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Shanmugam refutes Lee Hsien Yang's 'independent arbitration' proposal amid defamation suit

Singapore's Law Minister insists that Lee should welcome the opportunity to defend himself publicly, if he believes there is no basis for suit

Minister Shanmugam emphasises that Lee should openly defend himself in Singapore if he believes the defamation suits lack a basis
Minister Shanmugam emphasises that Lee should openly defend himself in Singapore if he believes the defamation suits lack a basis. (PHOTO: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

SINGAPORE —Singapore's Law and Home Affairs Minister, K. Shanmugam, has responded to Lee Hsien Yang's proposal for an "independent arbitration" to resolve defamation suits against him.

Shanmugam emphasised that if Lee - who is the younger brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - believes there is no basis for these suits, he should welcome the opportunity to defend himself publicly in Singapore.

In his Facebook post on Thursday (5 October), Shanmugam said: "If Mr Lee thinks that there is no basis for the legal action, he should welcome the opportunity to defend himself in open Court where he can cross-examine us, and we can cross-examine him, in the full view of the Singapore public."

In July, Lee made comments on his Facebook page regarding Shanmugam and Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan's rental of black-and-white bungalows at Ridout Road, which led to the defamation suits.

Lee Hsien Yang proposes arbitration for defamation dispute

Lee had suggested a process whereby both parties would select an arbitrator of "high international standing". The subsequent proceedings would be confidential, although the decision would be made public and binding on all parties.

"The Ministers’ nominee could be, if they wish, a retired Singapore Supreme Court judge. The two arbitrators, in turn, could choose a third individual. The proceedings would be conducted in confidence, but the decision would be made public and be final and binding on all parties," he explained in his Facebook post on Thursday.

Lee also proposed that the ministers sue him in London courts "since the statement which they took offence to was made in the UK", but they chose to pursue legal action in Singapore instead.

"They have declined to do so and have instead proceeded to take action in the Singapore Courts and have been given permission to serve papers via Facebook instead of in person," Lee pointed out.

Lee, the brother of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, left Singapore in July 2022 with his wife, Lee Suet Fern. Their departure came after they declined to participate in a police interview related to a separate issue.

Minister Shanmugam rebuts Lee's claims

In response, Shanmugam said that, for decades now, countless Singaporeans have sued in the Singapore Courts for defamation that is published to people in Singapore. These cases are decided by the city-state's "impartial judiciary" which applies the law, he said in his Facebook post.

He argued that Lee's statements pertained to events within Singapore and were "primarily intended for a Singaporean audience".

"His primary audience was not in the UK. We have sued Mr Lee for a libel that was published to the people in Singapore, which concerns Singaporeans, and which is based on the laws of Singapore," he explained.

"If Mr Lee thinks that there is no basis for the legal action, he should welcome the opportunity to defend himself in open Court where he can cross-examine us, and we can cross-examine him, in the full view of the Singapore public."

The minister also called upon Lee to clarify why he believes he can make"libellous statements" while remaining exempt from the rules that apply to everyone else.

Shanmugam stated, "What Mr Lee really wants is special treatment. He wants to be treated differently from Singaporeans (and even foreigners) who are sued in Singapore for defamation."

What sparked the defamation suits?

In a Facebook post on 27 July, Shanmugam stated that Lee had accused him and Dr Balakrishnan of "acting corruptly and for personal gain by having Singapore Land Authority (SLA) give us preferential treatment by illegally felling trees without approval, and also having SLA pay for renovations to 26 and 31 Ridout Road."

Both Cabinet ministers sent lawyers' letters to Lee, stating they would sue unless he apologised, withdrew his allegations and paid $25,000 in damages that would be donated to charity.

Lee did not comply with these demands within the stipulated timeframe, and stated on Facebook that he was merely stating facts and suggested that the ministers sue him in a UK court since he claimed to be in the UK at the time.

The ministers then filed separate defamation suits against him in Singapore's High Court on 2 August. Their lawyers also sent a letter to Lee via Facebook Messenger, informing him that "defamation proceedings had commenced against him in the Singapore courts."

In their respective Statements of Claim, both ministers asserted that the offending words in Lee's post were "false and baseless and were calculated to disparage and impugn" both men and their ministerial offices.

The Statements of Claim did not specify the exact amount of damages sought, but both ministers are also seeking an injunction to prevent Lee from further disseminating defamatory allegations, along with other associated costs and remedies.

26 and 31 Ridout Road (SCREENSHOTS: Google Maps)
26 and 31 Ridout Road (SCREENSHOTS: Google Maps)

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