PM defamation case

Blogger Leong Sze Hian waged campaign to get sympathy and to publicise libel: PM Lee's lawyers

They say he continued to insist allegations in article were true even after taking down post

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arriving at the Supreme Court yesterday. PM Lee is seeking substantial damages and an injunction that Mr Leong Sze Hian be restrained from publishing or disseminating the defamatory allegations by any means.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arriving at the Supreme Court yesterday. PM Lee is seeking substantial damages and an injunction that Mr Leong Sze Hian be restrained from publishing or disseminating the defamatory allegations by any means. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH
Mr Leong at the Supreme Court yesterday. The blogger had insisted that he did not believe the Government’s rebuttals of an article that falsely linked PM Lee to the 1MDB scandal, said PM Lee’s lawyers.
Mr Leong at the Supreme Court yesterday. The blogger had insisted that he did not believe the Government’s rebuttals of an article that falsely linked PM Lee to the 1MDB scandal, said PM Lee’s lawyers. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Blogger Leong Sze Hian had continued to insist an article that falsely linked Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the 1MDB scandal was true, even after he removed a Facebook post about it, PM Lee's lawyers said yesterday.

In fact, Mr Leong had insisted he did not believe the Government's rebuttals of the article, titled "Lee Hsien Loong becomes 1MDB's key investigation target".

The blogger had said there was no way the Government could possibly know if the Malaysian authorities were looking into PM Lee's role in the corruption probe.

Even after various Singapore government agencies and the authorities had discredited the claims, Mr Leong had kept the post up on his Facebook page.

Citing these actions yesterday, Mr Davinder Singh from Davinder Singh Chambers said in his opening statement to the High Court that it was clear that Mr Leong's conduct was "malicious".

Mr Singh cast doubts on Mr Leong's claim that he had never intended to republish the article and had removed it willingly and immediately, adding: "It would therefore appear that he removed the article out of self-preservation, and not out of contrition."

The article by The Coverage, a Malaysian website, had said that PM Lee was "corrupted" and had signed deals with his former Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak that were unfavourable to Malaysia "in exchange for Singapore banks' assistance in money laundering 1MDB's billions".

Mr Leong had shared it on his Facebook page on Nov 7, 2018, with his post shared by at least 18 others and attracting five comments.

Despite being aware of the Singapore Government's rebuttal of the article, Mr Leong had left the post online until Nov 10, 2018, removing it only after he received a notice from the Infocomm Media Development Authority.

Even then, he refused to apologise or undertake not to repeat the claims, and continued to insist it was not fake news, said Mr Singh.

And after being sued by PM Lee for libel, Mr Leong had taken every opportunity to draw attention to the matter on various fora, making public the legal documents on Facebook and speaking about the issue at interviews and public events, the lawyer added.

At one point, Mr Leong even paid for an advertisement to boost a Facebook post linking to The Online Citizen's article about the matter.

Describing this pattern of conduct as being particularly egregious, Mr Singh said Mr Leong had used the suit "to wage a public campaign to gain sympathy and support, and in doing so cynically drawing attention to the post and the article to keep them fresh in the minds of people in Singapore".

What made the libel worse was that "what was used as a launch pad to strike was the single largest and most sensational scandal in recent memory involving what the public in Singapore has come to associate with corruption and criminal activity, and which reportedly brought down the prime minister and government of another country", he added.

He noted that in the months before Mr Leong had shared the article, numerous media outlets had reported about the corrupt and criminal conduct linked to 1MDB.

Falsely accusing PM Lee of being involved had "gravely injured" and "brought into public scandal, odium and contempt" his character and reputation, said Mr Singh.

He also took issue with Mr Leong's use of Facebook to share the article, highlighting that the blogger had set the post to "public".

This ensured that the post would reach even those who are not on his list of 5,000 Facebook friends, said Mr Singh.

He quoted Dr Phan Tuan Quang, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who has taught and researched social media for more than 15 years, in estimating that the post could have appeared on the Facebook news feeds of some 11,749 users.

Dr Phan, who will take the stand today, will also speak about how this would include at the very minimum some 200 to 400 Singaporeans, many of whom could be interested in politics, since Mr Leong had proclaimed himself as a prominent government critic who writes frequently on such issues, added Mr Singh.

Mr Leong had said that he was being persecuted by PM Lee for criticising the Government, and that the defamation suit was an abuse of the legal process to scare off all other government critics.

But Mr Singh said the facts undermine this "fanciful argument", as PM Lee had never once sued him in the past despite him having written many critical articles about government policies.

Noting that Mr Leong had defamed PM Lee this time, Mr Singh said that a libel and slander of a public leader in Singapore damages not only his personal reputation, but also the reputation of Singapore, and compromises his moral authority to lead.

He is seeking substantial damages and an injunction that Mr Leong be restrained from publishing or disseminating the defamatory allegations by any means.

He added: "While anyone, including (Mr Leong), is entitled to criticise (PM Lee) or his policies, no one has the right to falsely defame."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2020, with the headline Blogger Leong Sze Hian waged campaign to get sympathy and to publicise libel: PM Lee's lawyers. Subscribe