TOC defamation trial: Author says article was referring to PM Lee, other institutions, not S'pore Cabinet

TOC contributor Daniel Augustin De Costa is on trial for writing an e-mail letter that allegedly defamed the Singapore Cabinet.
TOC contributor Daniel Augustin De Costa is on trial for writing an e-mail letter that allegedly defamed the Singapore Cabinet.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - A contributor to sociopolitical website The Online Citizen (TOC), on trial for writing an e-mail letter that allegedly defamed the Singapore Cabinet, said on Tuesday (July 27) that he was referring to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other institutions as being corrupt, rather than the Cabinet.

The letter, which Daniel Augustin De Costa, 38, sent from the e-mail account of a friend in September 2018, stated that there was "corruption at the highest echelons".

TOC, a sociopolitical website, then published the letter on Sept 4, 2018, with the title "The Take Away from Seah Kian Ping's Facebook Post" and attributed it to Willy Sum, a name sometimes used by De Costa's friend Sim Wee Lee.

The article, whose headline had misspelt Mr Seah Kian Peng's name, was a response to comments the MP made on Facebook about a meeting between several Singaporean activists and then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in August 2018.

TOC's chief editor Terry Xu and De Costa were each charged with one count of criminal defamation in December 2018 for defaming members of the Singapore Cabinet in the letter.

De Costa was also charged with an offence under the Computer Misuse Act for using Mr Sim's Yahoo e-mail account to send the letter without permission.

When De Costa's lawyer M. Ravi asked him what he meant by the phrase "corruption at the highest echelons", De Costa referred to the Oxley Road dispute, where PM Lee's siblings had accused the PM of misleading their father over the status of their home in June 2017.

De Costa alleged that PM Lee had "hijacked the organs of state to pursue personal goals" and that there was a lack of transparency, as there was no inquiry into the case.

De Costa also raised the scandals involving Keppel Offshore & Marine (O&M) and the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) as examples to illustrate what he meant by the phrase.

In December 2017, Keppel O&M agreed to pay fines amounting to US$422.2 million (S$574 million) to the US, Brazil and Singapore to settle bribery cases involving Brazilian contacts.

In April 2017, police officers raided the premises of the FAS and various football clubs following a report filed by Sport Singapore over the alleged misuse of funds.

During cross-examination, Deputy Public Prosecutor Mohamed Faizal said none of the three examples De Costa testified on was mentioned in the letter.

"These are belated assertions that you are only making now... They were never considerations in your mind when you wrote the letter in question," he said.

When questioned on the inflammatory material he had sent from Mr Sim's e-mail account, De Costa told the prosecution that he had Mr Sim's permission to do so, as there was a "high level of trust" between them. He added that Mr Sim would provide inputs on the issues he wrote about.

Mr Sim had earlier testified that he had shared the passwords to his Yahoo and Gmail accounts with De Costa some time between 2005 and 2006. He did so, as he needed De Costa's help to compose and send e-mail letters on his behalf to various government officials.

However, Mr Sim said he had been unaware that De Costa was also using his e-mail accounts to send out politically charged e-mails signed off with variations of his name.

The trial will continue next Monday morning with lawyers for the defence examining Terry Xu.