Evaluating Shanmugam’s allegations against TOC and its effects

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During a two-hour debate in Parliament on the Benjamin Lim case (March 1), Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam levelled several serious accusations against The Online Citizen (TOC) and the Law Society’s President, Thio Shen Yi. (Disclosure: I have contributed several articles to TOC before. See below for more details.)

These accusations, however, raise more questions than they answer and are inconsistent with his own conduct. There are, therefore, serious questions about whether Mr Shanmugam has acted in good faith and whether such spurious allegations should be made in Parliament by a cabinet minister and Member of Parliament, especially given the polarising effects they have had. (See also:The real issue: TOC, Benjamin Lim or sub judice?)

Was it a “planned, orchestrated campaign”?

First, Mr Shanmugam accuses The Online Citizen of having “gone on a planned, orchestrated campaign, using falsehoods, and has published about 20 articles or so as part of its campaign.” Given that TOC is currently only run by one person, Terry Xu, the claim that this was a “planned, orchestrated campaign” is laughable. Who was Mr Xu acting in concert with?

In an editorial, TOC points out that “only four [articles] were written in-house. The rest were contributed by members of the public.” It is quite a stretch to imagine that TOC somehow managed to get so many members of the public to write in. In reality, the case of Benjamin Lim is one that is of great public interest. The letters from the public are proof that many people have are dissatisfied with police conduct in general and have serious questions about their handling of the Benjamin Lim case in particular.

To dismiss public concern as a “planned, orchestrated campaign” is convenient but foolish and disrespectful. The minister would do well to take notice rather than simply brush them aside. Even the Chinese Communist Party keeps a keen eye on the public mood.

This is not to say that TOC is perfect. It is my personal opinion that a few letters need not have been published. However, after speaking to Mr Xu, I am convinced that he has done his due diligence in checking his facts. In any case, whatever the editor’s decision, and whatever mistakes he makes, readers can read and judge for themselves whether the articles and letters are sound.

The minister, on the other hand, has made a spurious allegation and unfairly tarnished TOC’s reputation. As someone who is speaking from a position of authority he should be more careful with his words.

Did TOC put out “deliberate falsehoods”?

Second, Mr Shanmugam accuses TOC of putting out “deliberate falsehood”. By calling TOC’s factual mistakes “deliberate falsehoods,” Mr Shanmugam suggests that TOC intentionally and maliciously concocted facts that it knew to be false. This suggestion is, again, rather ludicrous. Mr Shanmugam has no evidence to suggest malice or to suggest that TOC had reason to know its statements were untrue at the time of publication.

Despite this, Mr Shanmugam insists that the truth matters. If it does, why wait five weeks before clearing the air? If indeed public faith in the police matters, why wait until things reached tipping point?

The government has many tools at its disposal which Mr Shanmugam did not use. He could have responded on behalf of the police to correct the facts and he could have asked the public to allow the Coroner’s Inquiry to be completed first. He could have even issued take-down notices or requested that TOC correct its facts.

Instead, Mr Shanmugam waited, and waited, and waited. Five weeks later, he says he will look into how to respond to inaccurate information online more quickly. One wonders where he has been these past five weeks. In fact, one wonders if Mr Shanmugam has acted in good faith by withholding vital information only to publicly chastise TOC five weeks later.

Did TOC maliciously attack the integrity of the police?

Third, Mr Shanmugam claims that TOC used the deliberate falsehoods to suggest that the police were lying, that the police intimidated Benjamin, and that the police pressured Benjamin to confess to a crime he did not commit must be considered in this context. He suggests that these untrue assertions “go to the integrity of the Police Force.”

The problem here, however, is that TOC had no way of knowing they were untrue at that time. Surely Mr Shanmugam is not suggesting that no doubts may ever be raised about the integrity of the police? Indeed, if the Coroner’s Inquiry reveals police misconduct, it will have raised serious doubts about the integrity of the police. Or does Mr Shanmugam deny the role of the media as the fourth estate?

Certainly, the media also has a responsibility to weigh the public interest value of a piece of news against the potential for causing public disorder. Not all that is newsy is worth publishing. Mr Shanmugam might have focused on this issue instead, although it is quite clearly unlikely that Singaporeans’ faith in the integrity of the police force will be so easily shaken. In any case, this is not a question I can answer for TOC.

