Defamation trial: TOC’s Terry Xu “tries his best” to become a thorn in Govt side, says PM Lee

TOC chief editor Terry Xu “tries his best” to become a thorn in the Government’s side, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong testified in court on Monday (30 November).

PM Lee was responding to Mr Xu’s lawyer Lim Tean’s question on whether he sees Mr Xu as a thorn in the Government’s side the way he described veteran blogger Leong Sze Hian in a separate defamation trial, who Mr Lim also represents.

While PM Lee’s lawyer Davinder Singh raised an objection on the relevance of Mr Lim’s question today, Justice Audrey Lim allowed the latter’s line of questioning, to which PM Lee responded in the affirmative.

“So your answer is yes, you see him as a small thorn in your side. Is that right?” Mr Lim prompted again.

“I think that is what he is trying to do. But we take it in our stride,” PM Lee reiterated.

Justice Lim interjected at this point, stating that while she will allow Mr Lim some leeway in questioning, she will urge him to “move on” if she does not “see any relevance” to his questions.

Mr Lim then prompted PM Lee on why he pursued legal action against “reporters and critics” — the messengers of the allegations — and not “the direct source of the libel” such as his siblings.

To this end, Justice Lim disallowed Mr Lim’s question.

“Move on. The plaintiff is entitled to choose who he wants to sue in any case, not just in defamation,” she ruled.

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.

The separate defamation suit against Mr Leong, on the other hand, 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 a hearing of Mr Leong’s case on 6 October, Mr Lim asserted 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.

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).

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