The contempt of court proceedings instituted by the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC), which have “taken three years and thousands of pages of legal documents”, is a poor reflection of “the government and its priorities”, said Harvard economics professor Li Shengwu.
“This prosecution over a private Facebook post has taken three years and thousands of pages of legal documents,” said Dr Li in a Facebook post on Thursday (2 July). The law firm that represented Dr Li in Dec 2018 noted that the court papers filed by the AGC exceeded 1,300 pages.
Dr Li, who is the nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is facing contempt of court charges after a private Facebook post in 2017 — which was only made accessible to his connections on the social media site — was first leaked to the public by a relatively unknown blog and subsequently made viral through the SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh Facebook page.
Dr Li said that “the Singapore government is very litigious and has a pliant court system”, which he noted referred to the constraints surrounding what the media is allowed to or able to report regarding the high-profile dispute of his paternal family.
Following the shares, AGC issued a public statement to local media saying that it was looking into the Facebook post by Dr Li, in which he questioned the independence of Singapore’s courts.
Dr Li in his Facebook post yesterday reiterated that the AGC “applied to conceal parts” of his defence affidavit, resulting in the affidavit being unavailable to the court yesterday and “cannot be found in the public record”.
“This behavior by the AGC is one reason why I decided not to participate in the proceedings against me,” he said.
“Separately, I’d like to quote something that the law minister, K Shanmugam, said in parliament in August 2016: ““…I cannot see how putting up a Facebook post poses a real risk of prejudicing proceedings unless you are the Prime Minister with a million followers and everybody reads what you say.”
“Maybe if there were more opposition MPs, the minister would speak more carefully,” Dr Li added.
The AGC’s representatives in a hearing yesterday called for Dr Li to be fined S$15,000 — or two weeks’ jail if he does not pay the fine — after Dr Li failed to abide by a court order to appear for cross-examination.
Should the court hand Dr Li a fine or jail term, the authorities may place him under arrest if he returns to Singapore via a warrant of arrest.
Senior Counsel Low Siew Ling told Justice Kannan Ramesh that the AGC has sent Dr Li several reminders via emails and letters to his Harvard University address on how he is required to answer questions served on him, in addition to giving a list of his Facebook friends and bearing the costs of his previous court applications which were dismissed.
Ms Low said that the reminders were sent four times between February and March this year.
The AGC’s representative countered Dr Li’s assertion that he did not expect his post to gain traction as he was not a public figure.
Dr Li, said Ms Low, “has tried to suggest that this post was private and seen by very few people, yet he has refused to produce his Facebook friends list”.
“How many friends he had at the time – if any of them were reporters or members of the media. Several reminders have been sent to him. He has ignored them all. This is very telling,” she said.
Ms Low argued that an AGC officer with no connections to Dr Li had 15 mutual friends with him. She also cited research showing that an average adult has more than 300 Facebook friends.
“The claim that the post was seen by very few people must be a lie,” said Ms Low.
She added that Dr Li did not take steps to warn his Facebook friends against sharing or republishing his post.
Dr Li previously said that whoever his friends are “is none of their [AGC’s] business”, as his friends “have a moral right to privacy”.
Justice Kannan on Thursday questioned the Deputy Public Prosecutor whether the actual audience of Dr Li’s post in itself poses enough of a “real risk” in interfering with the administration of justice, or if a potential audience should also be taken into account in assessing such a risk.
The DPP replied that even if the potential audience were taken out of the picture, the actual audience of Dr Li’s post would have constituted a real risk in itself.
Ms Low also noted that she would not seek from the court the exclusion of Dr Li’s defence affidavit.
“We do not want to give him any opportunity to suggest that we are trying to shut out his defence,” she said.
AGC applying to strike out affidavit, seal parts of it in court record “not an isolated incident”: Li Shengwu
In a Facebook post on 22 January, Dr Li similarly said that the AGC had applied to strike out parts of his own defence affidavit “with the result that they will not be considered at the trial”.
He also alleged that the AGC had “demanded that these parts be sealed in the court record, so that the public cannot know what the removed parts contain”.
