Leong Sze Hian defamation trial: Expert report from PM Lee Hsien Loong’s witness nothing more than ‘guesswork’, says lawyer Lim Tean

Leong Sze Hian defamation trial: Expert report from PM Lee Hsien Loong’s witness nothing more than ‘guesswork’, says lawyer Lim Tean

The trial between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and veteran blogger Leong Sze Hian goes on to its second day on Wednesday (7 October) after PM Lee took the witness stand and underwent a cross-examination by Mr Leong’s counsel Lim Tean yesterday.

The public gallery is once again filled to the brim today as interested members of the public turned up as early as 5am to secure their seats — even earlier than what was observed yesterday.

While PM Lee has been discharged as a witness in the hearing, he was present at the hearing in the morning in his iconic pink shirt and grey suit.

Dr Phan Tuan Quang, an associate professor of Innovation and Information Management at the University of Hong Kong, was the second witness called during the trial after PM Lee.

Dr Phan, who specialises in data, testified via Zoom that while he did not have the raw data from Mr Leong’s Facebook post, he said that he was given the screenshot of the post.

He said that he had provided a low conservative estimate based on past scientific research.

The academician also revealed during the cross-examination that he was assisted by lawyers from Davinder Singh’s Chambers (DSC) to prepare his report.

Later in the hearing, Mr Lim pointed out that a couple of paragraphs from Dr Phan’s report were worded the same as PM Lee’s affidavits of evidence-in-chief.

Mr Lim charged that the expert report from Dr Phan is nothing more than “guesswork”, as the latter did not have metadata from Mr Leong’s post.

Dr Phan rejected the lawyer’s assertion, saying that his report is based on past scientific research and that they are not baseless, but low conservative numbers based on past data.

He told the court that there is a trending feature on Facebook.

However, Mr Lim pointed out to Dr Phan that Mr Leong posted the link to the offending article using a verified account and that the trending feature is only available on Facebook fan pages.

While Dr Phan conceded that such may be possible, he highlighted that his conservative estimation did not factor that in.

Mr Lim also pointed out that Dr Phan had made references to speeches made by the Minister of Law and Home Affairs and the Minister of Education on the issue of fake news during the Parliamentary debates on POFMA, as well as findings by the Select Committee.

He questioned Dr Phan on why he included reports by politicians who are mainly from the ruling party.

Dr Phan noted that the Select Committee report had cited prominent papers and said to the effect that when the matter is the truth, many people will say the same things.

Justice Aedit Abdullah — the sole judge presiding over the trial — questioned if the reference paper on Twitter could be transferred to a Facebook situation, as there are differences as to how people share content across the two platforms.

Noting that this is his personal opinion on the matter, Dr Phan said that it is possible to translate to some degree, as there are quite a number of commonalities.

Mr Lim grilled Dr Phan on the point where he said that he had taken the four statements by the High Commission of Singapore in Malaysia, the Law and Home Affairs Minister, the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the Infocomm Media Development Authority in estimating the figures of the spread, by referring him to his report where no mention of the statements was ever made.

“Would you accept that more Singaporeans that more would read the statements, stating that the article is false than to have read the defendant’s post?” the lawyer questioned.

“Yes, that is possible and I have taken that into consideration,” said Dr Phan.

Mr Lim drew attention to how there is nowhere in Dr Phan’s report where the latter had taken the figures on the spread of the post into consideration.

“I find it incredible that a highly educated person like yourself writing a report of such importance would have not listed out the papers that you have considered in coming to your opinion as to how people [would] read The Coverage article that was shared by the defendant,” the lawyer charged.

Dr Phan said that while he did consider alternative factors, he opined that they were not necessary for his final consideration due to the purported “fake news” nature of Mr Leong’s post.

Mr Lim, however, stressed to Dr Phan that as an academic who has written “numerous” research papers, the standard practice would be to consider all matters in coming to conclusions on findings from research.

“Yes,” Dr Phan replied.

“And so I find it incredible that you really considered the statement by these four bodies and that you would have not referred to them in your report,” said Mr Lim.

Dr Phan reiterated that the nature of the post in question is fake, which does not necessitate doing so.

“The characteristic of fake news is that it spreads very fast as a result, the statements may not be considered, it may be very minimal,” he said.

Dr Phan previously worked at the National University of Singapore for nine years from 2011 before moving to Hong Kong.

Mr Lim argued that contrary to Dr Phan’s affidavit, the academician is not independent witness as he was previously involved in projects which were funded by entities under the Singapore government, such as an S$8.2 million project funded by the Ministry of Education.

Dr Phan rejected Mr Lim’s assertion, stating that he had not meet PM Lee in person, that the funds in the projects were not granted upon the decision of a single person and were instead done by global reviewers. The funds were also not distributed to just a person and in one case of $380,000, was only in kind contribution. And for the $8.2 million grant, he quantified by saying that he ceased to benefit from it after leaving NUS in 2020. When asked how much did he benefited from the grant eventually, it was agreed at a sum above S$100,000.

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 hearing resumes at 2.15 pm.

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