Sunday, 16 June 2019

Shanmugam on the law against fake news and the vocal minority

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam isn't one to shy away from tackling the hard issues of politics and policies.
I do it as long as it's the right thing to do, says Shanmugam
By Sumiko Tan, Executive Editor, The Sunday Times, 16 Jun 2019

Lunch with Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam is initially set to be at a coffee shop in his Chong Pang ward in Yishun.

But on the morning of our meeting, his people call with a change in plans.

Mr Shanmugam's schedule is very tight and we will have to eat at his office in the Ministry of Home Affairs in Irrawaddy Road.

My heart sinks. An office isn't the best place to get to know the person behind the public persona.

Could we at least eat at the ministry's canteen, I ask.

The reply comes back that while he has eaten there, he usually eats at his desk. The office setting would be "more authentic".

His room on the 20th floor is smaller than I expect. On a long table are two computers set at standing height, several pairs of reading glasses and assorted files.

A painting of a Singapore streetscape hangs on a wall and books line some shelves. I spot Eloquence In Stone: The Lithic Saga Of Sri Lanka, and Intelligent Island: The Untold Story Of Singapore's Tech Journey.

He's flipping through some papers when I enter, and leads me to a small side table where we will have lunch. Two of his people sit behind us, on a sofa, while we eat.

The minister is having just a quinoa salad from SaladStop! and I get a chicken rice set from Loy Kee in Balestier down the road.

I can't buy you lunch unless I pay for this, I remark.

"Well, you can go and pay them," he says with a laugh. "That's your principle."

At 60, he looks youthful. His face is unlined and his figure trim. He in fact shed some weight recently, he reveals.

There was a two-three month period when he kept coming down with the flu and lost weight.

"I decided, having lost weight, might as well keep to it. So I eat less and try and maintain that weight, and I exercise more rigorously."

It's not the first time we are having lunch, actually.

Thirty years ago when he was starting out as a Member of Parliament and I was covering politics, we had met for a meal.

I can't recall where we ate but I remember him being mild-mannered and easy to talk to, and also soft-spoken.

In the decades since, his public presence has loomed loud and large, first as one of Singapore's top lawyers taking on big cases, then when he joined the government front bench in 2008.

As law, home affairs and foreign affairs minister over the years, he has kept a high and sometimes controversial profile, leading key legislative changes in areas like criminal justice, dispute resolution and, more recently, deliberate online falsehoods.

He doesn't shy away from media interviews, keeps an active social media account, and is quick to rebuke anyone - opposition, academics, ordinary Singaporeans - he feels is dishonest or not doing the right thing.

Over lunch this time, Mr Shanmugam is still as soft-spoken as I remember, but there's a harder edge to him now.

A close friend who has known him for decades describes him as a person with an intrinsic sense of right and wrong, and one who always says exactly what he thinks, no matter how it might be perceived and no matter what damage it does to his image.

He's always ready to help, not just friends but also people he's never met before, says the friend. "I've seen first-hand how he can be quite soft-hearted and a thoroughly decent person."


The past year has seen Mr Shanmugam taking the lead in getting the law on fake news passed.

I wonder if his bout of flu was the result of working too hard on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, or POFMA.

"No, no, no," he says. "POFMA wasn't particularly taxing... major cases I've done have been more taxing."

He believes there was majority support for the law from the beginning. Opposition came from three groups: Those who are against whatever the Government does; those genuinely concerned it would intrude on liberties and rights; and those who don't know much about it but feel some unease.

"I would put all of that at no more than 25, 30 per cent, maybe 35 per cent. But virulently opposed, no more than 18 per cent."

He did notice a small group "deliberately out to misinform and confuse people and be dishonest".

"So if you don't want to let their agenda succeed, then you have to go out there and persuade people. So I said to my people, let's do everything necessary and I and other ministers will put ourselves front and centre in the comms plan."

He adds: "I was hopeful about the opposition. There are people there whom I have some regard for. But this exercise left me with a view that they put politics above principle and the country's interest."

You mean the Workers' Party, I ask. He nods but doesn't want to name names.

Would he ever put politics above principles?

"I wouldn't."

Have there been times he had to choose between the two in his 31-year political career?

He says that as an MP, he had spoken his mind on a range of issues. But over the years, real life experience has made him wiser and shown that some of his earlier views needed to be tempered.

"Now, of course, as a minister you have a choice, and I would not knowingly do something that I think would be damaging to the country."

I ask for an example of something he has tempered his views on.

He cites how in 1989 he spoke about not being completely comfortable with the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, which allows suspected criminals to be detained without trial.

"I felt that it needed much more safeguards. Over the years, I've seen how it works and I've seen the safeguards from inside, and now I'm comfortable."

He adds: "It's also experience. When you don't have experience in government, all you think of is in very simple terms - people's rights, and the government is eroding those rights."

He believes what is missing from the political argument in Singapore and in most countries is how politics involves mediation of many different interest groups.

"Often they are inconsistent or maybe even conflicting, and you need a strong enough central authority that can mediate those interests and come up with something that is in the best interest of the majority."

He points out how small, vocal interest groups can actively campaign against something.