“This is not an isolated incident, but part of a broader pattern of unusual conduct by the AGC. For instance, when arguing jurisdiction in the court of appeals, the AGC argued that a new piece of legislation should be retroactively applied against me.
“The court saw it as unfair for the new legislation to apply retrospectively,” he noted.
AGC “ambushed” Dr Li with “court papers in public”
On 21 July 2017, AGC sent a warning letter to Dr Li claiming that he made “false and baseless allegations” about the Singapore judiciary’s purported lack of independence.
The warning letter also requested him to “purge the contempt” by deleting the post from his Facebook page and other platforms, and asked him to “issue and post prominently” on his Facebook page a written apology and undertaking drafted by the AGC.
By 4 August 2018, the AGC filed an application in the High Court to commence committal proceedings against him for contempt of court, which was permitted by Justice Kannan Ramesh.
In October, AGC then “ambushed” Dr Li with “court papers in public” whilst he was delivering a lecture in “Scott Kominers’ brilliant market design class” at Harvard University.
Following this, Dr Li decided to challenge the court order that enabled the AGC to serve papers on him in the United States.
Court of Appeal dismissed Li Shengwu’s appeal to contest court order enabling AGC to serve papers in the US
In a 66-page judgement released last April, the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal by Dr Li to contest the court order which enabled the AGC to serve papers on him in the United States for the alleged offence of contempt of court.
The judges ruled that the service out of the jurisdiction was properly effected on Dr Li because the Attorney General (AG)’s claim for the court to exercise its power to punish for contempt was perky a claim made under S7(1) of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act.
Dr Li noted that while the case will now proceed due to a ruling from the court that process service on him was effective, the AGC did not get new rules to be retroactively applied on his contempt of court case.
Although he was disappointed with the judgement, he wrote that the “AG will still need to prove beyond reasonable doubt” that his Facebook post scandalised the Republic’s judiciary.
His response likely referred to the submission made by AGC to the court for retroactive application of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act (2016) in his case.
Dr Li’s lawyers argued that the procedural rule which gives the court power to serve papers on someone outside of Singapore, under the act, cannot be applied retroactively in this case, because the “legislature manifestly did not intend for the provision to apply retroactively”.
The judges had stated in their decision that Dr Li’s case is sui generis, or unique by its own.
If retroactive application of the act is allowed, then AGC may refer to the new law and only needs to prove that there is a “risk” that such public confidence will be undermined instead of “real risk”.
As set out in the 2015 case of Au Wai Pang v Attorney-General, the AG has to prove a real risk that the impugned statement has undermined or might undermine public confidence in the administration of justice in Singapore before one can be found guilty for contempt.
Li Shengwu to “will continue” to view “friends-only Facebook posts as private”
Earlier this year, Dr Li revealed that he is withdrawing from the proceedings.
Dr Li said that he will no longer “continue to participate in the proceedings against me”, as he “will not dignify the AGC’s conduct by my participation”.
While he said that he will “continue to be active on Facebook, and will continue to regard my friends-only Facebook posts as private”, he remarked that he had removed his cousin Li Hongyi from his Facebook friends list. Mr Li Hongyi is the son of Mr Lee Hsien Loong.
Dr Li is the son of Lee Hsien Yang, who has recently made headlines after joining the Progress Singapore Party, led by former People’s Action Party (PAP) cadre Tan Cheng Bock.
Speculation was rife as to whether Mr Lee Hsien Yang had done so to run in the coming general election on 10 July. However, it was later announced that he will not be contesting in this election.
Lawyer Lee Suet Fern — Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s wife and Dr Li Shengwu’s mother — was embroiled in Disciplinary Tribunal proceedings after the AGC referred her to the Law Society for professional misconduct in relation to her handling of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s will, particularly regarding the question of the demolishment of Mr LKY’s Oxley Road home.
She was found liable by the Tribunal, and had her case referred to the Court of Three Judges — Singapore’s apex disciplinary body in dealing with lawyers’ misconduct. Mrs Lee may face a fine or be suspended or disbarred from her profession if found guilty.