In Singapore, there is this piece of law called the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) that came into force in November 2014. Amongst other things, it allows individuals who are victims of false statements of facts alleged against him/her to seek recourse. If the victim can prove in court that the statements are false, the Court can direct the publication of a suitable notification which alerts readers that the statements are false. The form of notification will be at the discretion of the Court.
A number of cases under the POHA has already been heard by the courts in Singapore. But the one that stands out most must certainly be the case that MINDEF took out against the news website The Online Citizen (TOC) and Dr Ting. MINDEF felt that it was being harassed by TOC and Dr Ting because they had, on numerous occasions implied that:
i) MINDEF had knowingly infringed Dr Ting Choon Meng’s Singapore Patent 113446, with the intent to
subsequently apply to revoke his patent upon his legal challenge; and
(ii) MINDEF waged a ‘war of attrition’ against Mobilestats, by deliberately delaying the court proceedings
in Suit 619 of 2011 and asking for more trial dates than necessary, thereby increasing legal costs
MINDEF took both TOC and Dr Ting to court alleging that they are harassing MINDEF. In May 2015, the District Court agreed with MINDEF and had declared that any statements that suggest any of the above two points are false. This included a video interview and an article on TOC’s website. The district judge ordered that “as long as the video interview is published, it must include a prominent notification – at the start and at the end of the video, and lasting at least 30 seconds each – that certain statements made by Dr Ting have since been declared by the courts to be false. A similar requirement applies to the article”.
When I first read the case in May, I was quite incredulous. I thought to myself, “Can MINDEF, which is a huge organisation, be harassed by a website and an individual?” Surely the intent of POHA is to protect individuals, live, living, breathing human beings rather government agencies or companies. And it wasn’t just me. A number of other of my friends felt the same way too. Clearly TOC and Dr Ting felt that way too and they appealed the judgement by the District Court.
Thankfully, Judicial Commissioner See Kee Oon of the High Court ruled that “only individuals, not corporations or the Government, may seek redress against false statements under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA)”. He overturned the judgement by the district judge in the case of TOC and Dr Ting vs MINDEF. JC See said that “the POHA section that allows a District Court to make certain orders against false statements made should be confined to false statements capable of affecting their subjects emotionally or psychologically. Hence, the subject of the statements must be a human being, and not a corporation or the Government.” JC See added that “The parliamentary debate that took place before the law was passed strongly suggests that the “true mischief” that the section aimed to address was the psychological impact of a false statement on its subject”.
Which, I would have thought, is common sense. I mean… Can you imagine MINDEF being emotionally or psychologically affected by the statements made by TOC and Dr Ting? What? CDF and Minister of Defence lost sleep just because of some statements made by TOC and Dr Ting? They were depressed?
Even then, it should be the individuals within MINDEF to make a case against TOC and Dr Ting and not MINDEF itself. I mean… can an organisation be affected emotionally or psychologically by false statements? If that is the case, then any potential aggressors wishing to attack Singapore should add one more item in their doctrine of war against us: make false statements against MINDEF/SAF. Then MINDEF and SAF will be emotionally and psychologically affected and thus unable to fight a war properly. Which is ridiculous.
Not only did JC See allow the appeal by TOC and Dr Ting, he had encouraging words for TOC, because TOC had published MINDEF’s statement in full and provided a link to it from its article that contained the video interview with Dr Ting. JC See said, “Such efforts to present each party’s side of a story ought to be encouraged, and in my judgment they would be discouraged if … orders were made as a matter of course despite these efforts having been made”.
Now isn’t JC See Kee Oon a really cool guy? Mad respect for him for providing clarity on when POHA is applicable. That said, this may not be the end of it. MINDEF may still appeal. Then it would depend on what the Court of Appeal says. And that would be the most binding. If MINDEF does appeal, I hope the apex court will be as reasonable as JC See Kee Oon. And MINDEF, really… grow a pair, suck it up and take it like a man. Or, as my instructors in NS used to say, “ENDURE!”
[Featured Image: Picture of Dr Ting from TOC]