Soh loses defamation suit; to pay Liew $180k

His remarks an attack on ex-teammate's integrity, credibility: District Judge Lee

The District Court has ordered Singapore's top marathoner Soh Rui Yong to pay former teammate Ashley Liew $180,000 for defamation.

The sum includes $120,000 in general damages and $60,000 in aggravated damages.

In her verdict delivered yesterday, District Judge Lee Li Choon also granted Liew's request for an injunction against Soh to prevent him repeating the offending comments, to compel him to remove them and publish an apology on his Facebook and Instagram pages, and retract the statements he made.

The long-running legal dispute between the former national teammates began over two years ago in June 2019, when Liew filed proceedings against Soh over five statements he made about an act of fair play by Liew which Soh disputed. The first statement was made in October 2018.

The statements appeared in the form of two blog posts, two Facebook posts, and one Facebook comment.

In them, Soh had disputed Liew's account of the latter's act of fair play during the 2015 SEA Games marathon.

Liew, a chiropractor, said that after the pack of runners had missed a U-turn and took the wrong path, he had slowed down to allow the others to catch up. He went on to finish eighth, while Soh won the race.

Liew later received two awards for his act of sportsmanship from the Singapore National Olympic Council and the International Fair Play Committee - which awarded him the Pierre de Coubertin World Fair Play Trophy - as well as praise from Cabinet ministers.

District Judge Lee said that she found Soh's statements disputing Liew's account defamatory and "clearly an attack on Liew's integrity and credibility" and would be taken to mean that "he is a person who lacks integrity".

She said Soh's defence of justification meant that the "sting of the charge has to be proven" - that is, that Liew did not slow down and the act of fair play did not occur.

This was not achieved, she added, saying that Soh's evidence lacked credibility and was not inconsistent with Liew's account, because his "witnesses were either not observing Liew or could not have observed Liew's slowing down or act of fair play due to where they were standing".

In a statement after the verdict was issued, Liew said: "My family is so grateful for the vindication received through today's verdict.

"It has been a long and arduous road since October 2018. Moving forward, it is my prayer that we can all heal, for the betterment of sport in Singapore, especially for the values that athletics stand for."

However, Soh struck a defiant tone, posting on Facebook yesterday afternoon: "This marathon is not over. I will be launching an appeal in the High Court of Singapore. Will clear my name, whatever it takes."

The trial started in September 2020 and ended in June. Both parties filed their closing submissions a month later, followed by reply submissions on Aug 31.

Liew had sought a total of $240,000 in general and aggravated damages - in equal amounts - over the five defamatory statements by Soh. The 34-year-old was represented by Mark Teng and Lim Tianjun of That.Legal LLC. Soh, 30, was represented by Eugene Thuraisingam and Chooi Jing Yen of Eugene Thuraisingam LLP.

Over 10 days in court in September last year and in June, each party called on four witnesses.

Liew had Japanese-Cambodian runner Kuniaki Takizaki, a competitor in the 2015 race, two observers, Kelvin Ling and Jennifer Quek, besides himself, on the stand. Similarly, Soh took to the stand and also had his former coach Steven Quek, his father Soh Seow Hong, and friend Madankumar Balakrishnan.

District Judge Lee said Liew's evidence was "more objective and consistent", noting that his witnesses' testimonies were more independent as compared to Soh's as none of them have a personal relationship with Liew.

In their submission, Liew's lawyers accused Soh of "drawing maximum public attention to this case", which they proffered should factor in the damages awarded.

In response, Soh's lawyers called the sum of damages sought "extraordinary" and asked that the case be "wholly dismissed", although in the event that all of the defamatory meanings are made out, a more appropriate quantum for general damages would be $25,000, or $5,000 per statement. Aggravated damages would be only 20 per cent of general damages, they added.

However, District Judge Lee disagreed and said that Soh's repetition of the defamatory comments and his "persistence in pleading justification that is both reckless and unmeritorious" were "most important" in factoring whether or not aggravated damages ought to be awarded.

"I am of the view that Soh's calculated attempts at having his dispute with Liew be conducted as a trial by media have caused even more grievous harm to Liew's reputation," she said.

"On the whole, I am satisfied that Soh's egregious conduct as described above warrants the award of aggravated damages to Liew."

Timeline of Liew v Soh saga

October 2018: Soh Rui Yong alleges on social media that Ashley Liew's version of events at the 2015 SEA Games marathon is "simply not true".

He is reacting to a Facebook post by the International Fair Play Committee (CIFP) - which had awarded Liew the Pierre de Coubertin World Fair Play Trophy - which hailed Liew as a role model.

April 2019: Soh is served a letter by lawyers representing the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) - which had given Liew a special award in 2016 and nominated him for the CIFP award - demanding that he "publicly retract and withdraw" statements he made about the marathon.

A week later, Soh is served with a similar letter by Liew's lawyers demanding an apology.

June 2019: Liew files a defamation claim against Soh, seeking damages and compensation for legal costs.

August 2019: Soh is not selected by the SNOC for the 2019 SEA Games. The SNOC cites "numerous instances" where his conduct fell short of the standards it expects and holds its national athletes to.

He sends legal letters to the SNOC and Singapore Athletics (SA), accusing the former of breaching the "fundamental principles of natural justice" by not convening a hearing or giving him "fair opportunity to defend the allegations". He also accuses SA of defaming him through comments made after his non-selection.

September 2020: On the first day of trial, Liew takes the stand for 21/2 hours. He is followed by his witnesses, who include another competitor in the 2015 SEA Games marathon, Cambodian-Japanese runner Kuniaki Takizaki, via video conference.

Soh also takes the stand and among his witnesses is veteran distance running coach Steven Quek.

November 2020: Soh applies for a recusal of District Judge Lee Li Choon, claiming alleged bias. District Judge Lee dismisses the application in December.

April 2021: Soh's appeal against the dismissal of the recusal application is turned down by the High Court.

A day later, he announces that Eugene Thuraisingam and Chooi Jing Yen of Eugene Thuraisingam LLP - the firm that had represented him at the start of the case - will take over from Clarence Lun of Fervent Chambers LLP, as his lead counsel.

June 2021: The trial draws to a close after 10 days in court. Closing submissions are filed on July 27, with reply submissions filed on Aug 31.

Sept 23: The verdict is issued. Soh is ordered to pay Liew $180,000 for defamation.

The sum includes $120,000 in general damages and $60,000 in aggravated damages.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2021, with the headline 'Soh loses defamation suit; to pay Liew $180k'. Subscribe