Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his government should not weaponise Singapore’s defamation laws to shut down questions about their possible knowledge of the 1MDB scandal, said Reform Party chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam.
In a blog post on Sunday (11 October), Mr Jeyaretnam cited the Derbyshire principle — derived from the English law case of Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers and others — in that government entities “do not have the right to maintain an action of damages for defamation”.
In Derbyshire, Lord Keith of Kinkel — one of five judges in the House of Lords who presided over the case — highlighted a fundamental difference between the local authority in question and a corporation: “It is of the highest public importance that a democratically elected governmental body, or indeed any governmental body, should be open to uninhibited public criticism.”
Thus, PM Lee’s defamation suit against veteran blogger Leong Sze Hian and its possible outcome — that the prime minister succeeds in obtaining damages against the blogger — already creates ” the desired “chilling effect” on the discussion of the Government’s role in the 1MDB scandal and how much was known by PM Lee and his Ministers”, said Mr Jeyaretnam.
“It seems overwhelmingly likely given the Lee family’s phenomenal statistical success rate in defamation suits before judges that they appoint, LHL succeeds in winning damages against LSH for merely reposting an article,” he predicted.
Citing a previous article he penned, Mr Jeyaretnam reiterated that “it is clearly libellous without evidence to suggest that there was a secret agreement” between PM Lee and Malaysia’s former premier Najib Razak in relation to the 1MDB money-laundering allegations made in the article that has become the subject of PM Lee’s lawsuit.
However, he argued that it is questionable that the Singapore authorities and intelligence services purportedly “did not have some inkling of what was going on at 1MDB, given that a significant portion of the money allegedly stolen ended up in Singapore bank accounts”.
Mr Jeyaretnam also pointed out that Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad had “questioned why Malaysia signed some one-sided deals with Singapore, including giving up the land and in particular the historic railway terminal owned by Malaysian Railways”.
“Singapore only took action against money laundering after the US Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit in July 2016 seeking to seize 1MDB’s stolen assets and using the pseudonym “Malaysian Official No.1” to refer to Najib.
“Despite the lawsuit LHL allowed himself to be photographed with Najib in that infamous durian-eating photo from around the same time. As PM, LHL must have been privy to any intelligence Singapore had about Najib’s nefarious activities,” said Mr Jeyaretnam.
Mr Jeyaretnam stressed that it is important for PM Lee and his government to address questions surrounding Singapore’s possible knowledge of the 1MDB scandal instead of using defamation laws to “silence those who demand answers in this, as well as other areas of greater concern to Singaporeans such as the size of our reserves and the remuneration of the PM’s wife, Ho Ching, as well as the justification for her appointment” as the CEO of sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings.
Dr Mahathir previously led the Pakatan Harapan coalition to topple Najib’s administration — and effectively over six decades of Barisan Nasional rule — in the 2018 general election.
His resignation earlier this year, however, catalysed a series of political turbulence, which saw a power coup that led to the ascension of his former right-hand man Muhyiddin Yassin to the post after being appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah, Malaysia’s head of state.
PM Lee’s testimony on why he did not sue critics purportedly “more effective” than Mr Leong “effectively undermined his case for damages”: Kenneth Jeyaretnam
Mr Jeyaretnam also lambasted PM Lee’s decision to target individuals the former branded as “minor critics” such as Mr Leong instead of doing so against more vocal dissenters.
PM Lee, he said, “has never dared to sue me despite my much more hard-hitting criticism of his Government over the reserves and of him and his wife”.
“My demands over the last five years that Ho Ching’s salary and the reasons for her appointment be made public have moved from a fringe issue that no one seemed able to understand to become a key issue that has been adopted by the whole of the Opposition,” he said.
Arguing that PM Lee suing him would be counterproductive due to “the association” with his late father Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam — lawyer, former Workers’ Party (WP) leader and one of Singapore’s most historically vocal opposition voices — Mr Jeyaretnam said that PM Lee “prefers instead to use his control of state media and influence over foreign media”.
Doing so, he said, will ensure that “demands for accountability and transparency get as little publicity as possible among Singaporeans”.
Despite that, Mr Jeyaretnam said that such tactics are “becoming less and less effective in silencing a younger and better-educated generation of Singaporeans”, particularly evident in the aftermath of this year’s general election which saw WP winning over the newest GRC of Sengkang and alternative parties having an overall higher vote share against the ruling People’s Action Party than in GE2015.
He also argued that PM Lee’s testimony on why he did not sue critics who are “more effective” than Mr Leong had “effectively undermined his case for damages”.
“Normally one is required to prove that one has suffered financial loss and to quantify that loss in order to get damages in a libel suit. This might be losing one’s job and being unable to find another or only one with a reduced salary or suffering a reduction in business or clients. Since the PM was re-elected and kept his job and the PAP still got 90% of the seats, how has he suffered any loss?” Mr Jeyaretnam questioned.
Also read: Blogger has been ‘a thorn’ in Govt’s side ‘in a small way for a very long time’, says PM Lee Hsien Loong | Leong Sze Hian defamation trial: Leong submits no case to answer against PM Lee Hsien Loong’s defamation claims