Fight the Oxley Road saga in a court of law, not just the court of public opinion.

Two days ago, Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leon Perera called on PM Lee to bring the issue of 38 Oxley Road to court – instead of discussing the matter in Parliament.

He drew an analogy to a corporation “where two ex-employees have made allegations on Facebook of abuse of power by the CEO. The Board of Directors … decides to convene an extraordinary meeting of shareholders (EOGM) to debate the allegations. While waiting for this EOGM, individual Directors rebut the whistle-blowers’ claims on Facebook. However no one – no independent director, no special auditor, no consultant, no member of management, no CPIB or other law enforcement officer – has met and interviewed the two self-styled whistle-blowers to ask them for proof, to interrogate their claims and investigate their veracity. Instead at the EOGM, the CEO rebuts the Facebook posts. He then asks for a vote of shareholders to decide if he should step down. No independent investigation of the claims made, just settled by debate after hearing his side of the story.”

NCMP Perera has a point. Parliament is rather ill-suited to resolve the underlying accusations launched by Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling against their elder sibling. In Parliament, the Prime Minister is delivering his case to a jury of his peers and subordinates, denying his key opponents the chance to fairly present their position and shutting out the possibility of an impartial verdict on the matter. Even though PM Lee assured his colleagues that the party whip would be lifted, the Order Paper published on 3rd July revealed that of the 124 questions filed for parliamentary debate, only six touched on the Oxley Road saga – and all were asked by Workers’ Party MPs. To what extent can a Parliament, controlled by a supermajority of PAP members, serve as an effective check on its leader?

Make no mistake; Parliament is a crucial avenue for matters of governance and process to be discussed. But when allegations of impropriety and abuse of power are levied against a head of state, Parliament should be used as one of many platforms for debate – not to lend a patina of finality to a controversy where unsubstantiated claims and he-said-she-said narratives still persist.

Take the claims regarding Attorney-General (A-G) Lucien Wong for example. Mr Lee Hsien Yang said that soon after receiving “letters with spurious objections from Hsien Loong’s then personal lawyer, Lucien Wong … (he) was made Singapore’s A-G in January 2017.” In response, Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah claimed that A-G Wong’s appointment was decided after a “thorough and rigorous process”, and that “there is no basis to suggest that either the Attorney-General or the Deputy Attorney-General have not observed (the rules on conflicts of interest).”

As a Singaporean, who am I to believe? Those who point to the peculiar circumstances surrounding A-G Wong’s appointment as evidence of nepotism, or those who argue otherwise? There is absolutely no recourse – other than one’s pre-existing biases to either trust or distrust those in power.

Another case study involves Minister Lawrence Wong’s involvement in passing PM Lee the Deed of Gift – a legal document executed between Dr Lee and Mr Lee with the National Heritage Board (NHB) – as alleged by the two siblings. The key issue was if PM Lee, acting as Prime Minister instead of a private citizen, tapped on a colleague to obtain the Deed through political means (rather than appropriate legal channels as per a private citizen). In Parliament, PM Lee replied that “It is nonsensical to say that because I saw the Deed in my official capacity, I could not raise the matter with a family member. If I come across anyone doing something wrong, even family … it is my duty to put a stop to it and set them right if I can.”

While PM Lee is right that, as one of the beneficiaries of his father’s estate, he was entitled to be consulted by his siblings before they signed the agreement with NHB, he did not demonstrate that the process through which he obtained the Deed of Gift was correct. Even though he might have been entitled to view the Deed, would the appropriate means have been to file a formal legal request as a private citizen laying out his interests rather than going through the “backdoor” by obtaining it from his Minister of National  Development?

I genuinely do not know who to believe, nor do I want to take sides in the absence of evidence. It is just frustrating that by only fighting their respective cases in the court of public opinion instead of a court of law, both parties are talking past each other. There needs to be closure – not just in substance but also in perception – on this controversy. With every passing day, confidence in our government’s incorruptibility and belief in the rule of law is being eroded; so much so that the Public Service Commission had to poll public officers on their trust in the civil service after the initial news broke. Singapore’s international brand is also being battered, with the Global Times (a Communist Party-linked tabloid) publishing attack articles on the spat.

