Defamation trial: Who gave LKY the impression that 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted if not PM Lee, Lim Tean argues

If it was not Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who had mentioned gazetting 38 Oxley Road as a heritage site to the late Lee Kuan Yew, leading the latter to believe that the house had been gazetted, then who else could have done so?

This question was raised by TOC chief editor Terry Xu’s lawyer Lim Tean at the hearing of the closing oral arguments in PM Lee’s defamation suit against Mr Xu on Monday (15 Feb).

PM Lee’s lawsuit against Mr Xu pertains to an article published on TOC on 15 August 2019 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.

Mr Lim told the High Court on Monday that it could not have been Mr LHY or Dr LWL who had communicated the gazetting matter to Mr LKY, given their support of demolishing the property should the Lee patriarch continue to wish for the house to be torn down.

“It could not have been Kwa Kim Li, Lee Kuan Yew’s personal lawyer, because she kept telling him, ‘I have made searches and I can’t find the house gazetted‘,” he added.

Ms Kwa, the niece of the late Mr LKY’s wife Kwa Geok Choo, was the lawyer tasked with drafting Mr LKY’s will and had admitted being part of drafting six of the seven wills from 2011 to 2012.

There was no indication or evidence that Mr LKY was of unsound mind at the time he conveyed the issue to Ms Kwa — a fact that was acknowledged by PM Lee himself, said Mr Lim.

“Who could have given him that impression except [PM Lee Hsien Loong], the prime minister?” He asserted.

Mr Lim posited that the reason behind PM Lee’s move to inform Mr LKY that 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted was that — as revealed in court at trial — he and Mdm Ho were planning to move into the house.

PM Lee, he added, had indicated during cross-examination that his colleagues in the Cabinet would have been against the demolition of 38 Oxley Road.

Thus, it would be “incredible” that PM Lee would project the image of being “impotent” in terms of “pushing his father’s agenda” to the Cabinet, given his position as the most politically powerful man in Singapore as Prime Minister, Mr Lim argued.

This is particularly striking in the context that the late Mr LKY only had “one clear direction to his three children”, which was to demolish the house at 38 Oxley Road, he added.

Expanding on his argument about PM Lee’s refusal to sue his own siblings, Mr Lim said that PM Lee had “no courage to sue his siblings” as he was aware that his siblings were in possession of documents he did not want to have disclosed in court.

Similar to suing veteran blogger Leong Sze Hian in a separate defamation case for sharing an allegedly libellous article instead of the originator of the article, Mr Lim said that PM Lee’s decision to sue Mr Xu is a form of “surrogate litigation”.

PM Lee sued Mr Leong over the latter’s sharing of a link to an article 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” on Mr Leong’s personal Facebook Timeline.

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 Lim on Monday also questioned PM Lee’s move to seek aggravated damages for Mr Xu’s article, despite the observation that the majority of the readers’ comments were concentrated on Mdm Ho’s sharing of the article on severing ties with toxic family members instead of focusing on PM Lee.

The aggravated damages sought against Mr Xu, said Mr Lim, is akin to “asking for an oversized bandage when there is no wound” created by the article published by Mr Xu.

“And yet he was willing to have his reputation butchered by a thousand cuts inflicted by his siblings, to which he took no steps to stitch the wound,” he added, referencing PM Lee’s decision not to sue Mr LHY and Dr LWL over their allegations.

While PM Lee’s counsel Davinder Singh accepted that most of the comments were responding to Mdm Ho’s sharing of the said article and not on the words that had allegedly defamed PM Lee, Mr Singh stated that the immediate reaction of readers is irrelevant in seeking such damages.

Instead, the question at hand is about the effect the allegedly defamatory article would have on PM Lee’s standing and reputation as Prime Minister, said Mr Singh.

He also questioned if Mr Lim was arguing that PM Lee ought to have “abdicated his duties and pursued his father’s interests despite his own views” on what the best action would be in the public interest.

When asked by Justice Audrey Lim if there is case law that states whether comments on the article impact the damages sought, Mr Singh said: “Just because you have evidence of comments, it doesn’t change the question of whether those comments are relevant in law to the issue of damages.”

Arguing that he is not aware of any case law that allows such comments to be factored into how damages are awarded by the court, Mr Singh said that if such comments were relevant in law and admissible as evidence, then it would open the floodgates to calling in witnesses who would testify that an offending publication did not “strike a chord” with them.

Mr Singh also argued that the court should take into consideration the “natural indignation of the court at the injury caused to the plaintiff” in deciding on damages to award his client with if so.

Mr Lim later argued that PM Lee had, via the proceedings against Mr Xu, attempted to “seek a false vindication of his reputation because of the ongoing rivalry between him and his siblings” instead of embarking on the “appropriate course” of suing Mr LHY and Dr LWL.

The proceedings, Mr Lim said, are a way of targeting Mr Xu “to make a point to Singaporeans” and a means of hoping that the court “will oblige him by saying that the allegations of his siblings have no foundation no truth”.

Arguing that Mr Xu should have called on the Lee siblings to testify while PM Lee himself refused to sue them out of not wanting to “besmirch” their family’s name, said Mr Lim, is “cynicism at its best”.

“What for? So that he can put it to the siblings in cross-examination, ‘Your evidence is a total lie’? How cynical is that? Would that not be a much further stain on the family’s reputation?” Mr Lim told the court.

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

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.

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.

Justice Audrey Lim reserved her decision at the end of the hearing on Monday. The hearing is adjourned.

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