High Court decision to award S$133,000 in damages to PM Lee against veteran blogger a “wrong and deeply flawed judgment”, says lawyer Lim Tean

The High Court’s decision on Wednesday (24 Mar) to award S$133,000 in damages to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his libel suit against veteran blogger Leong Sze Hian is a “wrong and deeply flawed judgment”, Mr Leong’s counsel Lim Tean opined.

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.

Justice Aedit Abdullah on Wednesday found that the defamatory statement in the article shared by Mr Leong was worse compared to allegations made in blogger Roy Ngerng’s case.

The judge, therefore, decided to award S$100,000 in general damages to PM Lee despite the lower reach and S$33,000 for aggravated damages.

Mr Lim said that the judge “does not appear to have taken into consideration what I regard as very critical facts in the case”.

One of such facts, in Mr Lim’s view, is that Mr Leong was only one out of over 9,000 people who had shared the post.

“We know that there were at least over 9,000 people who shared the alleged libellous article, which originated with the States Times Review and was subsequently carried by the Malaysian media known as The Coverage.

“Only one person out of over 9,000 people was served with the IMDA notice,” said Mr Lim, adding that Mr Leong had immediately removed his post after receiving the IMDA notice.

Despite that, PM Lee had initiated a lawsuit against Mr Leong.

PM Lee, Mr Lim stressed, did not serve even a letter of claim on the States Times Review or The Coverage.

“He took absolutely no action against the originators of the alleged libellous article,” he said, noting that this is not the first time PM Lee had engaged in such ‘surrogate litigation’.

“He does not go after the originators of their last libel, but he circles around and picks on one other person who had shared the libelous allege libelous material now,” said Mr Lim.

Mr Lim highlighted that when PM Lee was cross-examined by him as to why he took no action against the States Times Review or The Coverage, he said that both were “out of reach” of the necessary jurisdiction.

“Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia are part of the Commonwealth … We share the same system of law, which originates from the English system of law.

“It is very easy and to get the permission or leave of the court in order to serve a writ overseas on The Coverage (in Malaysia) or even on the States Times Review (in Australia), so there was no problem,” said Mr Lim.

He also drew the example of PM Lee’s civil defamation suit against TOC chief editor Terry Xu over an article published 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.

Libel, Mr Lim stressed, is an action sought by an individual who feels that their reputation had been injured by defamatory statements.

“How can you seek a vindication of your reputation when you choose not to go after the originators of the libel when you can (do so)?” he questioned.

Mr Lim also criticised how Justice Aedit had placed great emphasis on Mr Ngerng’s case as the closest equivalent to Mr Leong’s situation.

“In the Roy Ngerng case, there was no doubt that (Ngerng) was the originator of the material which Lee Hsien Loong had complained about here.

“Here, (Leong) Sze Hian is not the originator of that material. He merely shared on Facebook. He shared something which appeared to him to be interesting. And over 9,000 other people did the same at the same time, at that material time,” Mr Lim stressed.

Drawing parallels to a person picking out an interesting article in a newspaper and sharing it with their friend, Mr Lim said: “Now, that article may be interesting to you, but it may be defamatory, but you did not write that defamatory article.”

“If you pass that newspaper to your friend to read it, are you guilty, or are you liable for libel? Know the law says you are not,” he added.

“So what is the difference between that situation and the situation where (Leong) Sze Hian had shared something which he came across on social media?” Mr Lim said.

PM Lee has sued someone residing out of Singapore for defamation, contrary to claims that he is unable to sue someone out of jurisdiction: Leong Sze Hian

Expanding on Mr Lim’s point about suing a party out of jurisdiction, Mr Leong pointed to the case of a TOC writer based in Malaysia, who was commissioned by Mr Xu to write the article about Mdm Ho.

She was served a writ of summons by PM Lee separately from Mr Xu.

“That lady did not bother to defend the action and allowed judgement in default of appearance (in the Singapore High Court) to be entered against her,” Mr Lim interjected.

PM Lee’s lawyers, he added, have gone to the High Court to ask for damages against her to be assessed.

“Lee Hsien Loong knows how to make a claim against someone residing in a foreign country. Why did he not do so in (Leong) Sze Hian’s case, against the States Times Review or The Coverage?” Mr Lim questioned.

“The judge makes no mention of this,” he added.

Mr Leong later said that while he is relieved that his legal ordeal — which went on for over two years — had come to a halt, he was still disappointed to have become “the first person in the history of the world to be sued for defamation for sharing on Facebook a news report from a news website without any commentary”.

“I hope that this is the last time that any politician will sue ordinary citizens for defamation,” he added.

Mr Lim was asked if the ruling would open a can of worms, seeing how it suggests that anyone could expect to succeed in a defamation suit against a party that has merely shared allegedly libellous material.

He replied: “If this judgement is allowed to stand — and I will be advising (Leong) Sze Hian on the possibility of appealing this judgement — the consequence is that any layperson who shares material on his Facebook or other social media and someone who subsequently feels that the material is defamatory to him or her can sue that person.”

“(Do) you really expect the common person on the street to scrutinise the material to ensure that it is not defamatory? I think that is a tall order. And so, this is a dangerous judgement to allow to stand.”

Mr Lim expressed hope that Singaporeans will support Mr Leong if his client decides to challenge the judgment on appeal.

“Some people have told me that they will help to crowdfund,” said Mr Leong, when asked if he would kickstart a fundraiser to pay off the damages ordered against him.

On top of advice from Mr Lim as his counsel, Mr Leong said that he is seeking to obtain Singaporeans’ views on the matter.

“In a sense, so many people have walked this journey with me, you know. It’s not just my fight … So many people have been supporting me and encouraging me.

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the people — my fellow Singaporeans, other people around the world who have sent me thousands of messages of encouragement and support. Those who greeted me at MRT trains and stations, hawker centres and on the streets, thank you for your support,” said Mr Leong.

Mr Lim later said that Mr Leong has around one month to file an appeal against the High Court decision.

PM Lee’s lead counsel originally asked for S$150,000 in damages; Mr Leong’s counsel sought nominal damages

PM Lee’s lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh last Nov had asked the court for S$150,000 in damages, stating that the allegations made in the offending article are “far more serious” than what was made in blogger Roy Ngerng’s case.

“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,” said Mr Singh.

Mr Leong’s lawyer Lim Tean, however, had 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.

Dr Phan Tuan Quang, an associate professor of Innovation and Information Management at the University of Hong Kong, on 7 Oct last year 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.

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.

The lawyer 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.

Mr Lim later 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 the evidence provided by expert witness put forth by PM Lee was to be taken into account. “And that damage should not with be more than S$1 per person,” Mr Lim stressed.

Background of the Lee Hsien Loong vs Leong Sze Hian case

The defamation suit concerns an article 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.

 

 

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