Facebook postings about the sale of town council software to Action Information Management Pte Ltd (AIM), a PAP-owned company, fell off dramatically soon after news broke that Lee Hsien Loong’s lawyers had sent me a letter. Possibly, people felt very unsure what was safe to talk about anymore.
Therefore, I think it is important for me to clarify that the statements in the article that I had to take down, and that Lee took exception to, were not, strictly speaking, statements about the sale of the software to AIM, but phrases and sentences pertaining to him. They were statements and questions I had asked that Lee felt questioned his integrity, corruptibility and abuse of power should he not launch an investigation. The 21 readers’ comments that the lawyers cited as defamatory were of the same vein.
I have apologised for them, though readers might want to consider the broader ecology of defamation threats and suits in Singapore. I draw your attention to Angela Faye Oon’s Facebook posting of Friday 4 January 2013 (I hope she doesn’t mind me archiving it here because many readers of Yawning Bread may not be ‘friends’ with her, but I’ll take it down if she asks), Cherian George’s comment in Journalism.sg (For whom the libel tolls: government loses even as it wins) and Tan Kin Lian’s article on his blog (Threat of defamation suit).
Obviously, our ministers do not like people to question their integrity. And as in my experience, you might get into trouble if you did. But it is important to bear in mind that all I have said so far about AIM and the town councils were not cited by the lawyers as defamatory, only those statements directed at Lee.
Another reason why social media talk about the AIM saga has fallen off is that there has been no new revelation except the letter of termination released by the Workers’ Party. Even then, it merely confirmed what had earlier been revealed.
The only juicy part was how AIM was so gauche as to use the same address as the PAP headquarters. As a reader said to me, “It’s as terrible as it gets!”
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Teo Ho Pin et al may take this respite to mean that the worst is behind them and say no more on the matter. But what would be interesting is if the Workers’ Party tables a question at the next parliamentary sitting.
The thing about parliamentary questions is that they are directed at the government. A minister, or junior minister at least, has to stand up and reply to them. This means that Khaw Boon Wan as National Development Minister will likely be in the hot seat since MND generally oversees town councils, issuing assessments and ratings periodically. So far, none of the ministers have said a thing about the AIM affair, but when faced with a parliamentary question, Khaw or someone else from government will have to reply.
What will he say? Of course, much depends on how the Workers’ Party phrases the question (if they choose to ask one) but basically Khaw will have two uncomfortable choices.
One would be to stoutly defend Teo Ho Pin and the PAP town councils that chose to sell the software to AIM. But Khaw would then also have to defend not just the decision to sell, but the rather convoluted arrangement that was dreamt up, and the very suspicious-looking execution of the tender. He would have to dismiss as irrelevant or malicious all the remaining unanswered questions. Yet, if he stands up to defend it in toto, then the government takes on the responsibility for the mess, and if any wrongdoing is later exposed, the government will have it on their shoulders.
This scenario also presupposes that Khaw is personally comfortable defending it. What do I mean by that? Suppose his cabinet colleagues think the government should defend it stoutly, but what if Khaw personally has doubts? How will he reconcile his personal conscience with his duty to act in a way the cabinet as a whole wishes?
The other route Khaw can take is to tell parliament that he himself is not completely satisfied that the AIM saga passes the smell test. He could promise an independent investigation. Doing so might draw the sting out of the affair.
The problem with this route is that it would mean hanging Teo Ho Pin out to dry, for anything less than a stout defence may leave Teo feeling damned by faint praise. His position would become untenable; he may choose to resign.
This would then present the party and the prime minister with a new headache: demands for another by-election. And, as I have discussed in a recent article, the party probably already has enough recruitment troubles with Punggol East.
It may not be visible to the layman, but I think the AIM saga is still keeping the PAP awake at night. It has become a ‘heads you win, tails I lose’ situation.