Recent letters by civil servants to foreign journals 'completely in order': PMO

SINGAPORE - It is "completely in order" for civil servants to defend Singapore's interests by correcting misrepresentations about the country, clarified the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) on Wednesday.

It issued the statement in response to media queries over the propriety of recent letters by civil servants to foreign publications.

In the last two weeks, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's press secretary Chang Li Lin had written a letter to the Economist magazine, and the Singapore Consul-General in Hong Kong had written to the South China Morning Post, which rebutted views of and claims made by the journals.

Both letters were published by the respective publications.

The Economist article was on the Government's Central Provident Fund (CPF) policies, and it referred to the Prime Minister's defamation suit against blogger Roy Ngerng who had alleged that PM Lee had misappropriated public monies.

The PMO said: "When aspersions are cast on the integrity of the Prime Minister and his Government's policies, an official reply from the PM's press secretary is completely in order."

This is no different from what press secretaries in most other Governments do, it added.

"Likewise, when a foreign newspaper carries an article with misrepresentations about Singapore, it is important that our diplomatic representative defend Singapore's interests by correcting misrepresentations and providing a balanced view. Our Consul-General in Hong Kong did just that when he responded to the South China Morning Post article," said the PMO.

Its statement did not specify who had raised the concerns. But the Reform Party questioned whether the letter by Ms Chang, a civil servant, "may have breached the Ministerial Code of Conduct" and was a "possible misuse of state resources" in a statement on its website on Monday.

Ms Chang sent a letter to The Economist last Thursday that clarified two points made in its Banyan blog, which discusses current affairs in Asia.

The first is that it was not "alleged serious libel" that Mr Ngerng had committed, as The Economist put it, as "Mr Ngerng has publicly admitted accusing Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of criminal misappropriation of pension funds, falsely and completely without foundation", she said.

She added that "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".

The Economist had voiced concern that this legal 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".

A week before that, Singapore's consul-general in Hong Kong Mr Jacky Foo had responded to writer Catherine Lim's open letter to PM Lee, with a letter of his own that was published in the South China Morning Post.

The Hong Kong newspaper had carried a story about Ms Lim's letter in which she had said that Singaporeans no longer trust the Government.

In his reply, Mr Foo said that while "not all is perfect in Singapore", trust in the Government remains high.