Demanding TOC chief editor Terry Xu to take down an allegedly defamatory article by sending a letter via the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) instead of making the demand through his lawyers was a way for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to intimidate Mr Xu using his position as head of Government, argued lawyer Lim Tean.
The offending article — titled “PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members” — contained alleged defamatory statements made by PM Lee’s siblings Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling in relation to the 38 Oxley Road dispute.
In his cross-examination of PM Lee on the first day of the defamation suit trial on Monday (30 November), Mr Lim, who represents Mr Xu, questioned PM Lee’s motives for using the PMO to send such a letter instead of instructing his personal lawyers to send Mr Xu a letter of demand.
PM Lee clarified that his intention was to “avoid a lawsuit”, as he thought that Mr Xu would “get the message” — namely to apologise to him and remove the article so that the matter would be closed.
PM Lee also claimed that a “proper letter of demand” came from his lawyer.
However, Mr Lim highlighted no letter of demand was sent by PM Lee’s lawyer to Mr Xu and that the PMO’s letter was followed directly by a writ of summons instead.
PM Lee replied: “Is that correct? If so I stand corrected.”
Mr Lim asked if he was trying to use his status as the Prime Minister to intimidate Mr Xu to remove the article.
PM Lee denied Mr Lim’s assertion and said that it would be “even more intimidating” if his lawyer acts for him.
“I have never done this before. I should say that if I had signed the letter myself, perhaps that would be less intimidating,” he noted.
PM Lee also confirmed that his office has publicised the letter “almost immediately” to the mainstream media after it was sent to Mr Xu.
While presenting the letter sent by PM Lee’s press secretary — dated 1 September 2019 — before the court today, Mr Lim asked the Prime Minister if the letter was drafted by his lawyers.
PM Lee answered: “I cleared the post. I cleared the text.”
Mr Lim repeated the question of whether the letter was drafted by his lawyers, to which PM Lee confirmed that it was.
“So you chose to send out the letter on your Prime Minister’s letterhead instead of your lawyer’s letterhead when actually it had been drafted by your lawyers?” Mr Lim asked.
In response to the question, PM Lee said: “No, but I wanted it to be the lawyers who were working for me and I wanted this to be a missive short of a formal letter from my lawyers.”
Mr Lim asked whether PM Lee would get his lawyers to send a letter of demand pursuing libel claims with a clear message that he is pursuing his claims “as a private individual”, to which PM Lee answered: “Yes”.
He further probed PM Lee: “But here, by using your Prime Minister’s Office letterhead you are telling him, ‘I am coming after you as the Prime Minister of this country’. Do you agree?”
PM Lee, however, disagreed with Mr Lim, arguing that his point was to tell Mr Xu that he has defamed him “as the Prime Minister of Singapore personally” and wanted him “to take notice” of the defamation.
Background of PM Lee Hsien Loong’s defamation suit against TOC chief editor Terry Xu
PM Lee’s defamation suit against Mr Xu pertains to an article published on TOC on 15 August last year titled “PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members”.
The article contained alleged defamatory statements made by PM Lee’s siblings Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling in relation to the 38 Oxley Road dispute.
At the heart of the 38 Oxley Road dispute is the house owned by the Lee siblings’ late father and Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and the elder Lee’s wish to have the house demolished instead of being turned into a museum or government relic.
Mr LHY and Dr LWL are joint executors and trustees of Mr LKY’s estate.
In a joint statement released on 14 June 2017, which was shared on their Facebook pages, PM Lee’s two younger siblings claimed, among multiple other allegations, that PM Lee and his wife Ho Ching had defied Mr LKY’s wish to demolish the house.
They also alleged that PM Lee and Mdm Ho were responsible for instilling and perpetuating the Government’s stance to preserve the house at 38 Oxley Road, including PM Lee’s purported move to demonstrate that Mr LKY had changed his mind on having the house demolished.
Mr LHY and Dr LWL also claimed that PM Lee had engaged in abuse of power as Prime Minister to obtain a copy of the Deed of Gift from then-Minister of National Development Lawrence Wong, which was then passed to his personal lawyer Lucien Wong at the time for his own purpose.
The younger Lee siblings also alleged that Mdm Ho wielded significant influence in the Government despite not being a public official. PM Lee issued a statement the same day to counter the allegations.
Despite that, Mr LHY and Dr LWL continued to make claims against PM Lee in subsequent Facebook posts.
Following that, PM Lee announced in June the same year his plans to deliver a ministerial statement in Parliament the next month to address the allegations made by his siblings.
The prime minister delivered his ministerial statement on 3 July 2017, in which he branded the allegations as baseless.PM Lee also said that he would not be suing Mr LHY and Dr LWL as doing so would further besmirch their parents’ name.
The next day, PM Lee delivered another ministerial statement, in which he said that he would not call for a Select Committee or a Commission of Inquiry to be convened into the 38 Oxley Road dispute and his siblings’ allegations.
Mr LHY and Dr LWL on 4 July — the same day PM Lee made his second ministerial statement on the matter — in a joint statement alleged that PM Lee had improperly misrepresented to LKY that the gazetting of 38 Oxley Road was either “inevitable” or that the house was already gazetted.
Two days later on 6 July, Mr LHY and Dr LWL jointly stated that they would not post any further evidence on the allegations if PM Lee and the Government do not interfere with Mr LKY’s wish — as well as their own — to have the house demolished.
PM Lee responded the same day by saying that he could not concede to his siblings’ demand to withdraw plans to deliver his ministerial statement and to hold the debate in Parliament, as well as disbanding the Ministerial Committee and not responding to their accusations.
Mr LHY and Dr LWL henceforth continued to make posts on matters relating to 38 Oxley Road.
However, PM Lee decided to file a defamation suit against Mr Xu for publishing the article that contained the allegedly defamatory statements made by Mr LHY and Dr LWL in relation to the 38 Oxley Road dispute.
Prior to that, PM Lee’s press secretary Chang Li Lin wrote to Mr Xu, asking the latter to remove the “libellous” article and to publish a “full and unconditional” apology.
PM Lee later began legal proceedings against Mr Xu after the latter had refused the demands made in Ms Chang’s letter.
The trial continues tomorrow on Tuesday (1 December).