The internet smoulders today with the fallout from Foreign and Law Minister K Shanmugam’s alleged late night phone call to Remy Choo, wherein they apparently discussed the allegedly libellous nature of an article originally published in The Global Mail and shared widely amongst Singaporeans. The Minister appears to be in damage limitation mode – attempting to downplay the significance of the phone call which was first revealed by Kirsten Han, and secondly by seeking to clarify his historical business relationship with companies ultimately controlled by Indonesia’s Widjaja family that was raised in the article.
Like all good lawyers, Mr Shanmugam appears to have chosen his words carefully – very carefully. For this reason, a close look at what he said – and didn’t say – could be instructive.
Starting with the phone call to Remy Choo, the Minister admits that it took place. The minister does not deny that it was a late night phone call, or even a “midnight phone call” as stated by Kirsten Han. While the Minister seeks to downplay the significance of this phone call by emphasising the strength of his relationship with Remy, he never goes so far as to say that Remy Choo is his friend. Is it normal for the Minister to make unsolicited late night phone calls to people who are not his friends or family members? It seems unlikely. Furthermore, the Minister very clearly does not deny the key point – that the purpose of the call was to convey the message that “he would not hesitate to sue those republishing [the article]”.
Mr Shanmugam is a very experienced and successful lawyer. Lawyers are trained to choose their words careful, and in this case he appears to have done so. He could have chosen to deny these facts, but he did not. For this reason, we should presume that the central premise as reported by Kirsten Han is, more likely than not, true.
Despite asserting that what Kirsten wrote is “quite untrue” and that the conversation had been “twisted”, the Minister chooses a very different tenor when addressing the points raised by foreign journalist Eric Ellis in the original article. Most importantly, at no point does the Minister appear to state that anything written by Mr Ellis is false or untrue. At no point does he accuse Mr Ellis of twisting anything. Since accusing someone of publishing lies is presumably libellous itself, neglecting to make this allegation may be the pragmatic approach to take. The relevant article was originally published by a media outlet from Australia, a country with a very different legal relationship between freedom of speech and defamation from Singapore. Perhaps the Minister has chosen not to make any statements alleging falsehoods in Mr Ellis’ article in case such statements would be considered “actionable” in Australia. Regardless of the reasons, the fact is that at no point does the Minister state that anything written by Mr Ellis is false. Furthermore, the Minister provides no details whatsoever regarding what about the article causes him to find it actionable.
To re-iterate, Mr Shanmugam is an experienced lawyer, and we must assume he has chosen his words carefully. He does not assert that anything written by Mr Ellis is false. In fact he can point to nothing specific in the article which he finds libellous. If the Minister finds the article so troubling as to require him to make late night phone calls to convey the message that “he would not hesitate to sue those republishing [it]” then he should come out and explain why. If such an explanation cannot be provided, many are likely to draw the inference that Mr Shanmugam’s assertion that the article is libelous is unsubstantiated.
What Mr Shanmugam says about his historical business relationship with Sinar Mas Group (SMG) is also noteworthy. Most importantly he admits his previous paid directorships of two companies ultimately owned by SMG. This admission is to be expected because it is a matter of fact on the public record. The question is whether there is a conflict of interest between the Minister’s historical business dealings with SMG and his current role as Foreign and Law Minister in Singapore. Singapore is currently embroiled in an dispute with Indonesia, that may or may not ultimately revolve around other (different) companies owned by SMG and may or may not lead to legal proceedings in Singapore against those companies. It could be argued that Mr Shanmugam’s historical relationship with SMG presents a conflict of interest. It is important to note that the existence or apparent existence of a conflict of interest is not indicative of corrupt, illegal or immoral behaviour. However, a conflict of interest must be carefully and transparently managed to ensure a fair outcome. Whether or not there even is a conflict of interest in this case is debatable, since Mr Shanmugam’s relationship with SMG ended many years ago. Regardless though, it is quite proper for Mr Ellis to raise the question and Mr Shanmugam should prioritise answering it over suing Singaporeans who share the article online.