SINGAPORE - The High Court has awarded Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong a total of $210,000 in damages for two defamation suits he filed over an article published on The Online Citizen (TOC) website.
He had separately sued TOC chief editor Terry Xu and Ms Rubaashini Shunmuganathan, the Malaysian author of the article that was published on Aug 15, 2019.
The article, titled "PM Lee's wife Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members", had quoted a Facebook post by PM Lee's sister, Dr Lee Wei Ling.
Dr Lee's post said their father, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, had been misled by PM Lee into believing the family house at 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted by the Government, causing him to change his will to bestow the house to PM Lee.
Ms Rubaashini did not enter an appearance to defend the suit against her and judgment in default was granted in favour of PM Lee, who was represented by Senior Counsel Davinder Singh.
In a 64-page judgment released on Wednesday (Sept 1), Justice Audrey Lim said the article was defamatory as it imputed that PM Lee had been dishonest with Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
Mr Xu had sought to justify the allegations in the article, arguing that they were true.
But Justice Lim rejected his defence, saying she was unable to accept Mr Xu's inference that PM Lee had, with an ulterior motive, misled Mr Lee Kuan Yew into believing that the house had been gazetted.
"On the contrary, the evidence shows that (PM Lee) had supported (Mr Lee Kuan Yew's) wishes to demolish the house as he wanted to respect his father's wishes," added the judge.
Justice Lim said: "The evidence also shows that (PM Lee) was at the same time concerned that the family should not profit financially from the redevelopment of the site to avoid the perception that the house was being demolished and the site redeveloped for financial gain."
The judge noted that PM Lee had informed Mr Lee Kuan Yew that it was likely that the Cabinet would wish to preserve the house if the matter came before it.
It was more likely than not that Mr Lee Kuan Yew, after learning of the Cabinet’s and his children’s views on the matter, had bequeathed the house to PM Lee for him to manage any political or public issues pertaining to it, she said.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew had, in an e-mail, informed his children of PM Lee's proposal to include the house within his one-third share of the estate as it was untenable for him as PM to have the government pay him and his siblings the value of the House, and that PM Lee "will carry the burden as PM”.
This e-mail was sent after PM Lee had told his siblings and father that the family should not gain financially from any redevelopment of the house, and that he was prepared to donate any proceeds.
The judge added that it was also known by then that the siblings did not want to be involved in donating the proceeds away. Dr Lee had even suggested that the estate be divided into three and that PM Lee be given the house as part of his one-third share.
These discussions culminated in an e-mail from Mr Lee Kuan Yew to Ms Ho - copied to his children and other daughter-in-law, Mrs Lee Suet Fern - that the house should be willed to PM Lee.
Mr Xu had also argued that the article was not motivated by malice but was merely pointing out that it was ironic for Ms Ho Ching to share a post about cutting ties with toxic family members “given the publicised poor relationship” that she and PM Lee have with his siblings.
This was rejected by Justice Lim. “This cannot be ironic.”
That Ms Ho shared such a post is consistent with the allegation that she and PM Lee have a poor relationship with the siblings, said the judge.
Justice Lim found that PM Lee’s reputation was injured by the falsehoods in the article.
The judge awarded PM Lee $160,000 as general damages and $50,000 as aggravated damages, totalling $210,000.
PM Lee can claim the $160,000 sum from Mr Xu or Ms Rubaashini, but only Mr Xu is liable to pay the aggravated damages of $50,000.
The judge said Mr Xu’s “calculated” conduct to put PM Lee in a bad light for suing him had aggravated the injury to the prime minister.
She said: "I accept that Xu's allegations impugned (PM Lee's) reputation and character by alleging that he was dishonest. This struck at the heart of (PM Lee's) personal integrity and could severely undermine his credibility, not just personally but also as the PM, and call into question his fitness to govern with integrity."
Justice Lim said the quantum of damages in the current case should be higher than those in two recent defamation suits brought by PM Lee.
In one, blogger Roy Ngerng was ordered to pay $100,000 as general damages and $50,000 as aggravated damages over a blog post alleging that PM Lee had misappropriated the Central Provident Fund savings of Singaporeans.
In the other, financial adviser Leong Sze Hian was ordered to pay $100,000 as general damages and $33,000 as aggravated damages for sharing, on his Facebook page, an article that falsely linked PM Lee to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal in Malaysia.
The judge said Mr Xu and TOC had far more readers and followers than Mr Leong. Further, Mr Xu had a higher standing than Mr Ng, who was “an ordinary citizen writing on his personal blog”.
She also granted an injunction restraining Mr Xu from further publishing or disseminating the false and defamatory allegations.
On the award, PM Lee's press secretary, Ms Chang Li Lin, said: "As usual, Prime Minister Lee intends to donate to charity the damages he has been awarded."
Mr Xu’s lawyer Lim Tean said: “Terry has one month to file an appeal if he decides to. We are studying the judgment and a decision will be made by Terry in due course once he has taken legal advice.”
Correction note: An earlier version of this article stated that PM Lee was awarded a total of $370,000 in damages for the two defamation suits. The total damages due to PM Lee is in fact $210,000, as he can claim $160,000 from Mr Terry Xu or Ms Rubaashini Shunmuganathan but not both. Mr Xu also has to pay $50,000 in aggravated damages. We are sorry for the error.