PM's press secretary rebuts The Economist on defamation suit

SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's press secretary Chang Li Lin has rebutted an article in The Economist magazine that discusses PM Lee's defamation suit against blogger Roy Ngerng and its implications for Singapore.

The opinion piece "A butterfly on a wheel", was published online last Friday on The Economist's Banyan blog, which analyses Asian politics and culture.

The piece referred to Mr Ngerng's accusation as an "alleged 'serious libel'", which is wrong, said Ms Chang in a letter to The Economist.

The letter was published online under its letters to the editor section on Thursday.

"This is not an allegation," she wrote. "Mr Ngerng has publicly admitted accusing Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of criminal misappropriation of pension funds, falsely and completely without foundation."

On May 23, Mr Ngerng had apologised to the PM on his blog, saying he recognised that the article means and is understood to mean that Mr Lee is guilty of misappropriating CPF funds. He also admitted the allegation is false and without foundation, and undertook not to make similar allegations in the future.

Ms Chang added that after he promised to apologise and remove his May 15 blogpost, Mr Ngerng then did the opposite, "actively spreading the libel further".

She was referring to Mr Ngerng posting a YouTube video and blogpost after May 23. Mr Ngerng was asked to take these and two other blogposts down. He agreed to do so, but did not take down the YouTube video, and instead sent emails to local and international media, among others, with the blogposts.

"This was grave and deliberate defamation, whether it occurred online or in the traditional media being immaterial," said Ms Chang.

The Economist article also observed the case is "something of a departure" from how political leaders here have used legal action to defend their reputations in the past, as Mr Ngerng is not a politician, and it is for an article online.

It voiced concern that this suit would dampen debate online, and concluded that "the government may well see short-term benefits in the effect of the suit, if its critics think twice before committing their thoughts to the Internet".

Rebutting this point, Ms Chang said, "what is at stake is not any short term positive or negative impact on the government, but the sort of public debate Singapore should have".

"When someone makes false and malicious personal allegations that impugn a person's character or integrity, the victim has the right to vindicate his reputation, whether he is an ordinary citizen or the Prime Minister. The internet should not be exempt from the laws of defamation," she said.

"It is perfectly possible to have a free and vigorous debate without defaming anyone, as occurs often in Singapore."

Separately, Ms Chang also asked for a clarification to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's June 17 interview with Mr Ngerng.

She said that the PM is not suing Mr Ngerng for "questioning the government", which is what ABC reported, but for accusing Mr Lee of misappropriating CPF savings.

The report also said Mr Ngerng may get two years' jail for his defamation. But, said Ms Chang, since Mr Lee's suit is a civil one, there is no question of a jail term.

The correction was published on Thursday.

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