I did a double take when I read the rebuttal letter written by Mr Peer M Akbar to the Wall Street Journal. Firstly, a little bit of context: On 7th March 2012, a letter written by Kenneth Jeyaretnam to the Wall Street Journal was published. “Challenging Singapore’s Defamation Laws” In that letter, Mr Jeyaretnam made reference to his father’s bankruptcy. The relevant part of the letter is as follows:
“As The Wall Street Journal is aware, my father, Reform Party founder Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, was sued numerous times for defamation, culminating in being bankrupted over a few words in an article published in the Workers’ Party newspaper that he did not write and in a language (Tamil) whose written form he did not understand. This resulted in him losing his seat in Parliament and not being able to stand again before he died…”
My observation: KJ makes no reference to the timing of the defamation suit involving that article in the “Hammer” which was written in Tamil. He states that JBJ’s bankruptcy resulted from a suit arising out of the Tamil article in the “Hammer”. This bankruptcy resulted in him losing the seat in Parliament. I don’t remember the events very accurately. But, I have a vague recollection that JBJ was in Parliament when he was declared bankrupt and that resulted in his disqualification. I also remember that there was a suit by some members of the Indian community against JBJ and one of the chaps was a lawyer. I used to hear a fair amount of Bar room talk about that lawyer being instrumental in JBJ’s bankruptcy. So, Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s letter did not shock me or surprise me. On 12 March 2012, Peer Akbur (the Press Secretary to the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts) attempted a rebuttal of KJ’s letter. The full letter is as follows:
Defending Singapore’s Defamation Laws 12 March 2012 Mr. Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s Mar. 7 letter to the editor, “Challenging Singapore’s Defamation Laws,” misrepresents basic facts. The article that he referred to was published in the August 1995 issue of the Workers’ Party publication The Hammer. J.B. Jeyaretnam was then the secretary-general of the party. The author of the article, the editor of The Hammer, and the Executive Council of the Workers’ Party (of which J.B. Jeyaretnam was a member) acknowledged that the article was “completely false and baseless” and accepted responsibility for it. They published an unqualified apology in The Straits Times on Nov. 23, 1995 and agreed to pay costs and damages. Contrary to Mr. Kenneth Jeyaratnam’s claim, this episode did not cause J.B. Jeyaretnam to lose his seat in parliament—he was not even a member of parliament at that time. Nor did it prevent J.B. Jeyaretnam from contesting the subsequent general elections in 1997, and being selected as a non-constituency member of parliament. Singapore holds its public officials to the highest standards of probity and integrity. Ministers and officials who have committed offences have been charged and jailed. Court judgments in all these cases are published, and fully open to scrutiny. At the same time, ministers who are defamed will sue to clear their name and take the stand to be cross examined. The right of individuals to protect their reputation is as important as free speech. In a healthy democracy, vigorous political debate does not involve defamatory attacks. In Singapore’s 2011 general elections, the same Workers’ Party that J.B. Jeyaretnam once led achieved its best performance since independence, with several MPs elected into parliament. It faced no lawsuits. Mr. Kenneth Jeyaretnam and his party also contested the general elections, albeit less successfully. . Peer M. Akbur Press Secretary to the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts
This article caused me to question my own memory. On the face of it, everything appeared to be factually accurate. A quick check on the net showed that in 1995 JBJ was not in Parliament. He entered Parliament again in 1997 as a Non-Constituency MP via Cheng San GRC. So, MICA’s assertion appeared to be accurate and KJ appeared to have got his facts mixed up. But, I was confused. I still carried a vague memory of the bankruptcy resulting from that particular claim. Thank God for the internet, I have proof postive that I have my memory and sanity intact. Firstly, this is a Reuters article reproduced by “Singapore-Window”: Secondly, in 2009 the Ministry of Law had responded to a White Paper on Repression of Political Freedoms in Singapore by Amsterdam and Peroff. In that response, under Annex 2 the following assertions were made by the Ministry:
Mr Jeyaretnam’s bankruptcy in 2001 had nothing to do with the Government. It arose from a defamation action brought against Mr Jeyaretnam by the Organising Committee for the 1995 Tamil Language Week, the majority of whom were not politicians. They had argued that Mr Jeyaretnam had committed a very serious libel when he alleged that the Committee was seeking political gains by “nakedly prostituting itself”. Mr Jeyaretnam refused to withdraw or apologise when sued. The court found against him and ordered him to pay damages, but he was unable to pay. Mr Jeyaretnam also had other outstanding debts. Arising from the bankruptcy, Mr Jeyaretnam’s expulsion from Parliament followed due process as provided for under Article 46(2) of the Singapore Constitution. As a bankrupt, Mr Jeyaretnam would have been disqualified from practicing as a solicitor; however, he had not renewed his practicing certificate and had ceased to practise law at the point of his bankruptcy.
So, the facts as the turn out…. KJ was not wrong in his assertion about the defamatory article that led to his father’s bankruptcy. Peer Akbur is wrong to state that the episode did not result in JBJ losing his seat in Parliament. It did result in the loss of the Parliamentary seat. In fact, I would have expected the MICA response to play the safe tune that MinLaw played which was to state that the bankruptcy was not brought on by a defamation suit by the PAP leaders but rather by members of the Organising Committee for the Tamil Language Week. Mr Peer Akbur. You have to do better fact checking than that when you are trying to represent the Ministry’s position. It’s ok. It is not too late to come forward and say that you stand corrected. 🙂