The Sarawak Report published an article on 15 December that questions the heavy handed action by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's legal team in taking a citizen to civil court for sharing an erroneous report even after he removed it and apologised.
In early November, local blogger and financial consultant Leong Sze Hian shared an article on his Facebook page by The Coverage which alleged PM Lee was ‘next on the list for 1MDB investigators'. The article claimed that PM Lee was involved in the scandal somehow. That article had claimed that the editor of Sarawak Report gave an interview which revealed this new information.
However, SR quickly came forward to say that they had been misquoted and that they never publicly said that PM Lee was involved in 1MDB. In fact, they had never given any such interview.
Mr Leong can probably be seen as someone who fell for the trap of fake news from disreputable news portal and shared it not knowing that the content was inaccurate.
In fact, after SR denied the false report, Mr Leong had also received a firm letter from the Media Development Authority (IMDA) warning him that he had posted an untrue and libelous article implicating the PM in criminal activity. He was ordered to remove the post.
Mr Leong proceeded to apologise for his error and deleted the Facebook post in which he shared the false report without comment.
SR said that when they interviewed Mr Leong, he told them he willingly removed the link and acknowledged that the article was untrue. But of course, he was surprised to find out that he has been singled out by PM Lee in a civil suit against him for libel.
SR pointed out that Mr Leong is now stuck between a rock and a hard place as any attempt on his side to either settle or defend himself in court will ‘ruin’ him. The PM’s legal team has apparently said that they were after substantial financial damages.
SR then questioned the legal team in the PM’s employ, specifically whether they are truly serving their client or society by applying such a tough approach to a problem that has already been resolved by the state by way of IMDA.
Narrowing in, SR also questioned why Mr Leong is the target of this ‘ruinous retribution from the most powerful person in Singapore’ when he was simply misled like many others and has even removed the link and apologised.
SR noted that this legal action will do not favour for the PM in the public eye.
“The PM’s lawyers should consider how the majority of people will judge this action if it continues to grind through the legal process, compared to a compassionate and magnanimous acceptance of the apologies the Facebook activist has sought to offer?”
They also pointed out that the longer the process drags out in Court, the worse the international and domestic publicity will likely be.
SR questions, “In short, Mr Leong has been dealt with so why is he still being pursued by someone who has endless publicly funded instruments to protect his own reputation along with that of the government?”
SR warned that the litigation could shift opinions from sympathy for the PM for being the victim of irresponsible journalism to people beginning to suspect his motives. They said people would start to see this suit as a veiled attempt by the government to silence a critic – something that Mr Leong admits he is – and that it’s more about his past criticism than this current transgression.
They also said that this action could be construed by some as the government sending a warning against online criticism against the government in general in the run up to the next elections, which are expected to happen in 2019.
They drew comparison to the actions of ex-Malaysian PM Najib Razak in taking harsh actions against his critics. SR pointed out that if the people are suspicious of their PM’s motives, they’re not likely to vote for the ruling party again, possibly kicking them out of office the way Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional was removed from power earlier this year in Malaysia.
SR has suggested that this show of strength betrays a sense of weakness. The PM, they added, should not target his critic in a legal battle and instead just accept the apology and move on. After all, Mr Leong had already been dealt with officially by the government. So there is no real need for a civil suit.
SR ended with a strong statement against PM Lee’s legal team, saying that they have ‘misadvised their client’. They continued, “the last thing the ruling party needs in the run up to this next election is a martyr in Mr Leong with all the worldwide publicity that is bound to bring.”