The High Court has struck out blogger Leong Sze Hian’s counterclaim against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s defamation suit against him, which will now proceed to trial.
In his judgement on Tuesday (15 March), Judge Aedit Abdullah said the counterclaim should be struck out as it discloses no reasonable cause of action. A “reasonable cause of action” is one that has “some chance of success when only the allegations in the pleading are considered”.
He added that there is sufficient basis to allow Lee’s suit to proceed to trial, as it involved “allegations of corrupt and criminal conduct which go towards the plaintiff’s integrity and fitness to hold the office of Prime Minister”.
“These are grave and serious charges that would amount to a real and substantial tort even if published to one person in Singapore.”
Lee sues Leong
Lee’s libel suit against Leong stems from the latter’s sharing of an article by Malaysian portal The Coverage, which alleged that Lee had helped ex-Malaysian PM Najib Razak to launder money in relation to the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. Leong posted a link to the article on his Facebook page on 7 November 2018.
“As at 10.16pm on 7 November 2018, the defendant’s Post attracted 22 “reactions”, five “comments” and 18 “shares”, noted the judgement.
The defendant removed the post from his Facebook page at about 7.30am on 10 November 2018, after he read a notice from the Info-communications Media Development Authority that had been sent to him at around 11pm on 9 November last year.
On 5 December, Lee then filed a defamation suit against Leong. Lee’s lawyers noted that the Coverage article claimed that Lee had “corruptly used his position as Prime Minister to help Mr Najib Razak launder 1MDB’s billions” and that he was “complicit in criminal activity relating to 1MDB”.
The lawyers asserted that the words in the article were “false and baseless, and were calculated to disparage and impugn the plaintiff in his office as the prime minister”.
Leong’s counterclaim and suit
In response, Leong filed a counterclaim against Lee on 26 December.
“The PM is taking legal action against me for defamation for sharing a post on Facebook which I did not write, did not embellish, and did not comment upon,” Leong wrote in a Facebook post that day.
His lawyer, Lim Tean of Carson Law Chambers, described the PM’s Lee’s claim as “an abuse of the process of the court”, noting that no legal action has been brought against The Coverage or The States Times Review, Facebook or any other individual Singaporean “who took the same action as our client”.
The purpose of Lee’s claim “to chill freedom of speech ahead of both the trial of Najib Razak and a likely General Election in Singapore next year”, said Lim, who also heads the newly formed People’s Voice Party.
Issues to be settled
Judge Aedit did not accept the arguments of Leong’s lawyer, noting that there were a number of issues to be settled in court, such as whether substantial publication of the offending article had taken place in Singapore and whether Leong is liable for republication.
“It has to be shown that a reasonable person in his position would have appreciated that there was a significant risk that his words would be repeated and that that would increase the damage caused by what he said,” said the Judge.
Other issues to be settled include whether substantial damages should be awarded to Lee and therefore whether the costs that will be incurred will be out of all proportion to damages, as claimed by Leong.
Also to be looked into will be whether Leong’s use of his suit to “wage a public campaign to gain sympathy amounted to classic aggravation” amounts to “classic aggravation”.