While many on Facebook shared the controversial article alleging Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s involvement in the misuse of Malaysian state fund 1MDB by the country’s former premier Najib Razak, only financial advisor and veteran blogger Leong Sze Hian was subject to a defamation suit for doing so.
Such was the crux of a question posed by Mr Leong’s lawyer Lim Tean to PM Lee during his cross-examination of the latter in an open court hearing before High Court Justice Aedit Abdullah on Tuesday (6 October).
PM Lee — who took the witness stand today — is represented by Senior Counsel Davinder Singh from Davinder Singh Chambers.
Highlighting that the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) issued a takedown notice solely to his client, Mr Lim questioned PM Lee if it has been pointed to him that there were posts by other individuals which included the link to the same article shared by Mr Leong.
“Yes,” PM Lee said.
“So why did you chose to sue the defendant and not others?” Mr Lim asked.
PM Lee said that he decided on doing so after being advised by his lawyer to do so.
“I saw the people sharing the article,” he said.
Mr Lim asked PM Lee as to whether he or any government agencies had made a list of every other user who had shared the offending article.
PM Lee responded that he did not know.
“They could well have. It would be natural. I personally did not make a list, although I knew several of the people who had done so,” he added.
When probed by Mr Lim as to who had pointed out Mr Leong’s post to him, PM Lee replied that he “could not remember”.
Mr Lim then posited that PM Lee’s evidence on the matter is “incredible”, given the gravity of the defamation suit brought against his client.
PM Lee responded that he was unable to recall, as he has many “contacts” and “friends” who share things regularly with him on Facebook.
The article, he said, happened to be one of such things.
Decision to initiate defamation suit ‘irrelevant’ to authorities’ statements on the case: PM Lee
PM Lee also testified that the statements made by IMDA and the Monetary Authority of Singapore regarding the matter were unrelated to his action against Mr Leong, and that “it doesn’t matter what the Government says”.
He took action against Mr Leong as Mr Leong did not apologise to him, he said.
PM Lee also claimed that while Mr Leong did eventually take down the Facebook post containing the link to the article, the blogger “did not retract” his statement despite allegedly claiming to Sarawak Report that he has done so.
“In fact, he went to the contrary and made a great play of the case and of the proceedings and of his various affidavits and statements in order to draw as much attention as he could,” he added.
Mr Lim however noted that his client has never told Sarawak Report that he had apologised to PM Lee, to which PM Lee replied: “Neither did he correct the Sarawak Report’s misreporting of him.”
Touching on why he decided to pursue the defamation suit despite Mr Leong having removed the Facebook post after IMDA’s notice, PM Lee said that there is a risk that Mr Leong might repeat such allegations in the future, particularly given that the blogger did not issue an apology.
PM Lee said that given the grave nature of the accusations in the article, he felt the need to handle the matter “very seriously” not only as the head of government, but also his own “reputation and standing” as an individual.
“Do you accept that in respect of the very same accusations, you were riding two horses?” Mr Lim questioned, suggesting a possible conflict of interest in PM Lee’s engagement in the defamation suit as both a citizen in the private sphere and the Prime Minister in the public sphere.
PM Lee disagreed, saying that as much as he is responsible to protect the Government’s reputation as a Prime Minister, he is also entitled to protect his own integrity as a private individual.
“In fact, I feel I have a responsibility to do so, because if my integrity is impugned, if people come to believe that I am complicit in criminal behaviour, that I collaborated in facilitating bad things in the case of 1MDB, which is a famously spectacular corruption episode, then it will do me great harm,” he said.
Referencing statements made by multiple authorities, Mr Lim, however, posited that the Government had already taken enough action to address the allegations made in the article.
He drew the court’s attention to statements made by IMDA, MAS and the Singapore High Commission in Malaysia, as well as remarks made by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam regarding the matter in 2018.
PM Lee’s defamation suit, he argued, is thus “really an attempt to protect the integrity of the Government and reputation of the Government, not a genuine libel action for the plaintiff to recover his reputation”.
