Thursday, December 08, 2005

Death of an ex-President

Former Singapore President Devan Nair died in Canada at age 82 on 7th November 2005. CV Devan Nair had resigned his presidency amidst tumultuous clouds of accusations and chose to live out his remaining years abroad.

Devan Nair was a member of the Anti-British League, a cover for the Malayan Communist Party, and in 1951 was detained on St John's Island. Out of prison, he continued with left-wing union activism.

In 1954, Lee Kuan Yew asked Nair to join him so the unions could provide the mass base for a new party. Although he was closer to the People's Action Party after it came into power in 1959, Nair was not willing to desert his communist friends. He went back to teaching, but was soon drawn back out into the political fray by Lee.

The two remained close after Singapore won its freedom from Britain. Together, they fought off an attempted communist takeover, weathered Singapore's ejection from the neighbouring federation of Malaysia and transformed their country from a run-down sea port to an economic dynamo bristling with skyscrapers. "I supported him because he was an eloquent champion of the dreams I had for Singapore," Nair said.

But as Singapore grew prosperous and stable and the communist threat faded, Nair began to have doubts about his captain's iron-fisted methods. Perhaps sensing his ally's doubts, Lee asked Nair to leave his power base as head of the trade union congress and move into the presidential palace. As Nair puts it, "He kicked me upstairs."

In 1985, a drinking problem led to Nair's resignation. Then-Prime Minister Lee said in Parliament proceedings on 28 March 1985, "Mr Speaker, honourable members will want to join me in wishing him fortitude in his task of rehabilitation. With the help of his wife and family, he must find the strength and stamina to break his dependency."

A few years later, Mr Devan Nair was to dispute the diagnosis of alcoholism and a nasty public exchange of letters ensued.

In an interview with Globe and Mail, Canada, March 29, 1999, Nair said he was the target of a rumour-mongering campaign that labelled him a drinker and womanizer. He said he was neither, and he suspected that Lee had government doctors slip him hallucinatory drugs to make him appear befuddled. According to him, "Lee Kuan Yew decided: This man is going to be a threat, so I'd better begin a total demolishment of his character. He's very good at that."

Lee sued the Globe and Mail and Nair for defamation, alleging that the article brought him into hatred, ridicule and contempt.

Nair countersued, seeking damages on the basis that Lee's lawsuit was an abuse of process. In turn, Lee brought a motion to have Nair's counterclaim thrown out of court. Lee argued that Nair's counterclaim disclosed no reasonable cause of action and constituted an inflammatory attack on the integrity of the government of Singapore.

In deciding whether to grant Lee's request to throw out the counterclaim, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice simply had to satisfy itself that Nair had a reasonable cause of action. Therefore, Nair was required to demonstrate that the two elements of the tort of abuse of process had been set out in his statement of claim.

They are:
(1) Lee was using the court process for an improper purpose; and
(2) Lee had made an overt threat, separate from the proceedings themselves, in furtherance of his improper purpose.

With respect to the first part of the test, Nair claimed that Lee did not really care what the readers of the Globe and Mail thought of him. Rather, the real purpose of the lawsuit was to silence, not only Nair, but all of Lee's critics and opposition in Singapore, a country in which freedom of political expression is not as valued as it is in Canada. In this regard, Nair alleged, Lee's action was part of a pattern of using the libel process to silence his critics and opposition and was "a mere stalking horse intended to further foster and continue a climate of fear and intimidation".

On the second part of the test, Nair claimed that Lee's lawsuit was just the latest in a series of acts and threats designed to intimidate his critics. In this regard, Nair alleged that when he spoke out politically against the Lee government in the late 1980's, Lee attempted to silence him by tabling a white paper in Singapore's parliament which included extracts of a confidential nature from Nair's personal medical records and correspondence. Nair claimed that Lee also arranged to have his pension withheld. Nair eventually left Singapore and came to Canada, where he did not speak out again until interviewed by the Globe and Mail. He claimed that Lee's latest libel action, brought in the country in which he sought freedom from political threats and overt legal actions, was intended to be a threat which was on-going and pervasive.

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice refused to throw out Nair's counterclaim, holding that he had met both parts of the test necessary to plead the tort of abuse of process and had therefore disclosed a reasonable cause of action.

Nair, who migrated to Canada with his wife, was philosophical about his place in Singapore's history.

He once said his only regret in life was to allow himself to be persuaded to occupy a highly ceremonial office so contradicted by his temperament. But he blamed no one. And after he had said his piece for what it was worth, Nair added that he expected "to fade away, like all old warriors, into the past." Some verdicts, he said, "are best left to history."