Defamation law could deter whistle-blowers

Whistle-blower protection laws exist to ensure that those who report wrongdoing in good faith do not suffer retaliation by their employer or organisation.

One reason why whistle-blowers may be discouraged from reporting wrongdoing could be due to Singapore's defamation law. While it tries to protect the innocent from slander, this law may also inadvertently protect the wealthy and influential from prosecution.

An employee or member of an association may choose to turn a blind eye to any grave wrongdoing because of the legal expenses involved, or the perceived hopelessness of engaging with a powerful adversary.

The National Kidney Foundation under Mr T.T. Durai successfully sued Madam Tan Kiat Noi, Mr Archie Ong and Mr Piragasam Singaravelu for defamation in the 1990s.

The trio were eventually vindicated as their allegations regarding excessive bonuses and first-class travel by the CEO and his cronies were revealed to be true by the official report on irregularities at the foundation.

In 2003, a member of City Harvest Church, Mr Roland Poon Swee Kay, accused church leaders of using donors' money to promote the music career of Pastor Kong Hee's wife, Sun Ho.

Mr Poon was forced to make written apologies in five mainstream newspapers because he lacked the financial resources to repel the church's retaliatory action.

He was vindicated 12 years later with the conviction of six City Harvest leaders.

While the defamation law is in place to ensure public orderliness, it deters whistle-blowers because the balance of power is tilted towards whoever has the means to engage a more capable lawyer.

Edmund Khoo Kim Hock

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2019, with the headline 'Defamation law could deter whistle-blowers'. Print Edition | Subscribe