SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s lawyers are seeking substantial damages that reflect the “malice” shown by The Online Citizen (TOC) editor Terry Xu, whom they said had not only defamed PM Lee in an article but also cynically used the court proceedings to continue to do damage.
In their closing submissions for the defamation suit against Mr Xu, PM Lee's lawyers noted that damages awarded in previous defamation cases involving government ministers in Singapore ranged from $100,000 to $400,000.
In asking for an unspecified amount of damages, the lawyers from Davinder Singh Chambers cited two previous defamation cases involving prime ministers of Singapore, in which damages of between $300,000 and $330,000 were awarded to PM Lee and his predecessor, Mr Goh Chok Tong, in their 2008 and 2005 suits against the Singapore Democratic Party and its leader, Dr Chee Soon Juan, respectively.
The lawyers argued that the extent of the publication of the libel in Mr Xu's case and his "malice and aggravating conduct" were worse than in those two cases.
The TOC case wrapped up on Monday (Feb 15) after lawyers for both sides presented their closing arguments before Justice Audrey Lim, who will issue her judgment at a later date.
At the heart of the case is a TOC article published on Aug 15, 2019 which repeated allegations against PM Lee originally made by his sister, Dr Lee Wei Ling, in a Facebook post in May that year. PM Lee's brother, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, had also shared the post by Dr Lee.
These included accusations that PM Lee had misled his late father into thinking that his 38 Oxley Road house had been gazetted by the Government, and that it was therefore futile for Mr Lee Kuan Yew to keep his direction to demolish it.
PM Lee's lawyers asked the High Court to award PM Lee the damages, including aggravated damages, legal costs, as well as an injunction restraining Mr Xu from further publishing or disseminating the allegations.
During a week-long trial late last year, Mr Xu's lawyer, Mr Lim Tean of Carson Law Chambers, contended that his client was merely reporting the statements made by Dr Lee, which he said were already widely known to the Singapore public.
Mr Lim has also argued that the allegations by Dr Lee were not the main focus of the article titled "PM Lee's wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members".
Instead, most readers would have understood that it was about Ms Ho sharing an article about toxic family members even while her own family ties were strained, Mr Lim told the court on Monday.
He said: "Not a single comment directed to that article was about the paragraphs complained of or about (PM Lee) misleading his father. People unanimously took the point that this article was about the irony in what his wife did in sharing an article about cutting off toxic family members."
Senior Counsel Davinder Singh countered that it was irrelevant how the readers who left comments online reacted to the article at the time, as the court only had to consider what the offending words mean, whether that meaning is defamatory, and if so, what factors to consider when awarding damages.
He said: "It is not relevant how a limited number of people immediately reacted to that article. It's a question of what effect the article would have on the reputation of the plaintiff."
But while Justice Lim agreed that the comments were not relevant to the question of whether the article was defamatory, she noted that the question of determining the extent of damages was separate.
She said: "The responses you get from members of the public who read these articles - would they be relevant to the issue of damages? Have there been any cases of that? I think this is even more relevant today because of the way publications are done on platforms where people can respond to the publication more easily."
Mr Singh replied that he was not aware of any cases where this was not accepted as a relevant factor, but he maintained that the point was irrelevant and said accepting it would "open the floodgates". The court would, in principle, have to allow both sides to "trot out hundreds of witnesses" to testify about how they interpreted the article, he added.
During the hearing, Mr Lim also argued that PM Lee had taken action against Mr Xu, who has no first-hand knowledge of the events described in Dr Lee's accusations, in order to more easily vindicate himself without actually taking his siblings to court.
"The plaintiff did not want the truth to come out in this court, which is why he never gave disclosure of the most important documents and why he has no courage to sue his siblings. He knows that they have these documents and he has no courage to face them in court."
Mr Singh responded by saying that Mr Xu could have subpoenaed PM Lee's siblings to testify in court, but he discontinued third-party proceedings against them after meeting Mr Lee Hsien Yang for lunch on Nov 4 last year.
"Why rely on supposition, conjecture and speculation, when the siblings were available to give evidence? The only inference is that, having spoken to Mr Lee Hsien Yang, the defendant realised that the allegations are false and that if the siblings came to court, that would only nail the lie."