PM Lee's libel suit adjourned after Leong Sze Hian decides not to take the witness stand

Financial adviser Leong Sze Hian leaving the Supreme Court during the lunch break, on Oct 7, 2020. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - The defamation lawsuit brought by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong against financial adviser and blogger Leong Sze Hian has been adjourned until Nov 30, when the court will hear further oral submissions.

Justice Aedit Abdullah on Wednesday (Oct 7) ended what was scheduled to be a four-day hearing at the close of the second day, after Mr Leong's lawyer Lim Tean told the court he had advised his client that it was unnecessary for him to give evidence.

Mr Lim noted that there were nine issues before the court, and said the burden of proof for eight of the issues lay with PM Lee, who is suing Mr Leong for sharing an article from the Malaysian news site The Coverage.

The article had falsely linked PM Lee to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal in Malaysia.

These issues included whether or not the offending words in the post Mr Leong had shared on his Facebook page should be understood to mean that he was suggesting PM Lee was complicit in criminal activity in the 1MDB scandal and helped former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak to launder money.

Said Mr Lim: "The determination of the meaning of an allegedly defamatory post is not a matter upon which any evidence can be adduced, meaning it's a matter for submissions."

He added that PM Lee also had to prove, among other things, whether Mr Leong's Facebook post constituted substantial publication and republication of these words in Singapore, whether Mr Leong was malicious and aggravated the libel through his subsequent actions, and whether the Prime Minister is entitled to the damages he is claiming.

These are also not matters in which Mr Leong's evidence is material and can be dealt with in submissions, Mr Lim said.

They also hinge upon whether liability is established and whether damages are awarded, he added.

The one issue in which the burden of proof lies with Mr Leong is whether or not PM Lee's decision to sue him is an abuse of court process, said Mr Lim.

This too will be dealt with in his submissions, he added.

"Your Honour, it is for these reasons and from the totality of our submissions that (PM Lee's) case is so frivolous and vexatious that we are not calling any evidence for the defence," he said.

PM Lee's lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, then said Mr Lim's reasons were not credible, as nothing he had said was new.

"He and his client have always known that, but for the issue of abuse of process, the burden of proof on the issues lies with the plaintiff. Further, he and the defendant have always known what our case was on each issue and indeed on each point the defendant sought in his affidavit to deal with these points."

Mr Singh noted that Mr Leong's affidavit had said he would present himself for cross-examination.

He added: "Therefore it is my submission that the defendant has never had any intention of taking the stand to be cross-examined and what is today being said as the reasons for him not doing so, are, with the greatest respect, contrived."

Mr Singh also quoted a Facebook post Mr Leong made on Dec 24, 2018, announcing his counter-suit against PM Lee that the Court of Appeal later dismissed in September last year.

"Whilst it may be my name on the case file, this action is bigger than my name, bigger than just the one ordinary Singaporean that I am. It is for every Singaporean today who has ever shared a post on Facebook, for every child who will share a post on Facebook and for the unborn generations to come," Mr Singh quoted Mr Leong as having said.

"I am very sad and disappointed at our PM's actions, but I am equally humbled and heartened that the character of our Singaporean people will prevail, and together we can show the PM and his advisers that they cannot use defamation suits to silence ordinary Singaporeans."

It is ironic that Mr Leong had chosen to silence himself by not taking the witness stand, Mr Singh said.

"We have a situation where the plaintiff has turned up in court and gone into the stand, unafraid of any questions and ready to defend his position. And yet the person who alleges that he has abused the process of the court has turned tail and fled," he added.

"This is deeply disappointing, your Honour. (Mr Leong) has not just let himself down, he has let his supporters down and he's let Singaporeans down because after claiming he would stand up, he has done the very opposite and avoided the fight."

Mr Lim replied: "Your Honour, I cannot help but think that what my learned friend has just said was in the nature of a political speech designed for publication in the mainstream media tomorrow to humiliate my client.

"Your Honour, I am a politician but in this court I have played out my professional duty as a lawyer and only as a lawyer," he added.

"When I made the call with the consent of the defendant not to call evidence for the defence, it was solely because we came to the conclusion that the plaintiff's case is so frivolous and vexatious as to be laughable and should be laughed out of court.

"Therefore there is no consideration about whether the defendant has the courage to get into the stand, which he has an abundance of, but we are not going to help this plaintiff who has come into the place to pollute the fountain of justice."

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