SINGAPORE — Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong has reiterated that while he has not brought his siblings to court for defamation, it doesn’t mean he would never do it and that others have free rein to defame him.
Lee was responding to a question by lawyer Lim Tean when he took the stand in his defamation suit against The Online Citizen’s (TOC) chief editor Terry Xu Yuanchen, 38. The trial opened on Monday (30 November) with Xu denying any damage had been done to Lee’s reputation through TOC’s 2019 article on 38 Oxley Road.
Xu, represented by Lim, is seeking to argue before Justice Audrey Lim that TOC’s article was not defamatory, or justify that what was stated in the article was true. The article published on TOC’s website and Facebook page on 15 August last year is titled “PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members”.
TOC’s article, which remains on the website, had further suggested that after it was revealed to the late Lee Kuan Yew in end 2013 that the Singapore government had not gazetted the 38 Oxley Road property, he removed PM Lee as an executor and trustee of his will.
PM Lee is seeking aggravated damages over the article, which had caused him to be “gravely injured in his character and reputation” and brought into “public scandal, odium and contempt”. The PM is further seeking an injunction to restrain Xu from publishing or disseminating the defamatory allegations referred to in the article.
Lee’s lawyers, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh and Pardeep Singh Khosa, are arguing that the article contained false and baseless allegations, including that Lee had misled the late Lee into thinking that 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted by the government, causing him to change his will to bestow the house to PM Lee. The article repeated allegations made by PM Lee’s siblings, Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, published on their personal Facebook pages between 14 June 2017 and 15 August last year, the lawyers said.
During his cross examination, Lim asked Lee why he had not taken his siblings to court for defamation. Hsien Yang and Dr Lee are listed as third parties to the defamation case but have not been called to the stand. Lim told the court that he had stated at a pre-trial conference on 2 November that Xu would likely be discontinuing third-party proceedings.
Lee said, “I have explained why I am reluctant to sue siblings and why I didn’t do so in 2015 and 2017 – I have been restrained since then – that does not mean I will never do it but I have not done it.”
Lim replied, “If you chose not to sue, it is understandable that Terry Xu can refer to what you were saying.”
In response, Lee said, “I had decided to take a different approach with my siblings ...it’s not carte blanche for anyone else to use that to spread allegations and further defame me. I'm not obliged to sue everyone in order to sue one person. I consulted counsel and decided who to sue.”
GE not referendum on 38 Oxley Road: PM Lee
Lim then said, “Are you suggesting to Singaporeans that the media and the journalists can never report on what your siblings have accused you of when it is matter of intense public interest?”. Lee said that the media could report anything subject to the laws of defamation.
The lawyer added, “So in this case, subject to the laws of defamation would mean that they can only report on what your side of the story is.”
PM Lee replied, “Not at all. They can report what they need to...they can go to court and vindicate themselves and demolish me which I think is what you’re hoping to do.”
Lim asked the PM how he expected journalists to “tiptoe around minefield” he had laid for them, to which Lee said that journalists are experienced and professional and would have sought advice from learned counsels, such as Lim himself.
When asked by Lim on the damage he had suffered as a result of TOC’s article, Lee cited a “loss of trust, loss of reputation, loss of credibility and loss of respect”.
In response to Lim asking Lee if he could prove it, Lee said that the article had been read by at least 100,000 people. This led Lim to ask about PM Lee’s performance in the 2020 General Election, prompting the prime minister to answer that the GE was not a referendum on 38 Oxley Road.
Lim said, “The General Election is a test of your integrity, of your reputation, is it not?”
Lee replied, “If counsel wants to go in this direction in 2015 it was 69 per cent, in 2020 it was 61 per cent of the popular vote, I don’t accept (that it is) because of the house. If I accept the counsel’s argument then the house did a lot of harm.”
Lee is involved in a separate defamation suit, which he had brought against financial advisor and blogger Leong Sze Hian, who is also defended by Lim. In that case, he also took the stand in October to state his case against Leong.
Animosity on siblings’ end: PM Lee
At one point in the proceedings, Lim attempted to ask Lee about his relationship with his siblings, prompting objections from Singh.
When Lim asked when Lee last spoke to Dr Lee and Hsien Yang, Singh asked about the relevance of the question.
After the court told Lim to move to another question, Lim asked, “Is it correct for me to say there is a sour relationship between your wife and siblings?” Singh again raised his objection but the judge allowed the question.
Lee replied, “I think animosity is evident on one side from my siblings. On our side I do not think either I or my wife want this to continue or hold anything against them.”
As far as the cause of the feud is concerned, Lee said he has “detached” himself from it.
“I think the feud is on my siblings’ part. I don't understand what it's about...I no longer own 38 Oxley, I have sold it to Lee Hsien Yang, and recused myself from the government's handling of the matter.
“So there's nothing I can do or not do to influence the matter. I have never done any Facebook post or criticised them publicly other than what I put out in my ministerial statements.
"And I hope against hope that one day, matters may be repaired. But it's one of those things that happen in life, and this too shall pass."
He said he and his wife had no animosity towards the siblings.
Lim then asked, “Why is it that you did not invite them for Chinese New Year after your father died?” to which Singh objected and the court reminded Lim to stick to the defence.
Lee was testifying to a courtroom of about 18 observers, with some members of the public having queued from as early as 4.30am.
The trial will resume on Tuesday with Lim continuing his cross-examination of Lee.
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