Blogger Leong Sze Hian made no attempt to ascertain the truth when sharing article with false allegations: PM Lee Hsien Loong

Lawyer Lim Tean (left) and blogger Leong Sze Hian leaving the supreme court on Oct 6, 2020. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - Mr Leong Sze Hian may not have known that the allegations he shared were false, but he made no attempt to ascertain the truth either way, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, taking the witness stand in the second half of Tuesday's defamation hearing.

Responding to Mr Leong's lawyer, Mr Lim Tean, who had asked why PM Lee accused his client of malice when he did not know the truth, Mr Lee told the High Court: "Because he didn't take the trouble to know. This is reckless disregard of the truth."

PM Lee is suing Mr Leong over a post the blogger shared on his Facebook page on Nov 7, 2018, which contained a link to an article by Malaysian news site The Coverage.

The article contained allegations that former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak had signed "secret deals" with PM Lee in exchange for Singapore banks' help in laundering money from scandal-ridden Malaysian state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB.

The content of the article had been taken from the States Times Review (STR) site, owned by Singaporean Alex Tan Zhi Xiang. who lives in Australia.

The Singapore High Commission in Malaysia, Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and Infocomm and Media Development Authority (IMDA) subsequently put out statements on the case, as did Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.

In court on Tuesday, Mr Lim went on to highlight how Mr Shanmugam had said, when the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) was introduced, that those who spread fake news without knowing the truth have nothing to fear.

As Pofma does not penalise individuals who spread untruths, it cannot be fair that defamation suits can be taken out against people who do the same thing, he said.

Justice Aedit Abdullah responded that these are legal arguments which should have been submitted to him, and not for the witness.

Mr Lim then asked why Mr Lee did not sue other politicians for sharing the article, adding that he had "picked on him" not to protect his reputation, but to frighten others. He suggested that Mr Lee had done so because Mr Leong is a staunch critic of the Government.

PM Lee said he had not sued Mr Leong to frighten others. He acknowledged that Mr Leong was a critic of his government, although "far from the most vocal or sharp or effective".

Mr Lim responded: "You admitted that he has been a thorn in the Government's side. That's why you chose to sue him."

Replied PM Lee: "I've explained that having borne the cross for so many years, there was no reason to sue him on the basis of his criticism. We have learnt to live with all these ant bites."

Lim Tean questions why other critics have not been sued

Mr Lim then pointed out that other critics, such as former presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian and People's Power Party secretary-general Goh Meng Seng, have not been sued.

"He had not sued other opposition politicians, but chose to pick on the defendant because he's a staunch government critic. And you were trying to strike fear in Singaporeans," Mr Lim said.

PM Lee responded: "Your Honour, this flatters his client. I totally deny it."

Mr Lim then accused Mr Lee of taking the "easy route" by suing someone who shared the post, rather than the author and originator. "Were you not courageous enough to sue The Coverage?" he asked.

Replied PM Lee: "I took advice and decided to sue Leong Sze Hian. Not a matter of courage, but how to best vindicate my reputation."

Mr Lim said: "So, you decided that the best way was to sue one of thousands who shared and not the writer."

"Yes," replied PM Lee. "Because when the matter comes to court, the issues will be joined and the truth will be out." He added that he believed that suing Mr Leong was the best course of action after taking legal advice.

Mr Lim argued that Mr Leong's publication of The Coverage article was "technical and limited" because he had merely shared it.

PM Lee responded that sharing is publication: "What more must you do before you are counted as a publication?"

Asked Mr Lim: "Can you tell the court of a single living person who thought the worse of you because of the sharing of this article by the defendant?"

"This is not the way we approach this question," PM Lee replied. "A damaging article is published, circulated. Either I vindicate myself or one more drop of poison sinks in."

Each time he does not clear his name, a little more damage is done and people will begin to wonder if there is some truth to the allegations, the Prime Minister added.

It is a "strange morality", Mr Lim said, that would lead Mr Lee to believe that suing Mr Leong was the best approach, instead of suing Mr Alex Tan and STR.

"Are you saying it's wrong for him to do so?" Justice Aedit asked.

"It is wrong for him to do so," Mr Lim replied, asking PM Lee if it was right for him not to go after the originators of the falsehoods.

"Mr Lim, this is not a court of morality," Justice Aedit said, ordering him to rephrase his question.

The lawyer then asked if Mr Lee would not have obtained better remedies had he sued Mr Tan and STR, to which Mr Lee replied: "That's for me and my legal counsel to decide."

Hearing continues on Wednesday

The second day of the trial on Wednesday (Oct 7) will see Dr Tuan Quang Phan, the expert witness called by PM Lee, giving evidence via video link from Hong Kong.

Mr Lim has not yet decided if his client, Mr Leong, will take the stand.

At the end of the hearing, Mr Singh said: "I hope the defendant has the courage to take the stand tomorrow."

Replied Mr Lim: "My client certainly has no lesser courage than the plaintiff in not suing STR or The Coverage."

He told reporters afterwards that his cross-examination of Mr Lee went "super well" and that he had got what he wanted out of it.

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