Financial advisor and veteran blogger Leong Sze Hian “has been a thorn in our side in a small way for a very long time”, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the High Court on Tuesday (6 October).
In the afternoon part of the hearing yesterday, Mr Leong’s lawyer Lim Tean charged that PM Lee had picked on Mr Leong from thousands of others not to protect his reputation, but to frighten others who intend to criticise the Government.
Denying Mr Lim’s assertion, PM Lee — who was cross-examined as a witness — testified that Mr Leong had attempted to raise multiple grievances with the Government’s handling of financial matters, particularly with regards to the Central Provident Fund and sovereign wealth fund GIC.
He has done so through many avenues, including newspaper letters, speeches and “interminable blogs”, said the prime minister.
“He has made sure that his voice is heard, as he is entitled to,” said PM Lee.
Referencing Mr Leong and Mr Lim’s defeat under the People’s Voice Party (PV) banner in Jalan Besar Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in this year’s general election, PM Lee said that the true test of whether Singaporeans have faith in the Government lies in that of “the ballot”.
“Indeed, it was put to the test in the most recent general elections a few months ago when your defendant and yourself stood in a GRC, contested in Jalan Besar GRC and won 35 per cent of the vote. So that is the answer,” he said.
Mr Lim is the chief of PV.
While a legal case is not the answer to such a question, PM Lee said that when a person defames him, he has to “think very carefully what the position is and take legal advice” regardless whether the person is a staunch critic who has “published 400 or 1,000 articles” or none.
Even a person who was previously “favourably disposed” towards the establishment will not be exempt from such deliberation if they defame him, he added.
PM Lee responded with his above answer without any breaks in between.
In a subsequent question, Mr Lim suggested to PM Lee that he could have known that the post had already been removed by Mr Leong when the writ of summons was issued against the blogger.
PM Lee replied: “That is entirely possible, yes.”
“And yet you chose to go ahead to sue him?” Mr Lim shot back.
PM Lee responded that mere removal of the post “does not expunge the defamation”.
“He has not apologised. He has not explained. He has not undertaken not to repeat. Meanwhile, the post has been seen, read, shared, republished, and the lies continue to circulate as a result of this post,” he elaborated.
Mr Lim hammered in on PM Lee’s testimony that stated that Mr Leong has been a constant thorn in the Government’s side.
‘You see, Mr Lee, you gave the nugget away a few moments ago when you admitted that the defendant has been a thorn in the government’s side, even though you don’t think that he has been the staunchest critic. That was why you chose to sue him. Am I right?” The lawyer probed.
Answering the question with a smile, PM Lee said: “I have just explained to you that having borne this cross for so many years, there was no reason for me to take this action based on his criticisms. We had learned to deal with these ant bites.”
“That was why you chose not to sue the thousands of others who shared the same article?”, Mr Lim prompted.
PM Lee told the court that Mr Lim had earlier asked him why he did not sue Tan Kin Lian, “notwithstanding his being a very, very prominent government critic”, to which Mr Lim added: “Neither did you sue Goh Meng Seng, another politician. Am I right?”
“That goes to show that I don’t sue people because they are prominent politicians,” the prime minister replied.
Mr Lim reiterated the suggestion that PM Lee had sued Mr Leong because he is a government critic, to which PM Lee replied: “No, I do not accept that.”
Mr Lim then posited to PM Lee that he had not sued other prominent opposition politicians and only chose to pick on the defendant because he is a staunch government critic, and that PM Lee wanted to “strike fear” into the Singapore population.
“Your Honour, he flatters his client,” said PM Lee.
Following Justice Aedit Abdullah’s clarification on Mr Lim’s point suggesting that PM Lee had essentially took legal action to silence a government critic and to strike fear in the population, the prime minister said: “I totally deny that.”
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.
The trial continues today with the cross-examination of PM Lee’s expert witness Dr Phan Tuan Quang, an associate professor of Innovation and Information Management at the University of Hong Kong.