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Astunning A Hundred Flowers Ablooming – PM Lee swats at Roy Ngerng

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I much prefer my suggested title but the TRE Editor has his prerogative what he prefers and, indeed, understands of his audience’s receptivity. I hope to have pointed to the actual reason why PM Lee acted as he did…and sadly, it ain’t going to change anytime soon. Perhaps, changes to defamation threats will come after the next GE when either PAP loses much more votes while retaining a small absolute majority. Or, who knows, only a slim majority. That would be interesting

Let the flowers bloom: Discard cabinet code of conduct

Whilst much of what has been discussed make for lively discussions, most commentators have broadly focused on the reasons why/why not, what should/should not Blogger Roy or PM Lee have done. That, and some spirited commentaries on the merits of the subject blog and the letter of demand.

What is missing, I hasten to add from my own incomplete access, is the bigger framework within which Lee Hsien Loong as PM is, nay must be, motivated to act as he has done. That should be THE ISSUE for the Singapore of 2014 to ponder over given Roy’s shorter history as an activist and relative youth. It’s the times, the times, my fellow Singaporeans, that make the hero or the villain, not vice versa.

So, what forced PM Lee’s hand? We must look to the – current (pun not intended) – anchors securing the Singapore ship and not just point to the undercurrents, waves and storms that will always change in intensity and direction.

So, what forced the hand of this PM who, ascending barely 10 days into the highest executive officer, in his first National Day Rally on 22 Aug 2004, appeared to try to set a new direction in free speech, a more active, participatory citizenry with his (eerie?) reference to Mao’s ‘let a 100 flowers bloom’ imagery?

21   The second thing we’re going to do is to open up the Speakers’ Corner where you can go and make any speech you like and we are going to say, “Well, if you want to go there and have an exhibition, go ahead”. Once in a while, Think Centre says they want to go to the Speakers’ Corner and they want to plant 100 flowers there, let the 100 flowers bloom. Well, I think go ahead. They want to water the flowers, go ahead. They want to turn the flowers down, go ahead. I mean, free expression as long as you don’t get into race and religion and don’t start a riot. It’s a signal – speak, speak your voice, be heard, take responsibility for your views and opinions.”

PM Lee Hsien Loong
(National Day Rally, 2004)

Has he gone back on, if not, his words then in spirit (within our cyber Speaker’s Corner)? After all, it was his “signal – (to) speak, speak your voice, be heard, take responsibility for your views and opinions”? I think not. A signal is not a carte blanche. PM Lee did mention the limits of race, religion and (prophetically ?) ‘riot’, which Roy did not breach. Left unsaid, intact were the laws of defamation and libel.

I believe he is focused on maintaining his credibility as leader amongst his own. For without that continued credibility, there is no premiership to speak of. But it does not stop there and we shall come back to that shortly.

So again, what then forced his hand? Well, it’s an archaic but nevertheless doctrinal pillar of PAP governance;

There are many critics of the PAP in Singapore… Political opponents, so long as they keep within the law… do not have to appear before the judiciary. But if they’ve defamed us, we have to sue them — because if we don’t, our own integrity will be suspect. We have an understanding that if a minister is defamed and he does not sue, he must leave cabinet. By defamation, I mean if somebody says the minister is on the take or is less than honest. If he does not rebut it, if he does not dare go before the court to be interrogated by the counsel for the other side, there must be some truth in it. If there is no evidence, well, why are you not suing?

PM Goh Chok Tong
(ASIAWEEK December 3, 1999.)

Many changes have been wrought since 1999 but that cabinet code of conduct remains since no minister has said otherwise. There you have it, the factual basis for PM Lee to use his considerable resource to swat at a small fry with a limited, vocal audience or fans.

But in acting to protect his leadership amongst his peers & PAP supporters, he cannot ring-fence the impact on the broader populace, marginal voters included. He must have calculated that the price, on balance, works for him. Casting a cold spell as a side-effect is not a bad thing given his own recent faux pas (PIDCS, Singapore belongs to all) and at mid-term after a dismal GE & 2 BE plus an increasingly vocal and more credible demos with verifiable and valid complaints to share.

But in securing his vested leadership, he discarded another opportunity to lead the entire nation to nurture the 100 flowers he started out with in 2004 – to gently direct the flowers to the sunshine of greater openness for more and genuine sources of feedback as well as speed of feedback. Does any leader seriously believe that the complexity, extent and speed of changes these days are adequately served by his same 20th century modi operandi?

This gardener is more worried about potential weeds than making flowers bloom.

But the Singapore today is no longer the mostly uneducated or secondary school graduate. Aided by IT, we are more discerning of the info we are bombarded with. Just look at how his ST’s readership has plummeted! Hence the core issue in this defamation episode is not about maintaining his right to legal action but, in exercising that right, to NOT abuse or seen to be abusing it over itsy-bitsies. Why show yourself to be a leader who surely can but does not want to differentiate the fireworks from the fire, the sound from the substance or, indeed, the facts from the farcical?

A crying shame, really.

In our zeitgeist, one can hang on to one’s honesty, integrity but lose out on felicity in leadership. Time to update the method and methodology of securing one’s honesty, integrity to fit our times – without jettisoning that right to legal action in the most obvious cases of defamation, libel – or be outdated by the times.

Laws can stay relevant. That cabinet code of conduct is now ridiculous.



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