How to avoid that defamation suit

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By Benjamin Cheah

Blogger Roy Ngerng’s dismissal from Tan Tock Seng Hospital has raised a hue and cry on the Internet, with commentators like Mr Ng E-Jay claiming that this would have a chilling effect on free speech. However, there are many bloggers and politicians critical of the government who have not suffered any public repercussions despite their political views and still remain gainfully employed. Three lessons can be drawn from their experiences.

Evidence, Evidence, Evidence

According to Wong Siew Hong, Director of Infinitus Law Corporation, in defamation cases the burden of proof lies on the defendant and mounting a legal defence is an expensive proposition. Thus, the best approach is simply to not defame someone to begin with.

Chapter XXI of the Penal Code states: “It is not defamation to express in good faith any opinion whatever respecting the conduct of any person touching any public question, and respecting his character, so far as his character appears in that conduct, and no further.”

Similarly, expressing a negative opinion is not defamation, as long as the opinion is based on what is known to the public. It is also not defamation to make a claim to serve the public good or protect a private interest.

In layman terms, this means backing up every argument with evidence. Bloggers and politicians who do so generally do not face legal troubles, no matter how vociferous their criticisms may be.

If accused of defamation, playing things smart is the way to go. The government may be accused of strong-arm tactics for its propensity towards defamation suits, yet it was comparatively lenient towards individuals who have made amends, such as blogger Alex Au or Temasek Review Emeritus editor Richard Wan. After they made public apologies and retracted defamatory articles, the government chose to let the matter rest.

This may seem like the bloggers were giving in to the government. In the long term, however, this move enabled them to continue blogging with a minimum of fuss.

From the perspective of a blogger, activist or politician, their priority should be to continue working on things that matter. Fighting a case in court consumes time, money and energy that could otherwise have been spent on more important issues. It is also, historically, a losing proposition. Barring extraordinary circumstances, it may be more prudent to just make amends in order to continue blogging.

 Separate Work and Personal Lives

Tan Tock Seng Hospital fired Ngerng for allegedly failing to keep his professional and personal lives separate. Had he been anybody else and the dismissal kept low profile, the termination would not be controversial.

If a person is not being paid to engage in political activities, politics is a personal pursuit. When on the clock, employees are supposed to be working and using their employers’ resources to further that work. If the employees are doing something else or using those resources for other ends without their employers’ explicit permission, then they are neglecting their work and misusing resources. If an employee acts in a way that reflects badly on the employer, the former is actively harming the latter.

These are clear-cut grounds for termination of employment. Politically-motivated or not, being fired would lead to loss of income and damaged employment prospects. It is very difficult to remain politically active when starving and burdened by bills. The solution is to simply avoid putting oneself into such a situation to begin with.

This means keeping work and personal lives separate. Keep funds and resources that belong to the employer far apart from personal ones. During working hours, do nothing but work – politics can wait for breaks or after work. When talking politics in public, be clear that you are acting in your personal capacity. Act within the law wherever possible. This ensures that the employer will have no cause for complaint, no grounds for dismissal.

Resilient Incomes

Having a resilient income means having multiple income streams. Should the worst come to pass and a resilient individual is fired for whatever reason, he or she won’t starve.

There are dozens of ways to do this, ranging from investment to freelance work to selling goods and services. There is also taking up self-employment and seeking multiple clients. With research and sound advice, and by monetising skills and seizing opportunities, you can establish the foundation of a resilient income net to ensure financial independence.

As a bonus, having a resilient income also means having extra money for rainy days and occasional indulgences.

Life skills, not just political skills

Research, professionalism and financial wisdom are life skills, valid for everyone everywhere. For politically-active people in Singapore who tread in choppy waters, these are critical skills they cannot do without.