Many have written about the magnanimity of the two old men in accepting $30,000 as a full discharge of Chee’s bankruptcy. But the implications of their actions are far more important for Singapore politics than mere magnanimity.
$30,000 is not a very large sum for a real politician, but it is a reasonable amount of compensation, if one has truly been defamed. The defamation trial and judgement in themselves are just as important in establishing the defamatory nature of the defendant’s unfounded allegations, and play a much more important role in protecting and restoring the reputation of the plaintiff.
Indeed, defamation amounts are notoriously hard to quantify fairly, and our esteemed judges, learned as they are, are neither brand consultants (who specialise in qualifying the market values of brands) nor accountants/investment bankers by training. Thus, damages awarded should be seen less as compensation but more as a deterrent to further acts of defamation.
Through their action, our two former leaders have thus set a precedent for PAP politicians. It means any PAP politician in future will be seen as mean and petty if they do not settle for $30,000. Or even less than $30,000, since their reputations may not be as large as Mr Lee’s and Mr Goh’s combined.
It means no single PAP politician can demand more than $15,000– less than one month’s MP allowance. A new benchmark.
The implications of the $30,000 settlement on Singapore politics is thus HUGE.
It means ‘opposition’ politicians will no longer have to fear defamation suits. Not that they won’t be sued, but at least they may not be bankrupted by such suits, and they will most likely be able to carry on into the next election.
This removes a distinct black mark against Singapore politics, which has been characterised by vocal opposition critics shut out of elections for decades by bankruptcy, thus not allowing the PAP the moral victory of being them in open elections.
With this settlement, that will change for good. It will allow PAP to hold its heads high and say that we defeated them roundly and soundly at elections, and it will also allow ‘opposition’ politicans no excuse to be ‘martyrs’.
The implication of the $30,000 settlement is that defamation lawsuits will no longer be seen as a way to weaken political opponents, or to keep them out of politics. If a politician can’t raise $15,000, he won’t get far in politics anyway.
Finally, the implication of the $30,000 settlement may be that the judiciary will reconsider its practices, so that so that future defamation awards do not drive defendants into bankruptcy. Much depends on whether they wish to follow judicial precedent or political precedent, and whether they see the contours of the new political landscape.