Defamation trial: Netizens’ comments on TOC article not on offending words but rather on Ho Ching’s Facebook post, argues lawyer Lim Tean

Netizens who commented on the TOC article currently subject to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s defamation suit against chief editor Terry Xu did not talk about the words that offended the PM, but rather on PM Lee’s wife Ho Ching’s original Facebook post, lawyer Lim Tean argued.

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 article also mentioned how Mdm Ho had shared a link on her Facebook page to an article titled “Here’s why sometimes it is okay to cut ties with toxic family members”.

During his cross-examination of PM Lee at the witness stand on the second day of the trial on Tuesday (1 December), Mr Lim asked the prime minister if he has read netizens’ comments in the article, to which PM Lee replied that he has not.

“No, I did not read the comments. They are not relevant,” the prime minister testified.

Mr Lim went on to point out that the comments posted by the public under the comment section of the article and Facebook page did not talk about the offending words.

In fact, the public actually discussed about PM Lee’s wife’s Facebook post, Mr Lim argued.

PM Lee replied: “It’s irrelevant, Your Honour. The offending words stand, everybody has read the article and what they post is another matter, but they have read it and it has been published and disseminated.”

Mr Lim then stated that the people did not take notice of the article’s purported content, as it was a matter that has been heavily discussed in the media and Parliament years ago.

PM Lee responded: “It doesn’t entitle you to repeat the defamation and spread it further”.

Background of PM Lee Hsien Loong’s defamation suit against TOC chief editor Terry Xu

In September last year, PM Lee asked TOC to remove the article as well as a Facebook post linking to it, and publish a full and unconditional apology.

It was said that the article contained alleged defamatory statements made by PM Lee’s siblings 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 is adjourned to Wednesday morning (2 December) at 10 am.

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