SINGAPORE: For more than three hours on Tuesday (Oct 6), the Prime Minister was repeatedly questioned by lawyer Lim Tean on why he chose to sue only writer and financial adviser Leong Sze Hian.
Mr Lee Hsien Loong, 68, took the witness stand in the opening of the trial in his defamation suit against Mr Leong, two years his junior.
He is accusing Mr Leong of libel by sharing in a public Facebook post in November 2018 an article by Malaysian website The Coverage.
The article alleged that Mr Lee had helped former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak launder money in relation to scandal-hit Malaysian state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Mr Leong is represented by lawyer and opposition politician Lim Tean. Mr Lee's lead lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, spent only a short while examining him on Tuesday morning before Mr Lim took his turn to cross-examine the Prime Minister.
Mr Lim repeatedly questioned Mr Lee on why he chose to sue only Mr Leong and not "thousands" of others who shared the offending article. He also asked whether the Government's myriad actions in debunking the false allegations in the article were enough, and questioned if Mr Lee had to take the step to sue Mr Leong.
Mr Lim said the High Commission of Singapore in Malaysia, as well as Law Minister K Shanmugam, the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) had all come out to debunk the allegations.
IMDA, in particular, sent Mr Leong an email asking him to take down his post, which he did as requested.
On top of this, several news outlets including CNA had carried reports containing the rebuttals of the allegations, said Mr Lim.
He asked Mr Lee if he could accept that "a very large number of Singaporeans" would have read those rebuttals and knew that the allegations were false.
A SERIOUS ALLEGATION: PM LEE
Mr Lee agreed, but said: "Your honour, when an accusation is made against me as Prime Minister, which is a serious allegation in this case ... the Government has to take it very seriously. I have to take it very seriously, as Prime Minister, as head of the Government and also as me, Lee Hsien Loong, who happens to be Prime Minister, but have to protect my own reputation and standing."
When he was shown an article in which Law Minister K Shanmugam said it was for the Government to take action, Mr Lee said: "Your Honour, that Mr Shanmugam says it's the Government's responsibility to take action is not the same as Mr Shanmugam saying it's not for the Prime Minister to take action himself, which is what Mr Lim seems to be implying."
The cross-examination saw multiple objections by Mr Singh, who has represented Mr Lee in other similar suits, and replies by Mr Lim, with Justice Aedit Abdullah stepping in several times to redirect the hearing.
Mr Lim repeatedly asked Mr Lee why he had not sued the States Times Review, which carried the offending article, and its editor Alex Tan, but Mr Singh objected to this, saying it is litigation privilege.
Under this privilege, Mr Lee was not required to detail what he discussed with his lawyer.
When asked why he sued Mr Leong, Mr Lee said: "I saw the people sharing the article, I discussed the matter with my lawyer, and after discussion, I made the decision."
Mr Lim asked the Prime Minister if he had contemplated suing the States Times Review and Mr Alex Tan.
Mr Lee replied that the defamation was "a very grave attack on the Singapore Government's integrity and reputation and on my own integrity and reputation as the Prime Minister of Singapore".
"The Singapore Government took this very seriously and responded in many ways to put out its statement of where the facts stood, to correct the mis-statements, to report the falsehoods and to take action against untrue statements which have been put online," he said.
"... The Government has to take it very seriously because for this Government particularly, integrity and honesty (are) ... key attributes and principles and values that we uphold and which is the basis on which we have the moral right to govern Singapore and to serve Singaporeans, and to attack that is a fundamental attack at the core basis of the Singapore Government's standing, reputation and legitimacy. And that is why we responded comprehensively by all the means we could."
When reminded by the judge to answer Mr Lim's question, Mr Lee said he did also make his own considerations and consulted his counsel, Mr Singh, eventually deciding to proceed in this defamation case against Mr Leong.
Mr Lim also tried asking Mr Lee about whether he was involved in the Government's actions in debunking the false statements, and when prompted by the judge, explained how it is relevant to his defence.
MR LEONG'S DEFENCE
"Our defence is two things. The first thing is that we say the Government had taken sufficient action to debunk these false allegations, and there was no need to bring these proceedings," said Mr Lim.
