SINGAPORE - The hearing on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's defamation suit against blogger and financial adviser Leong Sze Hian began on Tuesday (Oct 6) morning with Mr Leong's lawyer Lim Tean arguing that PM Lee had no need to take legal action against his client.
Mr Lim, an opposition politician who heads the Peoples Voice party, told the High Court the Government had already taken sufficient action to debunk the false allegations made against it.
He pointed to statements put out by the Singapore High Commission in Malaysia, Monetary Authority of Singapore and Infocomm and Media Development Authority on the case, as well as remarks made in November 2018 by Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.
All these were widely carried in the mainstream media, said Mr Lim.
He added that the lawsuit against Mr Leong was "really an attempt to protect the integrity of the Government and reputation of the Government, not a genuine libel action for the plaintiff to recover his reputation."
PM Lee had sued 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.
In his opening statement tendered to the court, PM Lee's lawyer Davinder Singh noted that 1MDB had become "a byword for corruption and criminal activity".
The photograph of PM Lee and Najib, which showed "a close and cosy relationship between them", in the context of the allegation that PM Lee had become a key investigation target, would have led the ordinary reader to understand that PM Lee was complicit in criminal activity relating to 1MDB, he said.
Mr Lim began the four-day hearing, presided over by Justice Aedit Abdullah, by going through the various media reports of statements made by the authorities over the case. These media outlets were all "prominent and influential" in Singapore, and the statements would thus have been read by many Singaporeans, he said.
He also pointed out that Mr Tan had challenged PM Lee to sue him in an Australian court, and asked if PM Lee had considered launching a defamation suit against him and STR.
PM Lee: Defamatory statements were a grave attack on Govt and his integrity, reputation
PM Lee - who took the stand - responded that the defamatory statements in the original article, republished by The Coverage, were a "grave attack on the Singapore Government's integrity and reputation, and my own integrity and reputation as Prime Minister of Singapore".
"Integrity and honesty is the key attribute, principle, value that we uphold and the basis on which we have the moral right to govern Singapore and serve Singaporeans," he added. "To attack that is a fundamental attack at the core basis of the Singapore Government's standing, reputation, and legitimacy."
Justice Aedit replied: "I think the question was whether you contemplated action against STR."
PM Lee said: "The Government acted and I also had to consult my counsel, and having done so, we decided to proceed in this defamation case against Leong Sze Hian."
Mr Lim asked why Mr Lee had decided not to take legal action against STR, to which Mr Lee's lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, said that this was privileged information between him and his client.
When Mr Lim pressed the issue, the judge interjected that this was indeed privileged information. "I cannot allow that," Justice Aedit said. "As long as it touches on advice from counsel, it runs up against litigation privilege."
Mr Lim then asked if PM Lee had been involved in the various statements issued by the authorities over the case. Mr Singh responded that how PM Lee was involved, or even if he was involved, was a matter of privilege.
"I find this submission absurd. He comes protecting his client who is supposed to be the most powerful man in Singapore and he's mollycoddling him," Mr Lim replied.
Mr Singh responded that whether or not PM Lee was involved in the discussions takes the matter no further on both points of Mr Lim's defence - that there was no need to sue Mr Leong, as the Government had already taken sufficient action to debunk the false allegations, and that the lawsuit was an attempt to protect the integrity of the Government, rather than a "genuine libel action".
Justice Aedit said he was not persuaded of the relevance of the questions posed by Mr Lim, and would not allow them. The hearing was then paused as the court took a 15-minute break.
After the break, Mr Lim asked PM Lee if he was "riding two horses" by taking action as head of government, as well as a private citizen.
"I don't accept that," Mr Lee replied. "As PM, I am responsible for the operation of government and to make sure it protects its reputation. But at the same time, as a private citizen I have to protect my reputation and integrity and I have a responsibility to do so."
Mr Lim then asked if there was any conflict of interest between Mr Lee's roles as head of government and a private citizen.
No, PM Lee replied, because he and the Government would have to clear their reputations separately.
Mr Lim then asked if any state bodies had obtained information to help in the case, but was chided by Justice Aedit for abuse of process and told that his line of questioning was outside the scope of the current proceedings.
Mr Lim then pointed out that PM Lee had sued Mr Leong on Nov 12, several days after the authorities had issued their statements.
Actions by govt agencies not relevant to decision to sue: PM Lee
PM Lee replied that the letter had been issued after the various government agencies' statements, but his instructions to Mr Singh had been made before that.
"Whether there were statements by the Government were irrelevant to my decision to sue the defendant. Does he take down, apologise and commit not to repeat? He had not at the time I decided to sue," he said.
Mr Lim reiterated his points about the dates of Mr Lee's letter to Mr Leong, adding: "Does it mean the witness and his Government, in his view, had failed in his eyes to persuade Singapore's people through the High Commission, Mr Shanmugam, MAS and IMDA that the accusations were false?"
"Why is this relevant, Mr Lim?" Justice Aedit asked. He added that Mr Lim could make an argument on the defamatory effect of Mr Leong's post, given the various government statements. But PM Lee's perception of failure was irrelevant to the case, he said.
Mr Lim argued that although PM Lee was entitled to sue, he was not justified in doing so because the Government had been effective in debunking allegations.
PM Lee replied that he has a reputation for suing people who have wrongly impugned him. "So I have to act. Otherwise the question will arise: He always acts when something serious (has happened)... Why is he not acting?"
Mr Lim then asked how Mr Lee had come to hear of the offending post, and how often he used Facebook.
"It was public, the matter was hot... Everyone was scanning what was happening. It came to my attention," Mr Lee said.
He added that he is on Facebook "every day... from time to time", and that he had not personally noticed the post. It was pointed out to him, although he could not recall who did so.
"For a matter of such significance on which you chose to sue, you are trying to tell this court you cannot remember who brought it to your attention?" Mr Lim asked, adding that thousands of others had shared the same post.
He asked Mr Lee if anyone had pointed out other posts linking to the same article shared by Mr Leong.
Yes, Mr Lee said.
"So why did you chose to sue the defendant and not others?" Mr Lim asked.
PM Lee replied: "I saw the people sharing the article. I discussed the matter with my lawyer and after discussion this was what I decided."
Mr Lim then highlighted previous court cases in which PM Lee or founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had sued foreign publications for damages, asking Mr Lee to confirm each incident.
"I take it on faith," PM Lee said after several such cases had been listed. "Your Honour, I don't go around telling myself every day how much damages I have collected by everyone who defamed me. Life is too short for that."
Mr Lim then asked if PM Lee recalled any similar lawsuits in recent years, to which Mr Singh interjected: "Your Honour, these are facts. If he has the facts, share them. This is not a memory test."