SINGAPORE - The editor of The Online Citizen (TOC) said he did not take down an article containing potentially libellous allegations about Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong because it was PM Lee's press secretary who sent him a letter of demand instead of his lawyers.
Mr Terry Xu, who is being sued for defamation by PM Lee, noted on Wednesday (Dec 2) that another factor in his decision not to comply was the letter being released to the media on the same day.
As this sequence of events "deviated from the norm", it led him to believe that PM Lee "would want to escalate the matter" even if he complied with the letter, he said.
Mr Xu added that he would have taken down the article if the letter had come from the Prime Minister's lawyers.
His response to the letter came up on the third day of the hearing, which saw testy exchanges and heated cross-talk between Mr Xu, his lawyer, Mr Lim Tean, and Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, representing PM Lee.
The lawsuit centres around an article published on TOC on Aug 15, 2019, which alleged that PM Lee misled his late father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, into thinking the property had been gazetted.
Mr Singh suggested that Mr Xu had acted maliciously when he responded to a letter of demand from PM Lee's press secretary on Sept 1, 2019, by taking down the article before putting it back up on Sept 4 along with a letter stating his "moral obligation" to "dissipate the climate of fear".
The letter of demand had asked for the article to be taken down, an apology and an undertaking not to repeat the allegations. It stated that should Mr Xu decide not to do so, PM Lee would have no choice but to sue.
But Mr Xu said he did not believe PM Lee would keep to his word.
"(The letter) says if you don't (comply) I'll sue you. It doesn't say if you do, we won't continue with further action," he said.
Mr Singh then asked if it was conceivable that PM Lee would have gone back on his words and sued Mr Xu nonetheless, having made the statement publicly.
To this, Mr Xu said that as the head of government, PM Lee has influence over the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Communications and Information.
"If I undertake the apology and say what I pubbed was defamatory, action may not follow legally but it might follow from other statutory boards or ministries," he added.
Describing this notion as absurd, Mr Singh said: "It would appear that if this is the kind of prime minister you think we have, he would take such action if you apologised to his press sec's letter but would not do so if you apologised to his lawyer's letter? That is how ridiculous that suggestion is. Isn't it?"
Mr Xu disagreed.
He also said he believed PM Lee was trying to intimidate him by sending the letter through his press secretary instead of his lawyers.
Asked by Justice Audrey Lim if this means a person must spend money on a lawyer before Mr Xu would act on a purportedly defamatory article on TOC, Mr Xu said this was not the case.
He added: "The difference is that if it was... a company or individual, I know where the individual is coming from. When you are a person in power using his office to issue, it somehow incites or creates some fresh doubts as to the angle he's approaching this matter."
Describing this line of reasoning as "incredible", Mr Singh said: "The fact of the matter is that far from being intimidated, you grabbed what you saw as the chance to go after him and enhance your standing."
Noting that Mr Lim Tean had not questioned PM Lee on these suggestions when PM Lee was on the stand on Tuesday, Mr Singh said Mr Xu must have "concocted" them yesterday.
"Looking at your reaction after the press secretary letter came, when you made your article available again and published your own letter on Sept 4, you were ready to take him on," added Mr Singh. "So everything you've said about this is a lie."