Fill Me In
On 6 October, Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong arrived at the Supreme Court to begin the trial for his defamation suit against blogger Leong Sze Hian. The latter is being sued over a public Facebook post he shared on 7 November 2018, which contained a link to an article by The Coverage, a Malaysian news site.
The article alleged that former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had “secret deals” with PM Lee in exchange for local banks’ assistance in laundering money from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Shortly after Leong shared the article, he received an order from the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to take down his post, to which he complied. However, that was not the end of the issue. On 12 November, he received a Letter of Demand from Davinder Singh of Drew and Napier LLC, which stipulated that he had defamed PM Lee, and demanded a public apology alongside compensation for damages. A month later, Leong received a Writ of Summons and other court papers on his front gate.
How did Leong respond?
Leong then proceeded to file a defence against PM Lee in late December 2018 over the alleged defamation, stating that he had complied with IMDA’s instructions to remove the offending post. He also stated that he did not assert what the article said as truth, but rather merely shared the article without endorsement or comment. In addition, a counterclaim was also filed against the Prime Minister for “abuse of the process of the court” and “damage to his reputation”.
So what did PM Lee do?
In January 2019, PM Lee’s lawyers made an application to strike out Leong’s counterclaim, on grounds that “it has no basis in law and is completely hopeless”. In retaliation, Leong’s lawyer, Lim Tean from Carson Law Chambers, then filed to strike out PM Lee’s original claim.
On 12 March, Justice Aedit Abdullah announced that the case would go to trial, after throwing out Leong’s counterclaim.
The apex court also ordered Leong to pay PM Lee costs of $21,000 in September last year, after reiterating that the argument of abuse of court was not part of Singapore’s law and that a plaintiff has the right to choose who to sue for defamation.
What happened during the trial?
Both sides presented their opening statements, which are summarised below:
Singh’s case for PM Lee
- The offending words allege that PM Lee was “complicit in criminal activity relating to 1MDB”, and that he “corruptly used his position as Prime Minister to help ex-PM Najib launder 1MDB’s billions”.
- He seeks damages, an injunction restraining Leong from publishing the allegations or any other such related allegations, costs, and any other relief.
Lim’s case for Leong
- They are not defending the claim on the basis that the words complained of are true. He does not challenge that the words are false.
- His case is that the plaintiff, with regard to his position and the “state machinery he operates”, is wrong as a matter of law and justice to single out Leong, and sue him for damages and an injunction for libel.
- The claim against Leong “is an abuse of the process of court” should never have commenced.
PM Lee cross-examined for four hours
On targeting Leong specifically
During Lim’s cross-examination of the PM, a few issues were brought up by the defence. One of the first that was brought up was PM Lee’s decision to target Leong specifically, and not other perpetrators. The latter replied that the issue was discussed with his lawyer, and the current course of action was their decision. He also noted that the perpetrators were “beyond…reach” and outside jurisdiction.
In particular, PM Lee also brought up the fact that Leong had been “a thorn in our side in a small way for a long time”, as the latter has been a critic about several government financial matters. PM Lee then stated that the answer to addressing government critics was to put them to the test at the ballot, which Leong did in the recent elections.
On defamation against the PM
PM Lee asserted that political criticisms of a government are not addressed through legal cases, but “when a person defames [him], [he has] to think carefully about what to do and what [his] legal options are”, and maintained his stance that Leong has also not apologised for the defamation of the PM. Given that he is the head of the government, he emphasised that he needed to handle the matter “very seriously”, and also to protect his own “reputation and standing” as an individual.
On Leong drawing attention to the case
Another issue that came into contention was how Leong had continued to draw attention to the case even after taking down the offensive Facebook post. Despite being aware of the Singapore Government’s rebuttal of the article, Leong had left the post online until 10 November, removing it only after he received a notice from the Infocomm Media Development Authority.
Even then, he refused to apologise or undertake not to repeat the claims, and continued to insist it was not fake news, said Singh. Furthermore, after being sued by PM Lee for libel, Leong had taken every opportunity to draw attention to the matter on various fora, making public the legal documents on Facebook and speaking about the issue at interviews and public events, the lawyer added.
At one point, Leong even paid for an advertisement to boost a Facebook post linking to The Online Citizen’s article on the matter.
Criticism of government, or defamation?
Leong had said that he was being persecuted by PM Lee for criticising the Government and that the defamation suit was an abuse of the legal process to scare off all other government critics.
But Singh said the facts undermine this “fanciful argument”, as PM Lee had never once sued him in the past despite him having written many critical articles about government policies.
Learning to live with “ant-bite” criticisms
Noting that Leong had defamed PM Lee this time, Singh said that a libel and slander of a public leader in Singapore damages not only his personal reputation, but also the reputation of Singapore, and compromises his moral authority to lead.
In response to accusations about silencing government critics, PM Lee said, “I’ve explained that having borne the cross for so many years, there was no reason to sue him on the basis of his criticism…we have learnt to live with all these ant bites.”
Court adjourned early
On the second day of the trial, Lim announced that Leong would not be taking the stand, despite repeatedly announcing that he would do so. This is because the defence claims that they have gathered sufficient evidence to meet their case against PM Lee.
Justice Aedit Abdullah also gave directions to counsel for both parties on what he would like them to address in their submissions: “In particular, I want parties to address me on that point, whether this is the kind of republication that is actionable, given the circumstances relied on by Mr Lim’s client.”
“The other, I think, aspect of it is perhaps foreshadowed in Mr Lim Tean’s opening remarks about how the shape of defamation should be looked at, given the presence now of the POFMA legislation and other developments in Singapore. So to what extent is defamation still to be understood in its traditional context, and how much, if anything, should be read from the introduction of POFMA and what is the appropriate balance then between defamation and Article 14 rights under the Constitution.”
The hearing has been adjourned to 2.30pm on 30 November.
Food for thought
The basis of arguments from both sides seem to toe the fine line between defamation and constructive criticism of the government. We may never know Leong’s true motives for sharing such a controversial article publicly, but perhaps the pertinent issue here is the issue of the “ant bites” that PM Lee brought up during the trial. While the government has been criticised countless times by many, what are the defining factors that differentiate criticism in the hopes of enacting change within our society, from blatant slander of our leaders?
Although they claim to have learnt to live with these “ant bites”, what happens if a particular “ant” happens to wield substantial influence in society?