SINGAPORE — The High Court in Singapore has directed Lee Hsien Yang to pay damages to ministers K. Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan for defamatory statements made in Facebook comments regarding their rental of black-and-white bungalows on Ridout Road.
The court issued a default judgment favouring the two ministers after Lee - the youngest son of Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and brother of current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - failed to address the defamation lawsuits brought against him. Lee had, among other claims, insinuated that the ministers engaged in corrupt practices and received preferential treatment from the Singapore Land Authority for their bungalow rentals.
The exact amount of damages will be evaluated in a subsequent hearing.
Restricted from spreading defamatory claims against ministers
Not only did Justice Goh Yi Han grant the default judgment on 2 November, but he also imposed an injunction to prohibit Lee from further circulating false and defamatory allegations.
In a released written judgment on Monday (27 November), the judge highlighted "strong reasons" to believe that Lee might persist in making defamatory statements again, noting his refusal to remove the contentious Facebook post on 23 July, despite receiving a letter of demand from the ministers on 27 July.
Among other things, Lee stated in the post that "two ministers have leased state-owned mansions from the agency that one of them controls, felling trees and getting state-sponsored renovations."
A report released by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau in June concluded that no wrongdoing or preferential treatment had occurred concerning the two ministers. However, Lee continued referencing this post and the ongoing lawsuits, drawing attention to his remarks under legal scrutiny.
Justice Goh emphasised that the ministers met the prerequisites for a default judgment against Lee. The suits, separately filed by Shanmugam, the Law and Home Affairs Minister, and Dr Balakrishnan, the Foreign Affairs Minister, were initiated in early August.
He failed to respond within 21 days
Lee and his wife, Lee Suet Fern, had left Singapore in July 2022, after declining to attend a police interview for potentially giving false evidence in judicial proceedings over the late Lee Kuan Yew's will.
His absence from Singapore prompted the court to permit Shanmugam and Dr Balakrishnan to serve him legal documents via Facebook Messenger in mid-September. Despite no requirement for proof that Lee saw these documents, his subsequent social media post on 16 September confirmed his awareness of the served legal papers.
Although Lee had the opportunity to respond within 21 days, he chose not to do so. Additionally, the judge noted the novelty of the ministers' request for an injunction during this legal process, highlighting updated court rules allowing such measures since April 2022.
Justice Goh clarified that despite the claimants' application for an injunction, the court needed independent validation for its appropriateness, considering its potentially severe impact on the defendant. He reiterated being satisfied with the circumstances and granted the injunction, given the continued accessibility of the contentious Facebook post.
Lee acknowledges court order and removes allegations from Facebook
Following the court's decision, Lee acknowledged the court order on 10 November and removed the statements in question from his Facebook page.
In the judgment, Justice Goh noted that there were substantial grounds to anticipate Lee's repetition of the "defamatory allegations by continuing to draw attention to them and/or publish further defamatory allegations against the claimants."
The judge mentioned that if Lee had contested the ministers' claims, there could have been grounds for a legally enforceable case under defamation law.
According to Justice Goh, a reasonable reader would interpret Lee's Facebook post as insinuating that the People's Action Party's trust had been squandered due to the ministers' alleged corrupt conduct, from which they gained personally.
While Shanmugam and Dr Balakrishnan were not explicitly named, the post made it evident that it referred to them, and these posts remained accessible to the public, as noted by the judge.
Justice Goh pointed out that by choosing not to respond to the lawsuits, Lee prevented the court from considering any opposing evidence related to the claims.
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