By Andrew Loh
Mr Lee Hsien Loong cannot make a claim of defamation against Mr Roy Ngerng since Mr Ngerng has already admitted that the allegations he made on his blog are false and unfounded.
That is the argument which the lawyer for Mr Ngerng, a blogger being sued by Mr Lee, is asking the court to determine.
Mr Lee is the Prime Minister of Singapore, but is suing Mr Ngerng in his personal capacity.
The lawsuit stems from a blog article which Mr Ngerng had published on 15 May 2014, titled: “Where your CPF money is going: learning from the City Harvest trial”.
In that article, says Mr Lee’s lawyers from law firm Drew and Napier, Mr Ngerng had allegedly accused Mr Lee, who is also the chairman of the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore (GIC), of “criminal misappropriation” of monies from Singapore’s state-run pension fund, the Central Provident Fund (CPF), by comparing the criminal trial of the leaders of City Harvest Church (CHC) with the management of the CPF monies.
The CHC leaders are facing corruption charges in how they managed church funds.
In its letter of demand to Mr Ngerng on 19 May, Mr Lee’s lawyers demanded that Mr Ngerng removed the article in question, issued an apology on his blog site, and to make an offer of compensation to Mr Lee.
Mr Ngerng subsequently acceded to all the demands, including removing four other articles which Mr Lee’s lawyers had also asked to be removed from his blog.
Mr Ngerng also made an offer of S$5,000 as compensation to Mr Lee.
Mr Lee’s lawyers, however, dismissed the amount as “derisory”, and were instructed by Mr Lee to commence legal action on 30 May.
In his defence papers filed on Tuesday, 17 June, lawyer M Ravi, representing Mr Ngerng, argued that there was no case of defamation and no grounds for the aggravated damages Mr Lee is seeking.
The first reason is that the criminal case of the CHC leaders have not been found guilty by the court of corruption charges. Thus, there was no case of defamation when Mr Ngerng compared the CHC trial to the management of the CPF scheme.
“Readers of the article on the blog would have known that the City Harvest Church case was ongoing,” Mr Ngerng’s defence said, “that the criminal charges were denied by the defendants and, while the judge had ruled that there was evidence sufficient for the case to continue (contrary to the submissions made to him), he had not determined that they were ‘guilty’.”
The second reason offered by Mr Ngerng’s defence submission is that the blog article had to be read in context.
“The article referred in some detail to the CPF and the concerns which arose in relation to its management,” it said. “The defendant will refer to the whole of what is said in that part of the article.”
It argued that it “would have been clear to readers” that “principal concerns included the lack of transparency in relation to the manner in which the Singapore Government, MAS, GIC and/or Temasek managed the funds from CPF monies; the question of interest on the money [sic] in the CPF (including how much interest was being accrued and to whose benefit it was being paid or held); the growth of GIC and Temasek as wealth fund managers; and the retirement pension position for the citizens of Singapore. Readers would have read the whole of the article and, accordingly, would have considered the words and images complained of in the context of the whole.”
The third reason, Mr Ngerng lawyer explains, why Mr Lee’s lawsuit is baseless, is because Mr Ngerng had already acceded to the various demands made by Mr Lee, before the legal suit was commenced.
“On 23 May 2014, the defendant published the ‘apology and undertaking’ which the Plaintiff had demanded in the 18 May 2014 letter, on the homepage of his blog,” the defence said.
“The defendant published the wording required by the plaintiff. It is to be inferred that the plaintiff required that form of words as constituting appropriate and sufficient vindication for the publication of the allegation of which he complained. The public apology by the defendant to the plaintiff was unreserved.”
In other words, it was Mr Lee who had sought vindication through the demands, including the removal of the four articles from Mr Ngerng’s blog on 26 May – a week after Mr Lee’s original letter of demand - all of which Mr Ngerng acceded to.
How then could there still be a case of defamation, Mr Ngerng’s defence asked.
Further, Mr Ngerng had also made an offer of compensation which, the defence said, was not “derisory”, contrary to what Mr Lee had claimed.
“[The] amount was based on the defendant’s modest living and income that he derives from working as a health care worker,” the defence said.
Mr Ngerng’s lawyer said that it is Mr Lee who must prove that the offer was “derisory”.
“If he alleges that he is entitled to any greater sum in damages, the Plaintiff is put to proof of the basis upon which such damages are claimed.”
Mr Ngerng’s lawyers also reiterated that Mr Ngerng had accepted that the allegation of “criminal misappropriation” on the part of Mr Lee “was false and without foundation.”
“The Defendant’s public statement to that effect had been published widely,” the defence added. Mr Ngerng has also “undertaken not to publish such an allegation in the future.”
Mr Ngerng’s court submission said:
“The defendant is a person of modest means, who had publicly apologised to the Plaintiff and acknowledged that the allegation about which the Plaintiff complained was false (in wording, and in a manner, required by the Plaintiff), who had given undertakings not to publish such an allegation, and who had agreed to remove material to which the Plaintiff had objected. Yet the Plaintiff rejected the damages offered by the Defendant as ‘derisory’ and has brought this claim against him. It appeared to the Defendant that the Plaintiff was seeking (through pursuing this action against him and seeking damages, including aggravated damages, and costs) to prevent him from expressing his views on the CPF and to impose an unwarranted and unnecessary restriction upon his constitutional right, as a citizen of Singapore, to freedom of speech and expression. The Defendant, in publishing the Article, was seeking to exercise that right on a matter of considerable public interest to the citizens of Singapore.
“In all the circumstances of this case, to pursue a claim against the defendant for damages (including aggravated damages) and legal costs, is unnecessary and unwarranted.”
In summary, the defence is arguing that since Mr Ngerng has already admitted that the allegations are false and unfounded, there is therefore no longer defamation.
And since Mr Ngerng has also already apologised, there is no value in the defamation case anymore, because there is no real and substantive case for the plaintiff.