Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is seeking S$150,000 in damages from veteran blogger Leong Sze Hian for sharing via Facebook an article by a Malaysian website which alleged the PM’s involvement in the 1MDB scandal.
PM Lee’s lawyer Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, in arguing for the above sum, told the court on Monday (30 November) that in comparison to the damages sought in another blogger Roy Ngerng’s case, the damages sought in Mr Leong’s case should be higher “as the allegation here is far more serious”, given 1MDB’s “global nature”.
“It is not about just CPF monies which in itself is also very critical and important, but this is about 1MDB’s billions which are the subject — which at that time was the subject of investigations in different countries and if it had come to be associated it is not disputed with serious criminal conduct including abuse of power, money laundering and breach of trust,” Mr Singh submitted.
He added: “While I have to show substantial publication and republication within Singapore, it is relevant that Singaporeans are being told that their prime minister of a government which prides itself on being clean is actually part of a conspiracy in relation to a global scam.”
Mr Singh stressed that while neither he nor his client is passing any comment or judgement on Malaysia’s former premier Najib Razak — the central actor in the 1MDB scandal — it is important to consider public perception in Singapore of the scandal.
“It is to put the plaintiff in a position which is no different from one or how Mr Najib was being viewed because here the plaintiff is said to be an accomplice to what Mr Najib had done. Used his position as prime minister to help Najib launder 1MDB’s billions.
“And it is news that to a Singapore reader would suggest that our prime minister is no better than the other that he is being associated with, your Honour,” Mr Singh argued.
Compared to Mr Ngerng’s case, Mr Singh added, Mr Leong has stated that he has “many friends and followers, that he comments on many matters affecting Singapore”.
Thus, he said, the court should consider that Mr Leong had shared the offending post on Facebook “knowing that he has a wide-spread following, people who would have regard to what he says”.
“Now, one doesn’t become a prominent and well-known critic unless he has a following of users, friends and followers who accept what he says or closely follow and have regard to what he says and does,” said Mr Singh.
Mr Leong’s lawyer Lim Tean earlier argued before Justice Aedit Abdullah that if the court was to find Mr Leong liable of defamation and must award damages to PM Lee, the court should then award “derisory” damages.
“I would not go so far as to ask you to award the smallest coin in the realm which is 5 cents, but a dollar is not out of the question,” said Mr Lim.
Mr Lim in the hearing on Monday argued that the “derisory” damages that ought to be awarded to PM Lee — if awarded — could entail “not more than” S$200 to S$400 “even if we take Dr Phan’s evidence”.
Dr Phan, an associate professor of Innovation and Information Management at the University of Hong Kong, on 7 October testified via Zoom as PM Lee’s expert witness 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 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.
When prompted by Justice Aedit as to whether he could expand on the above, Mr Lim said that while he and Mr Leong dispute Dr Phan’s evidence, they posit that even if the court “accepts that really there has been no damage to plaintiff’s the reputation, we ask your Honour to award nominal damages”.
“And that damage should not with be more than S$1 per person,” Mr Lim stressed.
Mr Lim, in closing, argued that Mr Singh’s oral arguments “was based on libellous meanings which are the plaintiff’s pleaded meanings”.
“We certainly do not accept that. I know your Honour is well aware of our position, but I thought I should raise this again because he went into very emotional arguments based on what he deemed to be the libellous meaning of the article, and that is something we do not accept at all,” said Mr Lim.
Background of the Lee Hsien Loong vs Leong Sze Hian 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.