Hard landing: TREmeritus welcomed into the open with defamation threat

PM Lee has demanded that a TREmeritus commentary on Ho Ching’s appointment as head of Temasek Holdings be taken down and that an apology be carried prominently on the website. (Photo: AFP)

By Cherian George

TREmeritus, better known as the former Temasek Review, has been given until 24 February to comply with instructions from lawyers acting for the Prime Minister, failing which the site's editors could be sued for defamation.

The move represents a rude welcome to the open ground of Singapore's mediascape. Until recently, TREmeritus and its predecessor sites operated underground, with anonymous editors presumably based overseas. In recent months, however, one Richard Wan has emerged as the Singapore face of the controversial and hard-hitting site. Last Wednesday, he spoke at a public forum on social media.

One day later, TREmeritus published a commentary by a Matthew Chua, which among other things made claims about Ho Ching's appointment as head of Temasek Holdings. In a sign of the editors' lack of experience in such matters, the article ended with an editor's note saying that the author had nothing to worry about as long as he stayed clear of sedition or racism. Somehow, TREmeritus forgot about defamation, which for some decades has been among the country's most frequently used media laws (another being contempt of court).

It was left to Drew & Napier, acting for PM Lee Hsien Loong, to remind Wan that a string of media had been successfully sued for defamation over similar allegations. Their letter yesterday demanded that the offending article be taken down and that an apology be carried prominently on the website, for a period as long as the article had remained on the site.

Legal action will proceed if the site fails to do so. The editors must inform Lee's lawyers of their decision no later than 23 February.

Wan could consider himself lucky that the site is being given a chance to play ball before being asked to shell out damages and costs. In some previous cases involving foreign media organisations, they had to write out large cheques despite issuing retractions and apologies. The services of senior counsel Davinder Singh, acting for Lee, hardly come cheap.

The PM and his advisors probably took into account the fact that Wan, a 49-year-old IT consultant, does not have pockets as deep as those of Bloomberg, The Economist, Financial Times, Dow Jones and other media corporations that have contributed heftily to Singaporean charities via damages paid to politicians here. Wan and his fellow editors are likely to take the warning shot seriously enough. In addition, bankrupting an individual Singaporean over defamation is likely to go down badly today in the court of public opinion.

TREmeritus has already removed the offending article from its website. It remains to be seen whether it will eat humble pie and issue the required apology. If it does so, it will probably have to take extra care in removing similar allegations from future articles and comments, since it can no longer claim ignorance after this episode.

Acceding to the lawyers' demands would be a major climbdown for a site known for its no-holds-barred attacks on government. The site's overseas-based and anonymous editors are an unknown quantity, so it is a mystery whether they will have enough sympathy for Wan's plight to engage in a collective swallowing of pride.

This is (at least) the third defamation case involving a prominent socio-political blog within the past year. Also last week, Yawning Bread had to delete comments mentioning law minister K Shanmugam's personal life. Similar allegations were contained in a comment posted on The Online Citizen around the time of last year's general election. The Online Citizen's editors quietly removed the comment after hearing from lawyers.

Collectively, these cases illustrate the dilemma faced by citizen journalists and commentators who want to critique the government more forcefully than the mainstream media does. The internet can be used either as a hiding place or as a connector. Each strategy has its pros and cons.

Those who use the internet to stay clear of the authorities, like the old Temasek Review, tend to find it difficult to cultivate sources and allies — this was a key reason why TREmeritus decided to come out of the shadows, according to Wan. In contrast, the likes of Yawning Bread and The Online Citizen have strong connections with Singapore's civil society. Operating openly and transparently tends to make sites more credible. However, working in the open also means that they are no longer immune to the same post-publication legal constraints that restrict mainstream journalists.

Faced with this reality, it could be back to the drawing board for the individuals behind TREmeritus. It would not be surprising if some of them — and those associated with its predecessor site, Temasek Review — decide to heed the call of the wild and return to the less regulable regions of cyberspace.

The writer is an associate professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The article is a repost from journalism.sg