The High Court on Wednesday (29 July) found Harvard economics professor Li Shengwu guilty of contempt of court for a private Facebook post he made in 2017, which means that he is now required to pay a S$15,000 fine.
Should Dr Li refuse to pay the fine, he will have to serve a one-week jail term in default.
Justice Kannan Ramesh is said to have awarded the Attorney-General S$8,500 in costs and S$8,070.69 in disbursements.
Using precedent in case law as a guideline, the judge, however, rejected the A-G’s submission to have Dr Li sentenced to two weeks’ jail in default of the fine.
In delivering his judgement today, Justice Kannan reasoned that the A-G was able to prove the three necessary elements in establishing whether contempt of court had taken place.
The three elements, according to the judge, were that Dr Li intended to publish the post, that the post posed a real risk of undermining public confidence in the administration of justice, and that the post did not constitute fair criticism.
The judge also raised some points on the meaning of the words “pliant court system”, drew an adverse inference against Dr Li for refusing to disclose his friends list and said that there is no expectation of privacy in publishing the post.
Branding Dr Li’s post “controversial and inflammatory”, Justice Kannan also said that the timing of the post was “important”, as “significant public interest” was present “in the Oxley Road dispute”.
Background of the case
Contempt of court charges against Dr Li arose 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 now-defunct SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh Facebook page.
The son of Progress Singapore Party member and PM Lee’s brother Lee Hsien Yang wrote 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.
The Attorney-General’s Chambers (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 — in response to a media query by a media outlet which remains unknown till today.
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 allowed by Justice Kannan.
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 in United States.
Following this, Dr Li decided to challenge the court order that enabled the AGC to serve papers on him overseas.
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 contempt of court.
Earlier this year, Dr Li revealed that he is withdrawing from the proceedings. He claimed that the AGC 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”.
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 may be issued a warrant of arrest and be placed under arrest if he returns to Singapore.