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SINGAPORE — National marathoner Soh Rui Yong lost in the defamation suit brought against him by fellow athlete Ashley Liew and will be required to pay a total of $180,000 in damages to Liew.
In a verdict delivered on Thursday (23 September), District Judge Lee Li Choon said she found that the words in Soh's statements were defamatory, or bore defamatory meanings.
The judge also granted orders that Liew applied for; that Soh make a declaration that his defamatory statements are false; that Soh remove the defamatory posts and publish a statement retracting the false statements; and that Soh publish a public apology on his Facebook pages and Instagram account. Liew was also granted an injunction restraining Soh from repeating the defamatory statements in the future.
Liew, a 34-year-old chiropractor and Singapore athlete, had sued Soh, 30, over statements that the latter made which accused Liew of lying about slowing down during the 2015 SEA Games men’s marathon in order to give his competitors – who had made a wrong turn – a chance to catch up to him. Soh won a gold medal for the marathon.
According to Liew, on 7 June 2015, he had slowed down after a U-turn at the 5.5km mark at East Coast Park to wait for 11 other male participants, including Soh, who had mistakenly missed the turn. Soh had claimed that Liew did not make such a move.
After the alleged act went public, Liew was awarded a special award for sportsmanship by the Singapore National Olympic Council, as well as the Pierre de Coubertin World Fair Play trophy by the International Fair Play Committee (IFPC).
However, from 2015 to 2019, Soh made several online statements disputing the act on various posts and comments posted on his Facebook Page and profile, Instagram account, blog and IFPC's Facebook. Soh suggested that Liew had lied about the act and did not deserve the IFPC award.
Soh failed to prove the allegations: Judge
On the statements, DJ Lee said in her verdict, "They are clearly an attack on Liew’s integrity and credibility and mean that, contrary to Liew’s recognition for his sportsmanship, he is in fact a liar, a dishonourable person who had conjured up a tale to make himself feel better, and by receiving an award for something that did not happen, he is a person who lacks integrity."
The judge said that for Soh to succeed in his defence of justification, he had the burden to prove that his allegations – that Liew had lied about slowing down – were substantially true. The burden was not on Liew to prove that he did perform the act of fair play, reiterated the judge.
Soh would have had to prove that Liew did not slow down and that the act of fair play did not occur. Soh had testified to his own version of events during the marathon, and called other witnesses, including his father, his former coach, and a friend, who testified that they did not see Liew slow down.
However, the judge found that the witness' evidence was either incomplete, selective, or contradictory, or that they might have missed the act of Liew slowing down from their vantage point.
"Soh’s evidence that Liew did not slow down or that Liew’s act of fair play was untrue lacks credibility and is not inconsistent with Liew’s account of his act of fair play because Soh’s witnesses were either not observing Liew or could not have observed Liew’s slowing down or act of fair play due to where they were standing," said DJ Lee.
In contrast, the judge found Liew's evidence to be more objective and consistent. Liew's witnesses included a fellow competitor, Cambodian representative Kuniaki Takizaki, who was the first participant to have caught up with Liew after missing the turn.
In his affidavit, of evidence in chief, Takizaki stated that he saw Liew deliberately slow down to wait for the other competitors, and that Liew had given him a hand sign signalling him and others to "go ahead". Two other independent witnesses not related to Liew had testified to witnessing him slowing down, corroborating Liew's account.
The judge also found that Soh had not made out the defence of fair comment. To invoke the defence, Soh's statements would have had to be “recognisable as [a] comment by the ordinary, reasonable and fair-minded reader having regard to the whole context of the publication".
The judge found in this respect that Soh's tone and language left an ordinary person with no doubt that he was putting across factual statements, rather than making a fair comment based on established facts. There was no hint that the comments were merely his opinion, said the judge.
Soh "added fuel to the fire": Judge
The total amount awarded to Liew consists of $120,000 in general damages, and $60,000 in aggravated damages.
While Liew had asked for $120,000 in aggravated damages, DJ Lee only awarded him half the amount, which she described as "fair" after taking into account Soh's conduct before, during the trial, and the extent of the publication of the defamatory statements.
In coming to the amount, DJ Lee considered Liew's standing in society, Soh's own standing, and the extent of Soh's publication of the defamatory statements, among other factors.
"As can be seen, even before he was given awards associated with his act of fair play or sportsmanship, he was our national athlete who is well-known and highly regarded by the general public as an athlete worthy of representing Singapore at the 2015 SEA Games and an athlete who has participated and achieved various awards in sporting events and competitions," she said.
After the 2015 marathon, Liew's standing had been "enhanced" due to his receipt of the awards associated with his act of fair play. He was also recognised by prominent figures in Singapore, including numerous ministers.
"Suffice to say that at the time of publication of Soh’s statements, Liew is by no means just an ordinary, relatively unknown Singapore citizen," said the judge, rejecting Soh's statement that Liew was only “a person of ordinary standing”, as he was “only a chiropractor”.
"I am satisfied that in light of the mode and extent of the publication of the defamatory statements, the harm caused to Liew is by no means insignificant. Both Soh and Liew may be considered our 'national heroes'. Because of that, the dispute between them has attracted a fair amount of public attention," she said.
Soh's own publicity of the defamatory statements had "added fuel to the fire" by giving the impression to readers that he was being “punished” for “revealing the truth”, noted the judge, who added that this caused even more harm to Liew's reputation.
She considered Liew's claim of $120,000 in general damages to be fair.
Soh to file appeal
In a post on his Facebook page after the verdict, Soh said the "marathon is not over" and that he will be launching an appeal in the High Court to "clear" his name.
"There're a lot of falsehoods being paraded on social media, by people who don't know head from tail. There are attacks on my integrity, character and credibility. Most disgustingly, there have been attacks on my family members, friends and loved ones."
Soh said he had no choice but to respond. "You don't win a marathon in the first 32.2km. You win it in the last 10km," he added.
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