SINGAPORE — The civil suit taken out by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong against opposition politician Leong Sze Hian for defamation is set to begin at the High Court on Tuesday morning (6 October).
The high profile trial is scheduled to last till Friday before Justice Aedit Abdullah with Lee expected to be cross-examined by Leong’s lawyer Lim Tean early in the trial.
Lee arrived at the Supreme Court amid tight security at about 9.40am.
At 7am on Tuesday morning, all 20 tickets for seats in the public gallery were given out. Still, there was a crowd of reporters, camera crew and curious onlookers milling around the Supreme Court entrance.
Due to safe distancing measures, the number of seats allocated to journalists in the media gallery were also limited. Two spots each went to state broadcaster Mediacorp and conglomerate Singapore Press Holdings, and one spot each to Bloomberg, Bernama, AFP and Mothership.
The case revolves around a Facebook post made by Leong on 7 November 2018 containing a link to an article which alleged that Lee corruptly used his position as prime minister to help former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak launder billions from insolvent Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB.
The article by Malaysian news site The Coverage was 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”.
Leong’s post was accompanied by a photo of Lee and Najib smiling for a wefie.
The article alleged that Najib “signed several unfair agreements with Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong like building the Singapore-Malaysia High Speed Rail when the country was in a trillion RM debt and a grossly under-priced water sale agreement, in exchange for Singapore banks’ assistance in money laundering 1MDB’s billions.”
At the time of Leong’s Facebook post, criminal charges had already been brought against Najib for criminal breach of trust and money laundering in relation to 1MDB.
The Wall Street Journal had reported, as early as July 2015, that Malaysian investigators probing 1MDB had traced nearly US$700 million of deposits into what they believed were Najib’s personal bank accounts. Following the May 2018 Malaysian general election, in which Najib was ousted from his premiership, the new Malaysian government began investigating him for possible crimes in relation to 1MDB.
Leong removed his Facebook post three days later on 10 November 2018, after reading a notice from the Infocomm Media Development Authority. His post had received 22 reactions, 5 comments and 18 shares.
On 12 November 2018, he was served with a Letter of Demand by Lee’s lawyer, alleging defamation and demanding a public apology and compensation.
Leong did not comply and filed his defence papers and a counterclaim against Lee on 26 December 2018, saying that the defamation suit was an abuse of the court process.
The counterclaim was struck out by the High Court in March last year and the decision was affirmed by the Court of Appeal in September last year.
Leong, a blogger and financial advisor, contested this year’s general election (GE2020) under the Peoples Voice banner. Lim founded the party in October 2018 and is its secretary-general.
Lee’s legal team, headed by Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, said in their 82-page opening statement for the case, “Having regard to what was known to readers in Singapore, to the fact that by that time 1MDB had become a byword for corruption and criminal activity...the photograph of the Plaintiff and Mr Najib showing a close and cosy relationship between them in the context of the allegation that the Plaintiff had become a key investigation target, the ordinary reader of the Post would, at the very least, have understood the Offending Words in the Post to mean that the Plaintiff was complicit in criminal activity relating to 1MDB.”
The lawyers said, “The Post did not merely associate the Plaintiff with 1MDB (which would by itself have been defamatory), it alleged that he had become a ‘key investigation target’ in relation to a matter which had come to stand for corruption and criminal activity and in the context of what ordinary readers in Singapore would have known of the STR (States Times Review) article and the Article in the Coverage.”
Lee’s lawyers added, “Those allegations are unqualified and unequivocal. The allegation of corruption cannot have been any clearer.”
Lee is seeking aggravated damages.
Meanwhile, Leong’s lawyer Lim Tean said of his client in a 14-page opening statement, “His case is - and has always been - that for the Plaintiff, having regard to the position he holds and the state machinery he operates, to single out the Defendant and to sue him for damages and an injunction for libel for merely sharing a post to an article in the circumstances set out is wrong as a matter of law and as a matter of justice.”
Lim said Lee has not adduced any evidence that Leong’s actions in sharing the Facebook post caused any damage to his reputation. “The Plaintiff has identified no damage caused by the Defendant’s actions. Indeed, he remains Prime Minister to this day.”
The trial continues.
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