The verdict is out on Leong Sze Hian. On Wednesday (24 Mar), the High Court awarded S$133,000 in damages to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his libel suit against the veteran blogger.
For those unaware, the defamation suit was in relation to 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.
Mr Leong was sued by PM Lee despite neither having penned the article nor having commented on the article that he shared.
In the wake of the High Court decision, TODAY’s published an article titled “Explainer: How sharing an article on social media could run afoul of defamation laws“.
While the article sets out what could get people into trouble and explained what could run counter to Singapore’s defamation laws, it failed to explain a glaring nuance: The damages imposed on Mr Leong may have been based on what was imposed on blogger Roy Ngerng, but Mr Leong is not the author of the content considered to be defamatory himself whereas Mr Ngerng was.
Even so, the damages ordered against Mr Ngerng — S$150,000 in general damages and aggravated damages — were nonetheless still exorbitant in the first place.
Justice Aedit Abdullah reasoned that while Mr Ngerng’s content had a wider reach of over 100,000 viewers, the content shared by Mr Leong, viewed by no more than 100, contained far more serious allegations.
In Mr Leong’s case, he was sued for content he did not create. The originators of the offensive content, on the other hand, have not been sued so far — and this was an issue that was raised by Mr Lim at trial when he prompted PM Lee during cross-examination as to why he did not sue the States Times Review and The Coverage.
Further, Justice Aedit did not explain how the damages are justified, other than stating that the allegations are far worse, without noting that Mr Leong was not the originator of the offending article.
Would it not then be more comprehensive for TODAY to also note the difference between the roles of Mr Ngerng and Mr Leong in their respective cases — i.e. that Mr Ngerng wrote the offending article while Mr Leong did not — especially when it is crucial in tackling the question of proportionality in the court’s assessment of damages?