SINGAPORE - Not suing his siblings over statements they made regarding their 38 Oxley Road family home did not mean "carte blanche" for anyone else to use what they had said to defame him, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
He was speaking from the witness stand in court on Monday (Nov 30), on day one of a week-long hearing for his defamation suit against Mr Terry Xu, editor of The Online Citizen (TOC) website.
In his testimony, PM Lee also said the public family feud over the fate of the Oxley property is one-sided, and stressed that he and his wife Ho Ching held no animosity against his brother Lee Hsien Yang and sister Lee Wei Ling.
The defamation suit involves a TOC article published in August last year, titled "PM Lee's wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members". The piece references a Facebook post made by Dr Lee, in which she claimed PM Lee had misled their late father, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, into thinking 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted by the Government.
The TOC article, PM Lee's lawyers have said, contains "sensational" allegations that gravely injure his character and reputation.
In his cross-examination of PM Lee, Mr Xu's lawyer Lim Tean said that since the Prime Minister had chosen not to sue his siblings over their allegations, it was "understandable" that the TOC editor thought he could refer to what they had said.
“(It) is not that anybody can say anything about the house,” said PM Lee. “On the allegations made by my siblings, I had decided to take a different approach with them and it did not mean carte blanche for anybody else to use that to spread those allegations and further defame me.
“I’m not obliged to sue everybody in order to sue one person. I talked to my counsel and made the decision whom to sue.”
Mr Lim then asked: "Are you suggesting to Singapore and Singaporeans that the media can never report on what your siblings have accused you of, when it is a matter of intense public interest?"
PM Lee said the media could, subject to defamation laws. Mr Lim asked if this meant reporting on his side of the story only.
“Not at all,” PM Lee responded. “They can report what they think needs to come out and if I sue them for defamation and I’m wrong, they can go to court, vindicate themselves and demolish me – which is what I believe you’re hoping to do in this trial.”
He pointed out that Mr Xu had repeated allegations he had previously rebutted, in an article read by more than 100,000 people, and that those who have not followed the case and its details would believe what was written.
"Your siblings have been making charges against you since 2017… so you are content to let your siblings butcher your reputation?" asked Mr Lim.
PM Lee said he had dealt with their accusations in two ministerial statements, opened himself to questioning in Parliament and invited MPs to put to him any suspicions.
He added that he had also republished his ministerial statements outside Parliament, thereby waiving his parliamentary privilege. This would allow his siblings to sue him over the statements, but they have not done so, he pointed out.
In his ministerial statement to Parliament in 2017 on 38 Oxley Road, PM Lee had said that suing his brother and sister in court would "further besmirch our parents' names", drag out the process for years, and cause more distraction and distress to Singaporeans.
“As far as the public is concerned, my not suing my siblings does not mean I condone (the allegations) or that their statements are necessarily true,” said PM Lee.
“But if others repeat it and I don’t act against others for which my inhibitions against suing siblings do not apply, that would further spread the poison and aggravate the damage.”
Ho Ching's post 'just a peg for TOC to pick at'
PM Lee also said it was unnecessary for him to have read his wife’s Facebook post - the subject of the TOC article’s headline - and that it was irrelevant to the parts of the article that were allegedly defamatory.
Ms Ho had shared a link on Facebook to an article called “Here’s why sometimes it is okay to cut ties with toxic family members”.
Mr Lim asked PM Lee if he had read the post, to which he said he did not.
It was quite clear what TOC’s post was about, PM Lee said, adding: “My wife’s posting was just a peg for TOC to pick at me.”
Mr Lim said he found PM Lee’s account that he had not read the post “incredible” and “so amazing, it must be false”.
The lawyer also argued that Ms Ho’s Facebook post was a commentary on the siblings’ Oxley Road feud – and that given the background of the dispute, anyone reading the post would have drawn such an inference. PM Lee disagreed.
“There are many articles my wife often reads and shares,” he said.
“She shares posts about all sorts of things. Human relations, science, current affairs... she has wide interests.”“I think the animosity is evident on one side, from my siblings... Neither I nor my wife really want this to continue or to hold anything against them.”
PM Lee added that many people would have read Ms Ho’s post without “imputing evil motive”.
Mr Lim suggested that it was only natural and reasonable for a journalist like Mr Xu to want to comment on Ms Ho’s Face book post.
“That would be entirely in order had he not defamed me in the process,” said PM Lee.
Mr Lim later pointed out that Mr Xu was the second person to be sued by PM Lee recently, referring to blogger Leong Sze Hian – whom Mr Lim is also defending in another defamation suit heard on Monday as well.
“I don’t determine the timings when people decide to defame me,” said PM Lee.
Asked if he would describe Mr Xu in the same way he previously called Mr Leong a small thorn in the Government’s side, PM Lee said: “I think he tries his best to become one... That’s what he’s trying to do.”
Urged by Justice Audrey Lim to move on to a relevant line of questioning, Mr Lim asked: “Why do you go after reporters?”
“Disallowed,” said Justice Lim. “A plaintiff is entitled to sue who he wants to sue.”
Family feud: "This too shall pass"
Mr Lim also asked PM Lee if there was a sour relationship between his wife and siblings.
“I think the animosity is evident on one side, from my siblings... Neither I nor my wife really want this to continue or to hold anything against them.”
The feud, he stressed, was on his siblings' part.
“I do not understand what it’s about,” said PM Lee. “I have detached myself from the cause of the feud. I no longer own 38 Oxley Road, I have sold it to my brother. I have recused myself from the Government’s handling of the case completely and I have nothing to do with any decision the Government makes on 38 Oxley Road.
“Therefore there’s really nothing I can do or not do to influence the matter. It vexes them… whether or not to knock the house down.
“We don’t understand this continuing animosity and repeated statements, publicly (through) Facebook posts. I have never done any Facebook post. I have not criticised them publicly other than what I put out in my ministerial statements.
“And I hope against hope that one day, matters may be repaired. But it’s one of those things that happen in life, and this too shall pass.”
Mr Lim then pressed PM Lee on why he did not invite his siblings for a Chinese New Year reunion dinner after their father's death, to which the Prime Minister's lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, objected.
Mr Lim said he was testing PM Lee's credibility. Justice Audrey Lim disallowed the question, saying that while Mr Lim was entitled to test PM Lee’s credibility, his questioning had to be relevant.
Lee Hsien Yang, Lee Wei Ling will not testify in court
In October last year, Mr Xu also applied to bring PM Lee's siblings into the suit as third parties, with the intention of having them bear damages if he was found to have defamed PM Lee.
He said the TOC article merely quoted directly from public comments made by Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang, and that they would know if the allegations were true.
On Monday, Mr Lim said Mr Xu would discontinue any third-party involvement, thus ruling out the possibility of Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee testifying in court.