High Court commences open court hearing of PM Lee Hsien Loong’s defamation suit against blogger Leong Sze Hian

High Court commences open court hearing of PM Lee Hsien Loong’s defamation suit against blogger Leong Sze Hian

The defamation suit filed by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong against veteran blogger and financial advisor Leong Sze Hian is being heard in the High Court today after a previous postponement of the trial in July.

The open court hearing is set to take place from Tuesday (6 October) to Friday (9 October) before Justice Aedit Abdullah.

By 7am today, all of the 20 seats available for public sitting have been taken up.

PM Lee arrived at the court by car shortly past 9.30am on Tuesday.

Both PM Lee and Mr Leong will be physically present at the trial, where they are expected to give evidence and be cross-examined.

The Prime Minister will be cross-examined at the witness stand today.

An expert witness from Hong Kong will also be called by PM Lee to testify in the hearing.

PM Lee is represented by Senior Counsel Davinder Singh from Davinder Singh Chambers, while Mr Leong is represented by lawyer and People’s Voice Party chief Lim Tean from Carson Law Chambers.

Background of the case

The defamation suit concerns an article by shared by Mr Leong on his personal Facebook Timeline titled “Breaking News: Singapore Lee Hsien Loong Becomes 1MDB’s Key Investigation Target – Najib Signed Several Unfair Agreements with Hsien Loong In Exchange For Money Laundering”.

The article, published by “Malaysian-based social news network” The Coverage, alleged that PM Lee had entered “several unfair agreements” with Najib Razak, who was the Malaysian Prime Minister at the time the deals purportedly took place, “including the agreement to build the Singapore-Malaysia High Speed Rail”, according to court documents.

It is noted in Mr Leong’s submissions that he did not include any accompanying text alongside the article at the time he shared the article on 7 November 2018.

Mr Leong took down the article at 7.30am on 10 November 2018 after being instructed by the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) to do so a day prior.

Prior to his removal of the post on 10 November, the court noted that Mr Leong’s article had garnered “22 ‘reactions’, five ‘comments’, and 18 ‘shares’”.

A writ of summons was subsequently filed by PM Lee against Mr Leong on 20 November that year for defamation, on the grounds that the offending article created the “false and baseless” impression that PM Lee had misused his position as Prime Minister to assist Najib’s money laundering activities in relation to 1MDB’s funds, and subsequently insinuated that PM Lee was “complicit in criminal activity” relating to the Malaysian state fund.

In response, Mr Leong filed his defence and counterclaim against PM Lee’s suit the following month on 26 December, citing PM Lee’s purported “abuse” of the judicial process as his “relevant cause of action”.

However, PM Lee filed a defence against Mr Leong’s counterclaim on 9 January last year, stating that the latter “did not disclose a reasonable cause of action”.

Justice Aedit Abdullah of the High Court, however, struck out Mr Leong’s counterclaim the following month on 12 February, citing Mr Leong’s failure to disclose a “reasonable cause of action” in doing so.

In his decision, the judge cited the Court of Appeal’s decision in Lee Tat Development Pte Ltd v Management Corporation Strata Title Plan, which “rejected the tort of abuse of process as a recognised cause of action”.

The point was made based on PM Lee’s defence against Mr Leong’s counterclaim, filed on 9 January 2019, which argued that Mr Leong “did not disclose a reasonable cause of action”.

Mr Leong later appealed against Justice Aedit’s decision on his counterclaim. However, the Court of Appeal on 27 September 2019 dismissed the appeal.

On behalf of the panel of judges who presided over the appeal, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said — in deciding to dismiss Mr Leong’s appeal — that it must be noted that “courts cannot limit the rights of injured parties to access the courts, even if they happen to be public figures”.

“A plaintiff in a defamation action is entitled to invoke the aid of the court to vindicate his interests if he is at the receiving end of a defamatory publication,” reasoned the chief justice.

Just a week before the hearing of the defamation suit today, Mr Leong’s lawyer Lim Tean was arrested by plainclothes police officers from the Commercial Affairs Department at his office last Friday morning (2 October) for not attending a scheduled investigation.

The interview is related to allegations made against him of criminal breach of trust and stalking.

Mr Lim argued that the matters cited in the allegations were before the court and therefore he cannot assist in the investigation.

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