Financial advisor and veteran blogger Leong Sze Hian has submitted to the High Court that there is no case to answer against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s defamation claims against him.
On the second day of the trial on Wednesday (7 October), Mr Leong’s lawyer Lim Tean highlighted that out of the nine issues listed in PM Lee’s opening statement, it was stated that Mr Leong bears the burden of proof with regards to only one of the said issues.
The particular issue pertains to whether PM Lee’s decision to bring the proceedings at hand against Mr Leong was an abuse of process, given PM Lee’s position and power as the head of government.
Mr Lim also noted before Justice Aedit Abdullah — the sole judge presiding over the trial — that PM Lee has accepted that there is no direct evidence of republication of the Facebook post shared by Mr Leong.
In Mr Lim’s cross-examination of PM Lee at the witness stand yesterday, PM Lee said that he does not “have screenshots of republishing” when asked by Mr Lim if he has proof — such as screenshots — that Mr Leong’s post which contained the link to the article was republished in Singapore.
Mr Lim also argued during the hearing today that PM Lee had accepted that Mr Leong “had publicised the proceedings but not the words complained of”.
“That came out very clearly in the plaintiff’s evidence yesterday,” said Mr Lim.
The lawyer said that it is his client’s case that he did not aggravate the alleged libel, and that there is no evidence on Mr Lee’s part “to state that he was aware of or upset by this post publication conduct”.
Branding PM Lee’s case “frivolous and vexatious”, Mr Lim added that there is nothing, even prima facie, to show that his client had acted in bad faith in sharing the post.
“I think in any event, the plaintiff still bears the burden of first proving of course the libel,” he said.
PM Lee’s lead counsel Davinder Singh, however, protested Mr Leong’s decision, arguing that his client’s position is “very clear” in that Mr Leong had continued “not just to draw attention to the proceedings, but also to the offending words” after the proceedings had commenced.
An example of such, said Mr Singh, is a post made by Mr Leong where he had “linked that post to photographs of the letter of demand where the words are”.
Mr Singh charged that Mr Leong “never had any intention of taking the stand to be cross-examined”.
Mr Leong, he said, “made the most serious allegations against the plaintiff” beyond “those in the offending words”, he said.
The lawyer said that such allegations entail accusing PM Lee of alleged abuse of process and attempting to thwart freedom of expression and speech by sending “a message to the population that the Government will not tolerate criticism”.
“He [Mr Leong] even took issue as to whether there was substantial publication and republication,” said Mr Singh.
Referencing a post by Mr Leong in which it was said that the legal battle against PM Lee’s lawsuit is not only for himself but also for Singaporeans, Mr Singh said that Mr Leong’s decision not to testify is “deeply disappointing”, as he had “let his supporters down and he has let Singaporeans down”.
“We have a situation where the plaintiff has turned up in court and gone into the stand, unafraid of any questions and ready to defend his position. And yet the person who alleges that he has abused the process of the court has turned tail and fled,” he said.
Mr Lim, however, retorted that Mr Singh’s remarks were “in the nature of a political speech” intended “to humiliate my client”.
“Your Honour, I am a politician, but in this court, I have played out my professional duty as a lawyer and only as a lawyer,” said Mr Lim.
He posited that his decision not to call evidence for the defence was based on the conclusion that PM Lee’s case “is so frivolous and vexatious as to be laughable, and should be laughed out of court”.
Thus, it is not a question of whether Mr Leong is brave enough to testify in court, said Mr Lim.
“We are not going to help this plaintiff who has come to this place to pollute the fountain of justice,” he concluded.
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 has been adjourned to 2.30pm on 30 November.