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, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.
He was testifying on day one of a week-long hearing on his libel suit against Mr Terry Xu, editor of The Online Citizen (TOC) website.
The 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 referenced a Facebook post made by PM Lee's sister, Dr Lee Wei Ling, in which she claimed he had misled their late father and founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew into thinking 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted by the Government.
The TOC article contained "sensational" allegations that gravely injured PM Lee's character and reputation, his lawyers have said.
In his cross-examination, Mr Xu's lawyer Lim Tean said that since PM Lee 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.
Disagreeing, PM Lee said: "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 am 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 they 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 am wrong, they can go to court, vindicate themselves and demolish me - which is what I believe you are hoping to do in this trial."
He pointed out that Mr Xu had repeated allegations he had previously rebutted, in an article that garnered more than 100,000 views. Those who have not followed the case and its details would believe what was written, he said.
Mr Lim asked: "Your siblings have been making charges against you since 2017… so you are content to let your siblings butcher your reputation?"
PM Lee said he had dealt with their accusations in two ministerial statements in Parliament.
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.
"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."
Mr Lim then asked PM Lee if he had read the Facebook post made by Ms Ho, which was the subject of the TOC article's headline.
Ms Ho had shared a link to an article called "Here's why sometimes it is okay to cut ties with toxic family members".
Replying, PM Lee said he did not. He added it was unnecessary for him to have read the Facebook post by his wife, and that it was irrelevant to the parts of the article that were allegedly defamatory.
"My wife's posting was just a peg for TOC to pick at me," he added.
Mr Lim said he found PM Lee's account that he had not read the post "incredible" and "so amazing, it must be false".
He also argued that given the background and context of the dispute, anyone reading Ms Ho's post would have drawn the inference that it was a commentary on the siblings' Oxley Road feud. PM Lee disagreed.
"There are many articles my wife often reads and shares," he said. "She shares posts about all sorts of things... she has wide interests."
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 post.
"That would be entirely in order had he not defamed me in the process," said PM Lee.
'Exceptional forbearance' in issuing letter via PMO
PM Lee said he was hoping to avoid a lawsuit when he decided to send a letter to Mr Xu through his press secretary instead of his lawyers. He also rejected a suggestion by Mr Lim that he was trying to intimidate Mr Xu into removing an article and Facebook post by using the status of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).
PM Lee said he had exercised "exceptional forbearance" in issuing the letter, as he would have sent a formal letter of demand in any other case.
"I would have demanded damages, apologies, undertakings… but I was hoping to avoid another big flare-up and a regurgitation and rehashing of all the issues which had made Singapore so unhappy in 2017," said PM Lee.
In sending the letter via his office, he thought "perhaps TOC and Mr Xu would get the message and would be prepared, in the national interest, to do the right thing and apologise to me, take down the post and close the matter. Unfortunately, it was not to be".
On Sept 1 last year, PM Lee's press secretary sent Mr Xu a letter asking him to take the article down and issue a "full and unconditional apology".
PM Lee sued for libel after Mr Xu refused to do so.
Mr Lim also noted that PM Lee had publicised the letter by his press secretary to the mainstream media almost immediately after it was sent to Mr Xu, and therefore "did not give (Mr Xu) an opportunity to respond".
This did not preclude Mr Xu from responding, PM Lee replied.
"Mr Terry Xu had published his article, it was gaining many eyeballs. It had 100,000 views, mostly in those two months, August and September. It was important for me to tell the world that it was untrue and I had asked for it to be taken down," said PM Lee.
Mr Lim said: "I suggest to you, Mr Lee, that your actions indicate a man who was out to intimidate."
To this, PM Lee responded: "I don't solve these problems by intimidating people. I solve them by consulting counsel and exercising my legal rights. Intimidation gets you nowhere. If you intimidate somebody without justification and it goes to court, you will get a black eye."