SINGAPORE - Financial adviser and blogger Leong Sze Hian has filed a defence and countersuit against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, claiming PM Lee's defamation suit against him is an abuse of the process of the court.
In court papers posted online on Wednesday (Dec 26), Mr Leong's lawyer also argues, among other things, that what he did was no more than what thousands of others had done in sharing the offending article on Facebook. The article said PM Lee had helped to launder money from the embattled 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund.
Another argument made by Mr Leong's lawyer, Mr Lim Tean, was that the article on how Singapore and PM Lee had become investigation targets was "a matter of public interest... whether or not it was correct". Mr Lim, who is with Carson Law Chambers, had recently set up the new opposition party called People's Voice.
PM Lee initiated legal action against Mr Leong last month, after he shared on his Facebook page part of the headline of the article from Malaysian news portal The Coverage, with a link to the full article.
PM Lee's lawyers said the allegations in the article were "false and baseless", and it was clear Mr Leong had published the post "maliciously and to damage our client".
The Coverage article was described as "fake news and clearly libellous" by Singapore's High Commission in Malaysia on Nov 7. Mr Leong posted the article on the same day.
In response to media queries on Wednesday, Ms Chang Li Lin, the Prime Minister's press secretary, said the matter is before the courts and that PM Lee will continue to take legal advice on developments.
Mr Leong denies he was being malicious, according to the court papers posted on his Facebook page. He said he was, among other things, aware of how 1MDB funds had been laundered through Singapore bank accounts, and that the Monetary Authority of Singapore had acknowledged these findings had affected Singapore's reputation as a clean financial hub.
"He therefore saw no reason to disbelieve that statement that the Singapore government was one of the key investigative targets of 1MDB investigators and he considered it was a matter of public interest that this was being reported to be so, whether or not it was correct," said the court papers.
They further said that after he had posted the article, Mr Leong saw that the Singapore Government considered the article "fake news". He also knew Facebook, The Coverage and The States Times Review had all refused to take the article down. But he took down his Facebook post on Nov 10 after being told to do so by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), said the court papers.
Mr Leong's "only involvement in this matter has been to make available the article in The Coverage on his Facebook page without embellishment or comment for less than three days", they added.
The court papers also said: "The Plaintiff has picked upon a prominent government critic who did no more than thousands of others in order to send a wider message to the population not to question the role of the Singapore government in the 1MDB scandal particularly ahead of the trial of Najib Razak, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, and a likely general election in Singapore."
In alleging that PM Lee's lawsuit is an abuse of the court process, Mr Leong's lawyer said in his countersuit: "The predominant purpose of the claim is the use of the legal process to chill freedom of expression in Singapore generally and in particular to restrict reporting on any role the Government may have had in the 1MDB scandal."
Mr Leong is seeking compensation for damage to his reputation through the issuance, continuance and reporting on the legal proceedings, as well as costs, according to the court papers.
PM Lee is seeking aggravated damages as well as costs, plus an injunction that Mr Leong be prevented from publishing or disseminating the said defamatory allegations, or any other allegations of complicity in matters relating to 1MDB by any means.
The offending words in the article, included the title: "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". These are "meant and were understood to mean that the Plaintiff corruptly used his position as Prime Minister to help Mr Najib Razak launder 1MDB's billions", PM Lee's lawyers had said.
As a separate and distinct libel, the offending words in Mr Leong's Facebook post "meant and were understood to mean that the Plaintiff was complicit in criminal activity relating to 1MDB". Together, these words "are false and baseless and were calculated to disparage and impugn the Plaintiff in his office as the Prime Minister", PM Lee's lawyers said.
In seeking aggravated damages, PM Lee would rely on various facts, including the nature and gravity of the libels, the mode, extent and timing of their publication, and PM Lee's position and standing, said lawyers for the Prime Minister.