By Philip J. Heijmans
(Bloomberg) -- Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s defamation suit against a blogger who shared an article about him on Facebook kicked off in a four-day court hearing.
Lee sued Leong Sze Hian for posting a link to a Malaysian news site that alleged the prime minister had helped launder 1Malaysia Development Bhd. funds. The Singaporean leader, who has sued other people for defamation while in office, was in court on Tuesday for several hours to give evidence and undergo cross-examination. Lee’s lawyers have said the accusations are false and baseless.
During the trial, Lee was repeatedly pressed by Leong’s lawyer on why he chose to sue the government critic rather than other Facebook users who also shared the material. Lee maintained it was his right to defend himself amid what he called a “grave attack”on his personal integrity and reputation. He also said Leong continued to draw attention to the case even though he had removed his post.
“I’ve explained that having borne the cross for so many years, there was no reason to sue him on the basis of his criticism,” Lee said in court, disputing that the suit was brought to silence a government critic. “We have learnt to live with all these ant bites.”
Leong’s “libel contains outright allegations of corrupt and criminal conduct which go to the heart of his integrity and fitness to hold the office of Prime Minister; matters that concern not just the plaintiff but all Singaporeans,” according to Lee’s opening statement to the court.
The premier is seeking damages and an injunction to prevent Leong, 66, from publishing or disseminating the allegations, or other allegations of complicity relating to the embattled Malaysian state fund.
Leong has denied he was being malicious in his defense. He removed the Facebook post though court documents show he didn’t comply with a letter of demand sent by Lee’s lawyers to make a public apology.
In his opening statement, Leong pointed out that for Lee, “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.”
He argued in his statement that he did not endorse the contents of the post, and also didn’t comment on it. There was also no evidence of damage to Lee’s reputation, he said.
Prime Minister Lee is represented by a team of five lawyers from Davinder Singh Chambers LLC, while Leong is represented by Lim Tean, who is also an opposition politician.
The trial comes as Singapore has adopted a tougher stance on misinformation posted online. Last year, the government passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act known as Pofma. The law gives officials the power to request companies like Facebook Inc. to block pages if online users don’t post a government-issued correction alongside the original article, deemed to have carried a false or misleading claim that’s not in the public interest.
In 2018, Facebook had declined a request from the Singapore government to remove a post that also connected Lee to the 1MDB probes. That decision by the internet giant showed the need for new legislation, the Ministry of Law said in a statement at the time.
In 2015, another blogger, Roy Ngerng, was ordered to pay S$150,000 ($110,310) to Lee for defaming him and suggesting the premier criminally misappropriated Singapore’s pension fund savings. In 2008, opposition Singapore Democratic Party leader Chee Soon Juan and his sister served short stints in prison for contempt of court following a defamation suit by Lee and his father, Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s first prime minister.
In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders gave Singapore a global press freedom ranking of 158th out of 180 countries, saying “defamation suits are common and may sometimes be accompanied by a charge of sedition.”
(Updates with court proceedings from third paragraph.)
© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.