PM seeks damages from TOC writer in Malaysia for defamation

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is seeking aggravated damages and costs for defamation from a Malaysian contributor to sociopolitical website The Online Citizen (TOC).

Ms Rubaashini Shunmuganathan, the TOC writer whose article alleged that PM Lee had misled his father, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, did not make an appearance during a High Court hearing yesterday to assess the damages and costs. The quantum of damages sought by PM Lee was not specified.

During the virtual hearing held on videoconferencing platform Zoom, the court heard that Ms Rubaashini had repeatedly been served court papers since December 2019, through her personal e-mail address, her TOC e-mail address and in person.

PM Lee's lawyers at Davinder Singh Chambers first attempted to contact Ms Rubaashini on Oct 21, 2019, by sending her a letter asking her to remove the article, apologise and compensate the Prime Minister.

The letter was sent to her personal e-mail address as well as by private message on Facebook and LinkedIn. Ms Rubaashini ignored the letter, PM Lee said in his affidavit.

A process server employed by a Malaysian law firm then served a writ of summons, statement of claim and court order on Ms Rubaashini at her home in Shah Alam city in Selangor, Malaysia, on Dec 4, 2019. Various other documents were also served on her in person last year.

However, after Jan 22 this year, a man who identified himself as Ms Rubaashini's brother told the process server that she no longer lived at the address.

Further documents were served on Ms Rubaashini at her two e-mail addresses and on her brother, and left in the mailbox at her former address.

In his affidavit, PM Lee said Ms Rubaashini did not comply with the demands in his letter to her, nor did she deny or dispute any of his claims.

As she failed to enter an appearance in the suit, PM Lee obtained a judgment in default of appearance against her on Dec 31, 2019.

"I have been advised by my lawyers and verily believe that as a result, the issue of liability has been settled and the defendant is deemed to have admitted all the allegations in the statement of claim," PM Lee said in the affidavit.

He is suing Ms Rubaashini over an article she wrote for TOC in 2019 titled "PM Lee's wife Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members".

He had also sued TOC editor Terry Xu over the same article in a separate case that is pending judgment.

The article, published on Aug 15, 2019, had repeated allegations by PM Lee's siblings, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, that PM Lee had misled their father into believing the family house at 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted by the Government.

PM Lee said in his affidavit that Ms Rubaashini did not take any steps to verify whether the allegations she repeated in her article were true.

"She wrote the article in a matter of hours, not caring whether the allegations in the offending words were true or false," he said, adding that in doing so, she was "completely reckless and malicious".

Court documents show Mr Xu had asked Ms Rubaashini to pen the article on Aug 15, 2019, via the workplace messaging platform Slack.

He sent her a message with a link to Ms Ho Ching's Facebook post, which contained an article about "toxic family members".

The TOC article on Ms Ho's post would need some "creative writing", Mr Xu told Ms Rubaashini. He also instructed her to include a few specific points, including the allegations by PM Lee's siblings.

In less than four hours, she finished writing the piece and sent it back to Mr Xu, who then published it on the TOC website.

PM Lee said the article contained sensational allegations against him that were likely to attract a great deal of attention and go viral online.

"The article was plainly designed to attract the maximum readership among Singaporeans because of its attacks against me and my honesty and integrity," he said in his affidavit.

During the hearing yesterday, PM Lee's lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, asked for three weeks to make submissions on the defence that Ms Rubaashini might have mounted if she had made an appearance, and what his arguments against it would have been.

Justice Audrey Lim adjourned the case and will decide on the amount of damages and costs at a later date.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2021, with the headline PM seeks damages from TOC writer in Malaysia for defamation. Subscribe