SINGAPORE - A Facebook post on Wednesday (Jan 22) by economist Li Shengwu that he would no longer participate in contempt of court proceedings against him has prompted the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) to say his decision is "a clear acknowledgment that his defence has no merits".
"The reality is that Mr Li is now facing some serious questions in the hearing, and it is obvious that he knows that his conduct will not stand up to scrutiny," the AGC said in a statement on Thursday. "He has therefore contrived excuses for running away."
In 2017, Mr Li - the eldest son of Mr Lee Hsien Yang, who is the younger brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - was served court papers in the United States over a Facebook post he had made earlier that year.
In that July 2017 post, Mr Li wrote that the Singapore Government is "very litigious and has a pliant court system". It was made in relation to an ongoing family feud between PM Lee and his siblings over the fate of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's house at 38 Oxley Road.
In his post on Wednesday, Mr Li, who is an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University, said the AGC's case against him has continued for years. "During that time, the AGC has submitted thousands of pages of legal documents over one paragraph on social media," he said.
He added that the AGC had applied to strike out parts of his affidavit, with the result that they will not be considered at the trial. They also demanded that these parts be sealed in the court record, so the public cannot know what the removed parts contain, they said.
"This is not an isolated incident, but part of a broader pattern of unusual conduct by the AGC," Mr Li wrote.
"For instance, when arguing jurisdiction in the court of appeals, the AGC argued that a new piece of legislation should be retroactively applied against me. The court saw it as unfair for the new legislation to apply retrospectively."
In so ruling, the Court of Appeal had also quashed Mr Li's appeal against a court order that allowed the AGC to serve court papers on him in the US.
"In light of these events, I have decided that I will not continue to participate in the proceedings against me. I will not dignify the AGC's conduct by my participation," he wrote.
He added that he will continue to regard his friends-only Facebook posts as private, and that he has removed his cousin - Li Hongyi, who is PM Lee's son - from his Facebook friends list.
One of the key issues in Mr Li's appeal to quash the court order allowing papers to be served on him outside Singapore, was whether a procedural rule - which specifically allows court papers for contempt to be served outside Singapore - can be applied retrospectively.
The Court of Appeal did not accept the AGC’s argument that the rule could be applied retrospectively. However, it ruled last April that the papers served against Mr Li were still valid.
"Now, more than nine months later, he rehashes the same complaint," AGC said. "His basic objection is that he should not have been served with the cause papers at all. This is in reality a demand that he be treated differently from all others."
It added that striking out applications are provided for in the rules of court and regularly made. In this case, Mr Li had filed an affidavit containing matters that were "scandalous and irrelevant to the issues in the case", it said.
The High Court struck out parts of Mr Li's affidavit on Nov 22 last year, after hearing arguments from both the AGC and his lawyer. At the time, he was ordered to re-file his affidavit and complied. "Now, two months later, he uses this as one of his two excuses," the AGC said.
The AGC noted that when Mr Li originally made his post in July 2017, it had asked if he would apologise and withdraw his statement. It had made it clear that no proceedings would be brought against him if he did so.
“But he refused to withdraw his statement, or apologise,” the AGC said. “Mr Li’s conduct suggests a sense that he is above the law. This is apparent from his consistent complaint that these proceedings should not have been brought against him at all.”
It added that it has brought contempt proceedings on several occasions when similar statements were made against the Singapore Judiciary. These included a statement by British author Alan Shadrake, who had written about “[t]he absence of independence in a compliant judiciary”.
“Given the strikingly similar language used by Mr Li in his post... the AGC took the view that his statement was likewise in contempt,” it said.
It added that the timing of Mr Li's decision to not participate in further proceedings is "significant".
The AGC had applied to cross-examine Mr Li on his affidavit and ask him questions about his post. This would reveal what had happened and Mr Li's intentions when making the original post, it said.
He would also have been asked how many Facebook friends he had when he made the original post, and if they included members of the media.
"This is relevant to the question of whether Mr Li would reasonably have foreseen his post to be published by the media," it said. "Mr Li refused to answer these questions. The clear inference is that his answers would have been damaging to his case."
The AGC added that Mr Li should make himself available for cross-examination and answer questions posed to him on oath if he “has nothing to hide”.
“ If he believes that his statement was not in contempt of the Singapore Judiciary, he should continue to defend the proceedings,” it said.
“The fact that Mr Li has chosen not to, at this point...and has contrived excuses to explain his decision, shows what he really thinks."
Responding to Mr Li Shengwu in a Facebook post on Thursday night, Mr Li Hongyi wrote: “I don’t know whats going on between you and the government, but I’ve got nothing to do with it. Could you please leave me out of this?”
He added that he has “really tried to not be involved as far as possible”.
“If there’s something I’ve done that’s led you to believe otherwise, I would be happy to talk with you about it. It’s a bit disconcerting to be repeatedly publicly accused of undermining democracy without understanding why,” Mr Li Hongyi said.
“I would prefer not to have done this over public facebook posts. But I suppose thats how we communicate nowadays.”
Separately, Mr Li Shengwu responded to the AGC’s statement, which he said contained more allegations against him that are “false and spurious”.
“The AGC demands that I give them the identities of my Facebook friends. My position is this: Who my friends are is none of their business. My friends have a moral right to privacy,” he said, adding that he would not “dignify the AGC’s allegations with a detailed response”.
Reacting to this, the AGC later said: “Tellingly, he has failed to state exactly which parts of the AGC’s statement are supposedly false - because he cannot. The facts are clear and reflected in the court record.
“If he truly believes (as he claims) that any of the points made in the statement are false, or that he is not obliged to disclose whether his Facebook friends included members of the media, he should return to Singapore to defend the proceedings and let the Court decide where the truth lies.”