"Secondly, your honour, the second relevance is that this action is really an attempt to protect the integrity of the Government, the reputation of the Government and not a genuine liable action for the plaintiff to recover his reputation, and that offends against the rule in Derbyshire."
The Derbyshire principle is a common law principle in Britain and other countries that bars a public body from suing a citizen for defamation so as not to discourage free speech.
He accused Mr Lee of "riding two horses", as head of Government and as a private citizen. Mr Lee said he did not accept this.
"As Prime Minister, I am responsible for the Government. ... At the same time, as a private individual, I have the right to protect my own integrity and I feel I have the responsibility to do so, because if my integrity is impugned and people feel I was complicit ... in (the 1MDB corruption episode), I have to protect my reputation," said Mr Lee.
He added that while he had a public responsibility to ensure that the Government responds "vigorously" to "such unfounded allegations", he also had a personal responsibility to protect his own reputation and integrity by taking legal advice and acting on it.
Mr Lim put it to the Prime Minister that since he gave evidence that the Government's actions in debunking the false allegations were effective, there was "no proper justification" for him to bring these proceedings against Mr Leong.
Mr Lee replied that the question is about how one's name is cleared.
"Many people would believe the Government, because the Government has good credibility ... because the Government has always cleared its name with clear statements and individuals who have been impugned have cleared their name through civil actions, that we are able to say these individuals are straight and their reputations have been upheld," said Mr Lee.
"And the reason why you think that Government statements clear my name personally is because I have a reputation for having sued people who have impugned me wrongly. Not rightly. Not frequently. But when necessary. And therefore, when a serious case arises and my reputation is injured, I have to act. Otherwise, the question will arise - he always acts when something serious is alleged and is untrue, and in this case it's very serious. Why is he not acting?"
Under questioning by Mr Lim, Mr Lee also said the offending post came to his attention when it was pointed out to him by someone that he cannot remember now.
When asked why he allowed the perpetrators - the STR and The Coverage - to "go scot-free", Mr Lee replied that "they were beyond our reach".
MR LEONG'S ALLEGED CONDUCT AFTER KNOWING HE WAS BEING SUED
Mr Lim also questioned Mr Lee on why he persisted in this case even though Mr Leong took down the offending post after IMDA asked him to.
Mr Lee replied that Mr Leong was legally required to do so, and said Mr Leong did not apologise, contrary to what was falsely reported by the Sarawak Report, and later took "every opportunity" to publicise the current proceedings.
This included sponsoring a post by the website The Online Citizen on the proceedings, said Mr Lee. Mr Leong also gave interviews in Hong Kong and spoke at the Speaker's Corner in relation to these proceedings, said the Prime Minister.
"So if someone feels he has been unjustly attacked and sued simply by sharing an article, you are saying he is drawing publicity to the statements?" asked Mr Lim.
"I think there is a legal way to do it, and the correct way is to clear his name in court. But while court proceedings are pending, to proceed in this way ... in extreme promotion ... can only lead me to conclude he wasn't sorry," answered Mr Lee.
Mr Lim alleged that Mr Lee's court action contained a "collateral purpose" to silence critics such as Mr Leong.
READ: Lim Tean arrested for alleged criminal breach of trust, under investigation for alleged stalking: Police
The courtroom was packed on Tuesday, subject to safe-distancing guidelines, with tickets to the public gallery running out hours before the hearing began.
The trial continues in the afternoon and is set to run for the rest of the week.
Both Mr Lim and Mr Singh tendered opening statements on their respective cases. Here are the main points:
Mr Singh's case for Mr Lee:
- The offending words allege that Mr Lee was "complicit in criminal activity relating to 1MDB", and that he "corruptly used his position as Prime Minister to help Mr Najib launder 1MDB's billions".
- He seeks damages, an injunction restraining Mr Leong from publishing the allegations or any other such related allegations, costs and any other relief
Mr Lim's case for Mr Leong:
- They are not defending the claim on the basis that the words complained of are true. He does not challenge that the words are false.
- His case is that the plaintiff, with regard to his position and the "state machinery he operates", is wrong as a matter of law and justice to single out Mr Leong and sue him for damages and an injunction for libel.
- The claim against Mr Leong "is an abuse of the process of court" which should never have commenced.