"They will mislead, they will put it in very simple terms. They won't talk about the trade-offs. And there is a risk that they might then be able to persuade a slightly larger group... and that has been enough to block hard decisions being made in many countries."

For some policies, "individual rights may be compromised in some areas, but overall... look at whether society as a whole benefits. Is there law and order? Is there economic progress? So we have been able to do that".

The Singapore Government will continue to "work at doing the right thing and persuading people".

But, I say, the assumption is that the Government's "right thing" is indeed the right thing.

His reply is swift: "And that is why you're elected. Representative democracy means I place the faith in you for five years and you do the things and you explain your rationale in Parliament. And if I'm wrong, I'm out.''

All this doesn't mean the Government doesn't take in feedback, he says. A lot of consultation is done before new legislation is introduced, but consultation doesn't equate doing whatever everyone wants.

"In the end, you have to decide."

I wonder if he sees himself as someone willing to be the bad guy in tackling hard issues.

"No, I don't set out to be the person who wants to do it," he says. The ministries under him just happen to deal with matters of public interest.

"I don't approach it to say, am I going to be popular or not popular. I do it as long as is needed. Is this the right thing to do?"


In the 11 years he has helmed the law ministry, he has introduced a slew of legislative changes.

Becoming a lawyer, though, was a "complete fluke".

He's the youngest of three children and the only one born in Singapore. His parents had come from Tamil Nadu and his sister still lives in India. A brother, who is nine years older, grew up here and is a chartered accountant.

His father, a stern disciplinarian, ran a small business and his mother was a housewife. "It was a quiet, disciplined, sort of rules-based childhood," he says. "A very traditional household. You didn't contradict, you just accepted."

Circumstances were modest. The family lived in a room in a house in Emerald Hill, then in Newton and Serangoon Road. His parents later bought a flat in Ghim Moh. His father died when he was in university and his mother is 94.

He studied at Newton Boys' School and later Raffles Institution where he was a "pretty average" student. He ran middle distance and was "sort of on the fringes of being competitive".

He did pure science for his A levels because he wanted to be with two friends who had opted for that combination, and got accepted into the science faculty at the National University of Singapore although his heart wasn't in those subjects.

Luckily, he went to a friend's matriculation at the law faculty and discovered that students need attend only 14 hours of lectures a week, compared with much longer hours for those doing science.

"I managed to get a transfer. That made a major change in my life."

He took to law. "From the very first couple of months, I liked the conceptual-intellectual framework, and that has always been more my forte," he says.

"Unpicking a lock even with a key is a problem," he says. "Changing light bulbs and all not my strengths. But I won't have difficulties looking at very difficult concepts and putting them together and unpicking the lack of logic."

He graduated with first class honours and went into practice although academia and the civil service were also options. He became senior counsel at 38 and was a senior partner at Allen & Gledhill when he moved to government.

He's said to have brought a more dynamic, private sector approach to running his ministries.

He's diligent about reading discussion papers before meetings, which can then be focused on solving key problems.

I, too, am sent a list of reading material - his key speeches and past interviews - for me to prepare for our lunch.

I wonder if he's a taskmaster.

No, he says. "You ask my people. Very easy to work with."

He sees my surprise and relates how his son had given him feedback on his working style, based on civil service friends.

"He said that I've a reputation for long hours. That means you want to come and work with me, you got to be prepared for long hours. And both long hours and high quality are demanded. And quite clear on what is needed, and I take responsibility for it. And protect the people. Protect officers. But very demanding and tough and very high expectations. So be careful about going to work for me."

He laughs. "So I don't know whether it's good or bad."

Does he miss being a lawyer?

"Once in a while I think it might have been an easier life just being a lawyer and not be in politics. But I don't think I will say I miss it. It's meaningful what I do."

For sure the money was better before. In an interview with Lianhe Zaobao, he didn't bat an eyelid when it was put to him that he had foregone $70 million to $100 million since becoming a minister.

I ask him about this and he says "that's the differential" and it's not an unreasonable figure.

"If you take, say, $6 million a year over 11 years, how much is that? About $65 million, and then you don't keep the money in the bank, right, you would have bought things and so on, so $65 million would easily be, you may not double but add 40 per cent if you had bought properties with that sort of spare cash, so easily a hundred million minus taxes and then minus what you earn now."

You earn about $2 million a year as minister, I ask?

"Less. As I have said, I paid more in taxes in the year I joined compared with what I earned."

But there are no regrets, and he speaks especially fondly of his work in Chong Pang, which is part of Nee Soon GRC.

"In life you don't have much time for people who are fake or false," he says. "People in the constituency, they are honest. They are day-to-day ordinary blokes just carrying on with their lives, trying to make a life for themselves and their families and when they have issues, they talk to you. There's a certain authenticity and honesty about them."

His people are signalling that he has a Cabinet meeting to attend.

One more question: He's known to be a dog lover and cynics have sniped that this is just to soften his image.

He laughs and says he has always liked dogs and had them before he became a minister. He now has four rescue dogs at the Tanglin home he shares with his wife, a clinical psychologist.

His staff reminds him that his ministries are on the day's Cabinet agenda and we need to wrap up.

We say goodbye, they swing into action, passing him his files and briefcase, opening the door and off he goes.

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