‘Poison’ drip at centre of Singapore PM’s court battle

From left, Lee Hsien Loong, Lim Tean and Leong Sze Hian. Photos: Lee Hsien Loong, Lim Tean, Leong Sze Hian / Facebook

From left, Lee Hsien Loong, Lim Tean and Leong Sze Hian (Facebook / Coconuts.co)

By Ivan Lim
Former AJA President, Contributor to AsiaN 

SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has testified in court in a libel suit against blogger-turned-politician Leong Sze Hian to clear his name from what he affirmed were unfounded allegations of involvement in the Malaysian state fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (MDB), corruption scandal.

In a push back, his protagonist has called the Singapore leader out for trying to curb free expression and silence critics of the government.

The court case revolved around a Facebook post on November 7, 2018 by Mr Leong with a link to an article by a Malaysian news site, The Coverage, titled Breaking News: “Singapore Lee Hsien Loong becomes IMDB’s key investigation target — Najib signs several unfair agreements with Lee Hsien Loong in exchange for money laundering.”

The sensational report, based on an earlier write-up  by the socio-political news portal, States Times Review (STR), alleged, without evidence, that PM Lee had helped former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak funnel billions from 1MDB through the Singapore banking system in return for the signing of a Singapore-Malaysia high-speed rail and a water sale agreement.

The hearing of the high-profile case before High Court Justice Aedit Abdullah was closely watched, not least for its larger bearing on the liability of bloggers and on the state of political contention in the city-state where Mr Lee and his ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) hold sway.

Mr Lee, the PAP secretary general, was represented by senior counsel Davinder Singh while lawyer-politician Lim Tean acted for Mr Leong, a financial guru by profession.

In his 82-page statement, Mr Singh highlighted a selfie of Mr Lee and Najib accompanying Mr Leong’s post. He argued that the photo showing the duo in a cosy and close relationship, taken together with the “‘unqualified and equivocal” allegations of the article linked to Mr Leong’s post, would mean to readers that the Prime Minister was “complicit” in the 1MDB criminal activities. The ‘’false and baseless” allegations were malicious and intended to disparage and impugn Mr Lee’s in his office of Prime Minister.

Mr Lim counter-argued in his 17-page statement that Mr Lee had not adduced any evidence that Leong’s Facebook post and his sharing of the Coverage article had done any damage to the reputation of the Prime Minister. Indeed, Mr Lee had been re-elected as Prime Minister following the July 10,2020 general election.

Mr Lim went on during the court hearings on Oct 6 and Oct 7 to try and portray PM Lee’s legal suit as political vendetta against Mr Leong. The blogger-cum-financial-guru has spoken out against the government over human rights, freedom of speech and state finances.

Taking the witness stand, PM Lee said he came to court to face his critics and vindicate his name.

In his testimony, Mr Lee described Mr Leong as a ‘thorn in our side’ for a long time, but denied he had sued the latter to silence the critic. In his cross-examination, Mr Lim asked why PM Lee was singling out Mr Leong, a staunch government critic”, if not to try and strike fear.

To this PM Lee retorted that he was not suing others who had also put up the Coverage article, people like former presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian and People’s Power Party chief Goh Meng Seng. This proved he was not trying to quell dissent but only seeking to vindicate his position as Prime Minister. He added that not taking legal action would be “akin to one more drop of poison (dripping in) and people would then suspect there may be some truth in the allegations.”

Even then, PM Lee contended that the real answer to his detractors lay in the ballot box. “Persuade Singaporeans and see if they support the government.” And this was put to the test in the July 10 general election. The PAP came out tops with 83 of the 93 contested wards. The Peoples Voice secretary general Lim Tean had led a team, including Mr Leong, to contest against the PAP slate in the Jalan Besar group representation constituency. It secured 34.63 per cent share of the votes, seen as creditable achievement for a two-year-old party.

Undeterred, Mr Lim questioned why PM Lee was acting against a single drop of poison, Mr Leong as an individual and not against an ‘‘ocean‘’,  viz the States Times Review (publishers of the offending article), and The Coverage. This, he added, would have given PM Lee better remedies and more injunctions.

Rounding off his cross-examination, Mr Lim asked whether PM Lee had the courage to sue the publishers of the article. The play on the word ’courage’ came after defendant Leong backed off from taking the witness stand on his lawyer’s advice that he had no case to answer.

Mr Lim said the defendant merely shared a Facebook post linked to the offending article. He was not its author, editor or publisher. Hence there was no issue of publication or republication.

Mr Leong’s decision to stand down as witness was characterised as turning tail by the plaintiff Lee’s senior counsel Davinder Singh.

Thus, instead of Mr Leong, the second day hearing on Oct 7 saw PM Lee’s independent witness, Dr Tuan Quang Phan, giving evidence via a video link from Hong Kong. The associate professor of marketing ,innovation and information management at Hong Kong University Business School said the “shocking” allegations against the Prime Minister would have spread further than the corrections of the fake news.

By his estimate, Mr Leong’s post would have appeared on the Facebook news feed of 11,740 users. He reckoned that some 200-400 Singaporeans would have accessed the post and article.

But Mr Lim said Dr Tuan’s findings were ‘guesswork”, but the latter said it was based on actual data. Earlier, the lawyer also challenged Dr Tuan’s status as an “independent witness’’, given that he had benefited from a research grant from the government. Dr Tuan replied he was part of a research team.

On record, Mr Leong’s Facebook post and its linked article had received 22 reactions, five comments and 18 shares.

For Mr Lee, however, the libel arising thereof was ‘‘a serious one which went to the heart of whether I am fit to be the Prime Minister of Singapore.”

Accordingly, in his suit served on Mr Leong on November 12, 2018, he demanded a public apology and aggravated damages as well as injunctions against further publication and dissemination of the Facebook post and article.  PM Lee said he acted after Mr Leong had removed his post on November 10,2018 – following a take-down notice of the false and baseless allegations in the linked article he received from the state Info-Communications Development Authority – but the blogger had declined to apologise.

Highlighting the cause of free discourse and comment that underpins his defence, Mr Leong had said: “It is for every Singaporean today who has ever shared a post on Facebook and for the unborn generation to come.”

At the close of the trial, Justice Aedit Abdullah  told the two parties to forward written submissions by November 6 highlighting their arguments on issue of ‘republication’ of the offending article and whether, in this particular case, it is “actionable” in terms of defamation.

A crowd funding campaign to help Mr Leong with his legal expenses attracted donors, including PM Lee’s estranged brother Hsien Yang.

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