Court of Appeal throws out blogger Leong Sze Hian's counterclaim against PM Lee

Mr Leong Sze Hian had filed a defence and countersuit against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last year, arguing that PM Lee's defamation suit against him is an abuse of the process of the court. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Blogger Leong Sze Hian has lost an appeal to make a counterclaim in a libel suit brought against him by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Mr Leong had filed a defence and countersuit against PM Lee last year, arguing that the Prime Minister's defamation suit against him is an abuse of the process of the court.

But the Court of Appeal, comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and Judith Prakash, threw out Mr Leong's suit on Friday afternoon (Sept 27). The apex court also ordered Mr Leong to pay $20,000 in costs.

"I am struggling to get my head around the concept that a party can defame somebody, and the law should recognise as a course of action that the person, having been defamed, when trying to vindicate their reputation, can be sued for doing that," said Chief Justice Menon in dismissing the claim.

PM Lee had initiated legal action against Mr Leong in December, after Mr Leong shared on Facebook part of the headline of an article from Malaysian news portal The Coverage, with a link to the full article.

The article alleged that former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak had signed "secret deals" with PM Lee in exchange for Singapore banks' help in laundering money from 1Malaysia Development Berhad, commonly known as 1MDB. PM Lee's lawyers said the article's allegations were "false and baseless", and it was clear Mr Leong had published the post "maliciously and to damage our client".

Mr Leong had filed an application to strike out the defamation suit and make a counterclaim against PM Lee for an abuse of court process.

But in March, the High Court struck out Mr Leong's counterclaim that the defamation suit is an abuse of court process, saying that the legal basis it was premised on did not exist.

The Court of Appeal had ruled in an earlier case that the abuse of court process is not recognised in Singapore law.

During Friday's hearing, Mr Leong's lawyer, Mr Lim Tean, argued that an exception should be made in Mr Leong's case, since it concerns freedom of speech in Singapore.

But in delivering his judgment, Chief Justice Menon noted that recognising the abuse of court process would "undermine the principle of finality and encourage unnecessary satellite legislation".

Both he and Justice Phang pointed out that doing so could, in fact, have the opposite effect on freedom of speech, as doing so "could deter genuine litigants with a potentially valid claim, for fear of being sued".

Mr Lim also argued that PM Lee had acted with an "improper motive" in suing Mr Leong for defamation, as he had not used the libel proceedings to vindicate his reputation, but to shut down a prominent critic ahead of a general election.

This constitutes an abuse of court processes, Mr Lim said.

"Why should a public official who has abused his public function be given so much leeway to sue?" he added.

Chief Justice Menon pointed out that the courts have historically had the flexibility to manage such circumstances - including that of a person taking legal action for improper purposes - through the costs they award.

Justice Phang added that the law allows for anyone who believes he has been defamed to vindicate his reputation in court, regardless of his station in life.

"Be you ever so high or ever so low, the court is fair and just to everyone. And that is freedom of another kind, and that is justice," he said.

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