Defamation trial: Lawyer Lim Tean lambasts PM Lee for having “no courage” to face siblings in court over allegations, choosing to sue journalist instead

Lawyer Lim Tean earlier this week lambasted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for having “no courage” to face his siblings in court for the public allegations they made against him, choosing instead to sue a journalist for defamation for reproducing their claims in an article.

The article in question, titled “PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members”, was published on 15 August 2019.

The TOC 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 hearing of the closing oral arguments of PM Lee’s defamation suit against TOC chief editor Terry Xu on Monday (15 Feb), Mr Lim told the court that the “electrifying” allegations in a joint statement by the siblings on 14 June 2017 were “unsurprisingly” republished widely across Singapore and beyond.

Mr LHY and Dr LWL’s joint statement and subsequent Facebook posts, said Mr Lim, contained “direct accusations and attacks” against PM Lee, “which went far wider than what was reported in the words complained of” in the defamation suit against Mr Xu.

Yet, Mr Lim argued, PM Lee had opted not to sue his siblings and instead “used his privileged position as a parliamentarian and as Prime Minister to make two ministerial statements, setting out his side of the story in respect of 38 Oxley Road”.

“The fact that he used his position in Parliament to respond demonstrates the public interest in reporting upon the Lee family feud,” said Mr Lim, particularly within the context of PM Lee’s siblings “publicly attacking him” about how he was handling the late Lee Kuan Yew’s “estate, request and legacy”.

Mr Lim subsequently posited that PM Lee’s purpose of suing Mr Xu was not to vindicate his damaged reputation as claimed, but to “chill free speech”.

Citing an earlier defamation case, Mr Lim stressed that PM Lee had similarly pursued legal action against another party instead of the originator of the article.

PM Lee, he said, had “skirted around” the source of the allegations by suing veteran blogger Leong Sze Hian, who merely shared on his own Facebook Timeline a link to an article alleging PM Lee’s role in the 1MDB scandal without any accompanying text.

The article, published by “Malaysian-based social news network” The Coverage, claimed 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.

“He [PM Lee] did not even go after The Coverage article. He did not go after The Coverage media who published the libel or [States Times Review] who was the originator of the article,” said Mr Lim, adding that PM Lee’s lawyers did not even send a letter of demand to Mr Leong.

“And what has happened in our case? His siblings, who have been calling him names and who have been making the most damning allegations against him … He takes no action against them, but he is an expert in mounting what I call surrogate litigation,” he added.

Mr Lim then argued before Justice Audrey Lim if Singapore courts should allow such an approach toward any possible cases of defamation.

PM Lee’s lead counsel Davinder Singh rebutted Mr Lim’s assertion that the prime minister was afraid of the truth being revealed in court, pointing out that PM Lee was willing to be cross-examined at trial.

“He didn’t flinch even after the justification defence was amended. He met every point,” he said.

Mr Singh then questioned why Mr Xu had not called on Mr LHY and Dr LWL to testify in court after saying he would make them third parties in the case.

“Why rely on supposition, conjecture, speculation, when the siblings were available to give evidence? The only inference is that having spoken to Mr Lee Hsien Yang, [Mr Xu] realised that the allegations are false and that if the siblings came to court, that would only nail the lie,” he argued.

Mr Lim replied that Mr Singh’s argument is “cynicism at best” when PM Lee himself refused to sue them out of not wanting to “besmirch” their family’s name.

“What for? So that he [PM Lee] 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.

Mr Singh later 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.

He asked Justice Lim to “unequivocally” state that the allegations against PM Lee are false and that Mr Xu had “conceded” that neither he nor PM Lee’s siblings were able to prove that the claims are true.

“I would ask, Your Honour, if you agree that justification has not been made out, to reflect the court’s outrage of what has happened here both in your reasons and judgment as well as in your award of damages,” said Mr Singh, adding that PM Lee has been “very badly hurt” by the allegations.

In response, Mr Lim subsequently reiterated that in “exhorting” the court to make a finding in favour of PM Lee, the prime minister is demonstrating that he had chosen to sue Mr Xu “to seek a false vindication of his reputation because of the ongoing rivalry between him and his siblings”.

“He is targeting Terry Xu using these proceedings to make a point to Singaporeans, hoping Your Honour will oblige him by saying that the allegations of his siblings have no foundation and no truth, when the appropriate course for him to have taken was to sue them,” said Mr Lim.

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.

PM Lee’s lawyers, in asking for damages for their client, cited two past defamation cases involving prime ministers of Singapore.

In the two cases, the courts had awarded PM Lee and Goh Chok Tong around S$300,000 and S$330,000 on separate occasions against the Singapore Democratic Party and its secretary-general Chee Soon Juan.

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

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