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Singapore government cannot invoke anti-harassment law as a 'person'

The Singapore government cannot be considered a 'person' when it comes to invoking the country's anti-harassment law, the Court of Appeal has said.19 Jan 2017

Singapore's highest court found that the government cannot use the law to stop the publication of false statements against it as it does not qualify as a person under the Protection from Harassment Act.

Under Singapore law a victim of a false statement can ask the court to order that the statement should not be published.

Singapore's attorney-general had invoked the law in 2015 against five people who ran a website called The Online Citizen, and against Ting Choon Meng, the co-founder of a medical device company called MobileStats Technologies.

The Online Citizen had published an interview with Ting in which he made allegations against the Singapore Ministry of Defence (Mindef) relating to an earlier patent suit, as well as a statement by Mindef in response to the allegations.

The attorney-general asked the district court to order that the allegations could not be published without a note to state that they were false, and that the Mindef statement was true. In May 2015 a district judge granted the application, saying that Ting's statements were false.

The Online Citizen appealed to Singapore's High Court, saying that the government is not a person in this regard. The High Court agreed, and the attorney-general then took the case to the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal decision said that it was clear from previous parliamentary debates on the law that it was designed to protect human beings who were victims of harassment, and no reference was made to other bodies.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon was the only dissenting judge in the decision, saying that Singapore's Interpretation Act states that "person" can include "any company or association or body of persons, corporate or unincorporated".

The false statement by Ting was also a serious one, Menon said. Publishing a notice saying that Ting's statement had been found to be false would be a "low- level restriction", he said, and he would therefore have granted the order sought by Mindef.