The Prime Minister should take this matter to court. Parliament can only provide a charade of closure to this sorry affair – the Lee siblings will continue sniping at their elder brother, international news outlets will continue reporting, and speculation will continue apace. Say what you may about the independence of our judiciary, but launching a civil suit is a better way to determine whether the attacks on PM Lee’s character and standing are justified or defamatory. Both sides would have equal recourse to proof and legal representation and will present their respective cases to an independent panel of judges whose job is to evaluate the evidence and determine if there are enough grounds for Dr Lee and Mr Lee’s speech to be deemed defamatory – and hence impose damages if deemed necessary. Judges would also be able to issue an injunction to Dr Lee and Mr Lee, stopping them from continuing this controversy on social media.

I recognise that such an approach would run the risk of further exacerbating conflict between the Lee siblings. A court would take slightly under a year to reach a decision on whether Dr Lee and Mr Lee are guilty of defamatory remarks, and if they are, take roughly as long to determine the appropriate damages – a significant period of time in which domestic and international opinion will continue to sour.

But it is unclear that this is worse than the status quo, where there is no foreseeable conclusion to the saga. In fact, Dr Lee has been needling PM Lee on social media as early as April 2015, when she accused him on Facebook for “us(ing) the first anniversary of Lee Kuan Yew’s death as ‘hero worship'” and that the Prime Minister was “abusing his power”. In 2016, Dr Lee announced that she would stop writing for the Straits Times, as the editors “do not allow (her) freedom of speech”. This led to a huge controversy, with Chief of Government Communications Janadas Devan, her former ST editor, saying that “reading Wei Ling’s unedited writings was like sailing through a fog. The effort of turning her raw material into coherent articles — that’s what I remember most about editing Wei Ling.”

With Dr Lee and Mr Lee now publishing allegations and evidence on a near-daily basis, it is hard to see how Parliamentary debate can bring an end to this affair. In contrast, a court judgement – which serves not only as a fact-finding and adjudication process, but also a means to reaffirm the presence of rule of law and governmental incorruptibility in Singapore – allows for a more effective conclusion.

PM Lee’s decision not to sue is one borne out of filial piety. He said, “In normal circumstances in fact, in any other imaginable circumstance than this, I would surely sue … But suing my own brother and sister in court would further besmirch our parents’ names.” It is a noble reason. However, I believe that our national interests should take precedence over PM Lee’s personal preference not to sue his own siblings. DPM Teo Chee Hean himself stated in Parliament that the government makes decisions in the public interest of Singaporeans and does not “bend to the private demands of individuals, no matter who they are, or what family connections they can claim.” This is a principle that Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself acknowledged: That even though his personal preference was for the 38 Oxley Road home to be demolished, the dictates of national interest meant that he understood if the government of the day decided to gazette or refurbish the home. While I respect PM Lee’s personal convictions, these beliefs are coming in the way of us achieving meaningful closure on the controversy.

Singaporeans have been hauled to court for far less. In 2014, PM Lee sued Roy Ngerng for insinuating that he (PM Lee) was guilty of misappropriating CPF monies. Mr Ngerng wrongly compared the relationship between PM Lee and the CPF structure to that between Pastor Kong Hee and the City Harvest Church and alleged similar misappropriation on the part of the government. These remarks were found to be defamatory, and Mr Ngerng was excoriated in court.

As a matter of full disclosure, I have long been critical of the use of civil suits to quell discourse. It does not sit well with me that individuals like Mr Ngerng have been forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to powerful government figures – persuasive arguments regarding the chilling effect on discourse and governmental over-reach can be made. Yet, I do also accept (to some extent) ESM Goh Chok Tong’s opinion that “when a Minister thinks an allegation made against him is without basis, he should sue” – an argument he has been making as early as in 1999, when he stated “we have an understanding that if a minister is defamed and he does not sue, he must leave cabinet”.

What more clear cut a case of potentially defamatory remarks can exist? What more damaging accusations could possibly be made? For the sake of public faith in our government, PM Lee should have this case decided on, once and for all, by the courts.

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