SINGAPORE — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appeared in court via video conferencing on Monday (31 May) in a defamation suit against a writer from The Online Citizen, who was absent from the hearing.
The Prime Minister is seeking aggravated damages for Rubaashini Shunmuganathan's article, published on sociopolitical site The Online Citizen on 15 August 2019. The article “PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members", repeated allegations first made by Lee's siblings in a Facebook post, including accusing him of misleading their father into believing that his Oxley Road property had been gazetted.
As part of the allegations, Rubaashini wrote that Dr Lee Wei Ling said that her brother had persuaded the late Lee into thinking his property at 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted, leading their father into thinking that it was “futile” to keep the demolition clause in his will.
On 21 October 2019, Lee’s lawyers sent a letter to Rubaashini, pointing out the false and defamatory allegations. In the letter, Lee asked her to remove the article, publish an apology and pay compensation.
However, Rubaashini ignored the letter and a Writ of Summons was filed in November 2019 and served on Rubaashini personally on 4 December 2019.
In total, Lee filed two defamation suits separately against TOC editor Terry Xu and Rubaashini over the story.
Malaysian writer absent, no representation
Lee's lawyer Davinder Singh, also appearing via a videolink, told Justice Audrey Lim on Monday that the plaintiff had reached out to Rubaashini, whose home address was in Selangor, Malaysia, numerous times via emails, post and personally through a process server.
A process server is a person who serves legal documents. In this case, the process server was from a Malaysia law firm.
Singh added that the plaintiff had emailed Rubaashini the notice for the hearing, and the letter from court, which provided the Zoom login details.
However, Rubaashini was absent from the Monday hearing, with Singh informing the court that she was not represented.
According to Lee's affidavit, Rubaashini had not entered an appearance in the suit, and a judgment was obtained in default of her appearance on 31 December 2019. She is deemed to have admitted to all the allegations in Lee's Statement of Claim, hence leaving only matter of assessment of damages outstanding for Monday's hearing.
Singh noted that while the plaintiff was able to serve documents on Rubaashini personally at her address from 4 December 2019 to some time earlier this year, her brother later told the process server that she was no longer at the address.
At around 10.15am, Lee appeared via videolink to reaffirm his affidavits to be submitted in court before leaving the hearing in less than five minutes.
A second witness, Director at Davinder Singh Chambers LLC Timothy Lin, then appeared via videolink to reaffirm his affidavit, which was made on behalf of Lee.
Singh then asked for a three-week adjournment to file closing submissions to points that Rubaashini might have made.
Justice Lim asked that the submissions be filed by 21 June.
TOC editor Terry Xu had asked Rubaashini to write article
In Lee's defamation suit against TOC's editor Terry Xu last year, Xu had admitted that he exchanged messages – on Slack – with Rubaashini and asked her to write the article, telling her that it needed "some creative writing" on the morning of 15 August 2019. Under examination by Singh, Xu had also admitted to have made points that he wanted Rubaashini to incude.
According to evidence provided to the court, Rubaashini sent the draft of the article at 12.39pm, and Xu replied that the article was "very good" with "no edits needed" nine minutes after he received it. Xu admitted to this during the hearing.
According to Lee's affidavit, Rubaashini had not taken any steps to verify whether the allegations in the article were true. "She wrote the article in a matter of hours, not caring whether the allegations in the offending words were true or false. These matters show that (Rubaashini) was completely reckless and malicious."
"When Mr Terry Xu asked the defendant to write the article, and when she wrote it and sent it back to him, the defendant would have known that the offending words were meant to be and would be published to and/or on (The Online Citizen) and/or to Mr Terry Xu in Singapore and that the offending words would be republished on (The Online Citizen)," Lee stated in the affidavit.
Lee also said in his affidavit that the article would have been of interest to Singaporeans and the followers of “The Online Citizen SG” Facebook profile page, on which it was also shared.
"The article contained sensational allegations against me, the Prime Minister of Singapore, which were likely to attract a great deal of attention and go viral on the Internet and on social networking sites. The article was plainly designed to attract the maximum readership among Singaporeans because of its attacks against me and my honesty and integrity."
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