By: Howard Lee
The verdict passed by the courts dictating that the Ministry of Defence (Mindef), and by extension the government, cannot use the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) against citizens is clearly a landmark case, but we should not just focus on the legal victory, potent as it is, and forget the lessons the government should learn about public engagement.
We start with what should have been a clear and undeniable fact for what POHA – and any law of the country, for that matter – was supposed to do: Protect the vulnerable from those who are more powerful and better equipped to bully them in public. In this light, the case where Mindef claimed that The Online Citizen was making “false statements” about it when the news website published an article on the Ministry infringing on the patent rights of Dr Ting Choon Meng never should have gone to court.
Mindef is the last government agency that you would expect need any protection from anyone, much less the words of its citizens. I once made a rueful joke about Mindy taking issue with her ex-boyfriend Ah Ting, whom she alleged showed nude pictures of her to his friend Ah Toc, whereupon the pictures went viral and Mindy was forced to apply for protection under POHA. We can now, fortunately, lay that joke to rest.
As such, the ruling was significant in setting out clear legal boundaries for the government. The government should never ever set the rules for itself or think that it can tweak it in its favour. Laws are meant to protect the vulnerable. POHA’s original intention was good, but a failure to appreciate its noble intent led us to the exhausting situation we have today. May it never be repeated again.
But the ruling also highlighted another lesson that the government can learn about public communication.
TOC wrote about Dr Ting’s case after pouring through all the evidence that was available, including case documents and background information, and published the article believing that he had legitimate reasons to feel the way he did. We then extended an offer to Mindef to state its position immediately after the article went public. Mindef never gave us a direct response, but issued a public statement much later, which TOC also diligently carried. The legal response followed soon after.
Should Mindef have felt aggrieved that TOC published false statements against it, it had more than enough opportunities to clarify and state its case with the editors. It also has the capacity to push out its messages by other means. Unfortunately, it opted to embark on the legal route and waste state resources – that would be your taxes – trying to make TOC submit to its demands.
It would have been a lot more effective and efficient for Mindef to clarify its position, walk us through their take on the case, and trust that the public can make up our own minds. The fact that they did not tells us a lot about where Mindef has failed in public engagement.
Hence, the ruling on Mindef vs Dr Ting and TOC should serve as a clear indicator to all government agencies that taking the legal route – no matter how temptingly easy, no matter how vindicated they might feel about having something declared “false” by the courts, no matter how much “personality” you can put into a government body to justify your case – can never beat a good old-fashioned chat with real human beings with real human concerns.
The reputational benefits Mindef obtained from the first court ruling in its favour would have done nothing to bolster its public position, with or without the latest ruling, if not made it worse. Every time the government uses the law against its own citizens, it risks coming across as a big playground bully, for there is no one better equipped to take care of itself than the government.
Dr Ting felt aggrieved about losing his patent. Why was it so? What were his concerns? What are the areas in our intellectual property laws that should be improved? Could Mindef have improved its procurement processes? All this was lost in the spectacle of a government ministry taking on a businessman and a news website. The government could have gained much mileage in projecting itself as one that listens, rather than shouts.
To do so also requires a fair amount of humility and trust that citizens do not see the government as some monolithic demon that they wish to destroy – from my personal experience, that had never been the intent of the online journalists I’ve worked with. We seek answers, and the failure to find one should not deter us from speaking up. We seek protection from the law, not from the government, but from injustice. Which side of the law, then, does the government want itself to be perceived standing?
As such, this landmark case should be a clear signal to the government that using our laws for its own purposes is not only something that it cannot do, but should not do. The reputational risk of going the legal route is too high, while the benefits of engaging are immeasurable.