PM Lee did not address why he did not pursue defamation suit against States Times Review and Alex Tan whether in an Australian court or in Singapore courts
Mr Lim probed PM Lee on why he did not sue the States Times Review (STR) and its editor Alex Tan for its article, despite Mr Tan stating that he ‘fully welcomes a libel suit’ from PM Lee in an Australian court.
The article central to the present case — published by “Malaysian-based social news network” The Coverage — was based on the aforementioned STR article.
IMDA blocked access to STR in Singapore after the website failed to comply with a takedown order issued by the authority by 5pm on 9 November.
When Mr Singh raised an objection to Mr Lim’s questioning on the matter, the latter asked the court as to why the question is not relevant, given that Mr Leong is relying on PM Lee’s alleged “an abuse of process” due to the prime minister’s decision not to sue STR and The Coverage.
Justice Aedit said in response that the court “will limit the questioning in relation to defence to proceedings in Singapore” unless Mr Lim is able to demonstrate “some other principle that overrides that”.
When questioned by Mr Lim if he considered suing STR and Mr Tan in the Singapore courts, PM Lee answered lengthily, the essence of which entailed the importance of protecting the Singapore Government’s “integrity and reputation” against baseless and scurrilous allegations.
Mr Lim, however, pointed out that PM Lee’s “long” answer did not address his question, following which Justice Aedit allowed Mr Lim’s question to be repeated.
PM Lee responded that he “contemplated many possibilities”.
“I discussed them with my lawyer, Mr Davinder Singh, and in the end, we decided to proceed as I have proceeded,” he added.
Mr Lim further prompted an answer on why PM Lee did not pursue a defamation suit against STR and Mr Tan in the Singapore courts.
However, Justice Aedit drew the line at delving into legal privilege in relation to Mr Singh’s advice to PM Lee.
Mr Lim highlighted that PM Lee has recently sued an individual residing in a foreign jurisdiction for defamation — a Malaysian staff writer with TOC who was sued in a separate lawsuit.
Noting that PM Lee had obtained judgment in default against the TOC writer as well as leave to serve the writ of summons out of jurisdiction on the writer in Malaysia, Mr Lim then reiterated his question on why the same was not done against STR and Mr Tan.
PM Lee responded that in the TOC case, “the publication was in Singapore and the case is in Singapore”.
“Well, wasn’t The Coverage article also published in Singapore and wasn’t the STR article also published in Singapore?” Mr Lim replied, with PM Lee brushing off the question.
Justice Aedit at that point reiterated the issue of legal privilege, as it relates to the question of publication and presence.
When asked by Mr Lim if he has proof — such as screenshots — that Mr Leong’s post which contained the link to the article was republished in Singapore, PM Lee said: “I do not have screenshots of republishing.”
Background of the case
The defamation suit concerns an article by shared by Mr Leong on his personal Facebook Timeline titled “Breaking News: Singapore Lee Hsien Loong Becomes 1MDB’s Key Investigation Target – Najib Signed Several Unfair Agreements with Hsien Loong In Exchange For Money Laundering”.
The article, published by “Malaysian-based social news network” The Coverage, alleged that PM Lee had entered “several unfair agreements” with Najib Razak, who was the Malaysian Prime Minister at the time the deals purportedly took place, “including the agreement to build the Singapore-Malaysia High-Speed Rail”, according to court documents.
It is noted in Mr Leong’s submissions that he did not include any accompanying text alongside the article at the time he shared the article on 7 November 2018.
Mr Leong took down the article at 7.30am on 10 November 2018 after being instructed by the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) to do so a day prior.
Prior to his removal of the post on 10 November, the court noted that Mr Leong’s article had garnered “22 ‘reactions’, five ‘comments’, and 18 ‘shares’”.
A writ of summons was subsequently filed by PM Lee against Mr Leong on 20 November that year for defamation, on the grounds that the offending article created the “false and baseless” impression that PM Lee had misused his position as Prime Minister to assist Najib’s money laundering activities in relation to 1MDB’s funds, and subsequently insinuated that PM Lee was “complicit in criminal activity” relating to the Malaysian state fund.
The trial continues tomorrow with the expert witness from Hong Kong who will be called by PM Lee.