted.
In the past, Government ministers were not hesitant to launch lawsuits against others, and the length of the court hearings was never a consideration in their decision to do so.
So, the second reason cited by Mr Lee here is quite irrelevant.
Now, the first reason: that going to court would “further besmirch our parents’ names”.
Here, let’s unpack some of the assumptions in such a claim.
First, there is only one parent whose name should be of any relevance to Singaporeans, that of Lee Kuan Yew. This is because Lee Kuan Yew was a public servant and had dedicated his entire life to the nation. His wife, with due respect, was nothing more than a private citizen who never held public office.
Second, the assumption that taking his siblings to court would “besmirch” their names. Again, we shall only consider the reputation of Lee Kuan Yew in this regard.
Mr Lee’s claims that his father’s name would somehow be damaged by a lawsuit between the siblings is unreasonable, given what Mr Lee himself has said in his statement to Parliament.
In it, Mr Lee said that Lee Kuan Yew’s “legacy” included “the country and the values that it upholds, such as multi-racialism and meritocracy, as well as a fair and just society where no one is above the law.”
Mr Lee said:
“That the Government (Mr Lee Kuan Yew) built is able to withstand intense and sustained attacks on its reputation and integrity, and emerge not just untainted but in fact strengthened … This is the ‘house’ that Mr Lee built, not 38 Oxley Road.”
Mr Lee then repeated:
“Mr Lee’s legacy is Singapore and the values that we uphold… A fair and just society, where the same rules apply to everybody.”
Those things are Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy, in effect they are what make and sustain Lee Kuan Yew’s reputation, even after death.
So, to claim that a lawsuit between the siblings would tarnish Lee Kuan Yew’s name is to belittle what the latter had achieved and built in 60 years of nation-building which he spearheaded.
Surely, Lee Kuan Yew’s reputation and legacy will withstand the childish, petty squabblings of his children, even if these are in full public view.
Let us also not conflate the private with the public.
This was what Mr Lee himself had told Parliament:
“When private interests and public duties clash, we make sure that our private interests do not sway our public decisions.”
But isn’t Mr Lee doing precisely this – that he is letting his private interests (protecting the “names of our parents” in a private family dispute over a family house) sway what should be decisions made in the public interests, namely protecting the integrity of the Government and our public institutions”?
Did Mr Lee also not declare to Parliament:
“Whether you are a Minister, or an ordinary citizen, whether you are the Prime Minister, or the children of the founding Prime Minister – you are not above the law”?
Why then are his siblings not subject to the law of defamation (even as we allow that defamation lawsuits are personal decisions)?
As Prime Minister of the nation, and as leader of the Government, Mr Lee has a duty to protect both, and not let his private interests sway his public duty.
Finally, Mr Lee said on Tuesday that any minister accused of impropriety “may also have to give an account of the events in Parliament.”
“These are not mutually exclusive options. In all cases, there must be public accounting,” he added.
As so many have pointed out earlier, a “public accounting” must include an independent commission, committee or panel overseeing this accounting.
In Mr Lee’s own case, he “accounted” to a Parliament of his subordinates who, incidentally, occupied more than 90 per cent of the elected seats in the House.
MPs, as Lee Hsien Yang pointed out before the sitting, were unfamiliar with the private communications between the siblings, were not fully apprised of the facts of the case, had no authority to summon documentary records, and had no power to pronounce guilt or innocence.
There was not even a need for MPs to cast a vote on the matter because there were no motions tabled for the sitting.
His accusers were also not invited to Parliament to present their side of the story.
In the end, it was Mr Lee himself who declared himself innocent of all charges.
“People can see that there has been no abuse of power, by me or my Government,” he said.
How did Mr Lee arrive at the conclusion that “people can see” there was no abuse of power? Who are these “people” he was referring to?
Can, should, an accuse be able to declare himself innocent? What then are the courts and other institutions of accountability for?
Does “[clearing] one’s name publicly” or “public accounting”, simply means subjecting oneself to queries in a room full of one’s subordinates? Or should accountability require something more?