SINGAPORE - The editor of The Online Citizen (TOC) Terry Xu on Wednesday (Dec 2) was accused of having "deliberately dipped his pen in poison" to attack Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in an article on the 38 Oxley Road saga.
PM Lee's lawyer, Mr Davinder Singh, also asked Mr Xu several times whether he was attempting to "stir and generate hatred and contempt" for PM Lee by publishing Facebook posts and an article on the lawsuit after he was served a writ of summons in September last year following his refusal to remove the offending article and apologise.
Mr Xu denied the points put forward during cross-examination on Wednesday (Dec 2), the third day of a week-long trial of a defamation suit against him by PM Lee.
The Prime Minister is suing him over a TOC article published in August last year that referred to remarks by his sister, Dr Lee Wei Ling, alleging that her brother had misled their late father Lee Kuan Yew Lee into believing their Oxley family home had been gazetted by the Government.
Mr Singh, in cross-examining Mr Xu, put it to him that he was setting out to attack PM Lee in the offending article itself, which was titled, "PM Lee's wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members".
"You had dipped your pen in poison and you did so deliberately," said the senior counsel. "It was not, as you claimed, a mere report of the allegations. Isn't it true that what you did was to use Ho Ching's article as a peg to creatively create this false attack?"
Mr Singh further said that having been earlier charged in a separate suit - for alleged defamation of the Cabinet - Mr Xu saw the article shared by Ms Ho, titled "Here's why sometimes it is okay to cut ties with toxic family members", as an opportunity to attack the person who is the head of the Government.
Mr Xu disagreed.
Mr Singh then pointed to the following lines in the TOC article, written by Rubaashini Shunmuganathan: "The irony of Madam Ho sharing the article is what's interesting and amusing to us. This is because everyone knows that she has a sour relationship with her husband's family members - particularly her brother-in-law Lee Hsien Yang (LHY) and sister-in-law Dr Lee Wei Ling (LWL)."
He then asked Mr Xu: "You understand the meaning of irony? In your view if this was ironic, could you tell us what you thought the irony was?"
Mr Xu responded: "The relationship between Ms Ho Ching and her in-laws isn't that good. Yet she was sharing this post to say it is advisable to distance from toxic relatives. The irony is that I feel she is the toxic family member."
"Oh, really?" said Mr Singh.
Justice Audrey Lim then asked: "Where is the irony, sorry? You don't actually mention that Ms Ho Ching is the one who is toxic. Why is she deemed to be the toxic one when the rest of the paragraphs (in the article) don't talk about her?"
Any reader with knowledge of the Lee family feud would comprehend the irony of the matter, Mr Xu replied.
Even though the article was ostensibly about Ms Ho Ching, Mr Xu then "trained (his) guns on the plaintiff," Mr Singh reiterated, to which Mr Xu disagreed.
"So your article was not meant to refer to the plaintiff as a toxic family member," Justice Lim remarked in a bid to seek clarification. "The article was meant to refer to Ms Ho Ching as the toxic member. Although it doesn't suggest who is the toxic family member."
"Yes," said Mr Xu.
Follow-up Facebook posts, article show 'venom'
PM Lee had initially issued a letter of demand on Sept 1 last year, through his press secretary, asking TOC to remove the offending article and associated Facebook post, as well as apologise.
Mr Xu wrote back on Sept 4 saying he would not comply. He defended his article as "fair comment" and that its focus "was on the bigger picture relating to the allegations of abuse of power and the state of the relationship between the late Mr Lee and his son".
He also wrote that it was his "moral obligation to help dissipate the climate of fear that permeates discourse in Singapore".
PM Lee subsequently initiated legal proceedings, with his lawyers serving Mr Xu a writ of summons on Sept 5.
Mr Singh asked why Mr Xu had, on the same day, posted a photo of the writ on Facebook, and included a link to both PM Lee's letter of demand and his own response of non-compliance.
"Why were you continuing to talk about the dispute between the Prime Minister and you in relation to the defamation?" Mr Singh asked.
Mr Xu replied that it was necessary background to explain why he was being sued.
"Many journalists were trying to get my comment," he added. "I made this post to say I would not comment on this suit to prevent escalation of the matter."
"If all you intend to do is say 'I have no comment, don't contact me', there was no need for you to take a swipe at the plaintiff. But you did," said Mr Singh. "This is another example of you being opportunistic and using an occasion apparently designed for one purpose to actually attack the plaintiff."
Mr Xu disagreed, saying he was doing his job reporting the news.
Mr Singh next referred to an article, published on the TOC website on Sept 6, titled "PM Lee serves TOC editor in chief writ of summons, following his refusal to abide demands to take down article and issue apology". It was written by a writer using the pen name "Danisha Hakeem", whom Mr Xu confirmed was acting on his instructions .
The senior counsel asked why Mr Xu would remind his readers about the allegations when he had already told them that there was a writ. "A news publication doesn't repeat what has already been reported… So what was your true intention? Was it not once again to remind those who may have missed the Sep 5 article of what the allegations were?"
Mr Xu disagreed.
Mr Singh then asked what was the purpose of including, at the bottom of the Sept 6 article, references to PM Lee's ongoing libel suit against blogger Leong Sze Hian and his 2014 defamation suit against another blogger, Mr Roy Ngerng.
"It is reasonable background in terms of the plaintiff's history of suing individuals," Mr Xu replied.
Mr Singh countered: "This was another attempt to make the point that this suit against you is in furtherance of the 'climate of fear', as evident from the other suits."
He added: "Mr Xu, under the guise of reporting this suit, you take the opportunity of attacking the plaintiff again."
Mr Xu disagreed.
Mr Singh then referred to a Facebook post on Sept 10, written by Mr Xu and shared by TOC, in which Mr Xu said: "While I will be fighting an up-mountain battle since I do not have near-infinite resources like what the world's highest-paid politician would have, I am willing to take that chance so as to stand my ground against such uncalled-for intimidation, especially when it is from a public servant."
Said Mr Singh: "You lied earlier when you claimed you didn't want to aggravate matters. You were so angry with the plaintiff that you used the media you had to attack him. In fact, you made such a serious attack by saying that a public servant had intimidated you.
"Doesn't that show the amount of venom you had for the plaintiff and how much you wanted to damage him?"
He disagreed multiple times with the senior counsel, but he stood by his description of intimidation by a public servant.
Mr Singh further said: "You wanted to stir and generate hatred and contempt for the plaintiff - putting it on Facebook, which you know invites comments, shares, reactions."
Mr Xu responded: "You said I wanted to stir and generate hatred and contempt - no. Did I want people to know - yes."