Why the delay?

To explain this delay, Mr Shanmugam offers two reason. First, he says that he withheld comment “out of respect for the family, to give them some space and time to grieve.” This is disingenuous. The clarifications he eventually made in Parliament about what the police did on that day were in no way disrespectful. In contrast, his revelation of the details of the case during his ministerial statement were, in fact, disrespectful, for they suggested that Benjamin was not innocent even though the Coroner’s Inquiry was ongoing.

Second, Mr Shanmugam says that he has kept quiet because of the ongoing Coroner’s Inquiry. The problem, however, is that sub judice rules do not mean that all discussion on the issue must cease immediately. Facts may be provided, questions may be tabled and general issues may be debated.

Mr Shanmugam’s comments on what he saw on the CCTV recording in the lift, however, have no bearing on either maintaining the police’s integrity or the general issues. If there is ever an instance where sub judice should apply, it is to unnecessary comments like these. (Note: I say this merely as an illustration. I do not believe sub judice should be so loosely interpreted. I am also unsure if Benjamin’s guilt or innocence is a matter that falls under the Coroner’s Inquiry’s ambit.)

Moreover, Mr Shanmugam has also asserted his own finding that “there is nothing so far on the evidence to suggest that Benjamin was mistreated by the Police.” This assertion has no relation to any of the pertinent facts, nor does it have any relation to the general issues. It is moreover, a central question for the State Coroner to consider.

Whether or not Mr Shanmugam has thereby committed sub judice is not for me to say. It suffices for us to note that Mr Shanmugam seems to raise the rule when it suits him and ignores it when it doesn’t. But if there are rules, we must all be bound by them or not at all. Ministers who are responsible for the government body under investigation are precisely the ones most invested in the outcome. They should be more careful about what they say.

Polarising opposing camps

As I read comments on this issue (and make many myself), I have observed a sad outcome. Rather than encourage mutual understanding, Mr Shanmugam’s comments have tended to polarise opposing camps. This, I believe, is the result of launching an unreasonable attack against a cherished news site and against a voice of reason (Thio Shen Yi).

Rather than focus on reassuring the public that the government will continue to review its policies (something he did mention once in his statement), Mr Shanmugam has wasted what little credibility he had with the segments of society that bear a strong distrust towards government. Instead of maintaining a reasonable tone (something he began with at the start of his statement), Mr Shanmugam ended up making frivolous accusations.

It is unfortunate that the minister fails to understand the importance of having a robust media that asks tough questions and a Law Society that publicly discusses legal issues. Moreover, if we consider TOC a site that mainly appeals to disgruntled Singaporeans, most of whom make up the 30% who voted against the PAP, we ought to ask whether it is wise to alienate them even further. Is a tiny political victory over TOC worth the cost of further fragmenting society? I think not. But by making unfounded accusations against TOC, this is precisely what Mr Shanmugam has done.

Mr Shanmugam acknowledges that many who commented on the matter are “honest, reasonable people, who have genuine questions”. Indeed, I find Mr Shanmugam’s ministerial statement to be an honest and reasonable one for the most part. I also acknowledge that the undue attention placed on the allegations against TOC was exacerbated by the lazy mainstream media which were only all too happy to jump on the juicy bit of news, reporting it in isolation from the rest of the statement (which was announced in many separate parts). It is therefore a pity that an opportunity to debate the larger issues was lost in an unnecessary scuffle amidst unspecified threats against unspecified persons.

To paraphrase Mr Shanmugam’s closing words: If I may say this, at the end of the day, every Singaporean matters. It matters to the society. It matters to the government. It matters to all of us.

My fear is that Mr Shanmugam and the party he represents will never understand this.

Disclosure: I have written several articles for TOC before, three of which touched on this case. The first was a report on Thio Shen Yi’s commentary in the Singapore Law Gazette. The second was a commentary on Mr Thio’s strategy. The third was a collection of comments from readers. The first and third were named by Mr Shanmugam in a document he circulated in Parliament. The accusations he makes are baseless. I have no involvement with any other articles on the Benjamin Lim case.

Related:

The tragic case of Benjamin Lim: is Singapore’s justice system flawed?

Singapore: The legal rights we don’t have

The real issue: TOC, Benjamin Lim or sub judice?

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