Veteran blogger Leong Sze Hian’s crowdfunding success on Easter Sunday has highlighted how libel tactics by the Singapore leaders can be easily weakened by the common people through donations in a crowdfunding campaign.
Mr Leong, a financial advisor and blogger, initiated his crowdfunding effort on 25 Mar after the High Court ordered a sum of S$133,000 to be paid to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for the defamation suit brought against him by PM Lee.
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.
After just 11 days of crowdfunding, Mr Leong said that a “Miracle on Easter Sunday” had been achieved, noting that 2,065 people had contributed to the crowdfunding efforts.
A total of S$133,082 was raised as of Sunday, with the highest donation being S$5,000 and the smallest being S$2.91.
Speaking to Asia Sentinel on Wednesday (7 Apr), he branded PM Lee winning the libel suit as a “pyrrhic victory”.
“Thousands have written to me. It seems that the fear of the people may be turning into anger. I hope that this will be the last time that any politician will sue ordinary citizens for defamation (in Singapore), as they must realize now that it does not pay to continue to do so,” said Mr Leong.
While Mr Leong has managed to raise the damages for the defamation suit, he is still required to pay various costs comprising legal costs and court fees, which could amount to S$50,000 or more.
A Singaporean lawyer based in Hong Kong – who was not identified in the Asia Sentinel report – said that defamation lawsuits by the ruling party are intended to “punish critics” and “cripple them financially”.
“If one disregards the time and effort that the defendant has to spend on his defense, then donations by the public to support the public mean that neither of these objectives is achieved.
“Critics are likely to keep their silence for fear of the financial cost associated with losing these defamation claims. If the financial cost is covered by donations, however, this removes a significant disincentive for offering criticism, and could encourage more people to speak up,” said the lawyer.
PM Lee is also suing Terry Xu, the chief editor of The Online Citizen, pertaining to 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.
Lawyer Lim Tean, who is defending both cases, told Asia Sentinel that he hopes the two libel cases of Mr Leong and Mr Xu will be the “last of the political libel trials our nation will witness”.
“Henceforth, the PAP should know that any attempt to curb free speech using antiquated libel laws will be met with the full resistance of the people, who are not prepared to be steamrolled any longer,” said Mr Lim.
He continued, “They may win the courts but these will be pyrrhic victories. The real winners will be the common man of Singapore who are willing to pay any price to support their champions such as Leong Sze Hian and Terry Xu, as this extraordinary crowdfunding campaign has demonstrated.”
Mr LHY, PM Lee’s younger brother, was among the 2,065 people who had donated to Mr Leong’s crowdfunding campaign.
“I was happy to be one of the many donors who came forward to help Leong to pay off the damages awarded by the court. It is very significant so many Singaporeans came forward to express their support,” said Mr LHY.
Correction: Edit about the phrase used by Mr Leong on pyrrhic victory