SINGAPORE: Responding to a claim that he was picking on writer and financial adviser Leong Sze Hian for his role as a "staunch Government critic" by singling him out for defamation, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday (Oct 6) that Mr Leong was not the most vocal nor most effective critic of the Singapore Government.
Mr Lee said this during afternoon proceedings at the High Court following the start of the trial in his defamation suit against Mr Leong in the morning.
"I have explained to you how I have - the Government has, and so have I - dealt with repeated, multiple, prolonged onslaught of criticism from your client," said Mr Lee to Mr Leong's lawyer Lim Tean.
"And indeed your client is far from the most vocal, or sharp, or effective critic of the Singapore Government. There are many who are more effective than him whom we have not sued. Because that's not the answer. The answer is - we will win the political fight," said Mr Lee, referring to the ballot box.
Mr Lim, who is also an opposition politician, accused Mr Lee of picking on Mr Leong among "thousands of others" who shared an allegedly defamatory article. He claimed the Prime Minister sued Mr Leong for malicious libel "not to protect" his reputation "but to frighten others".
"I did not do that," answered Mr Lee.
"The defendant has been a thorn in our side in a small way for a very long time. He has ... criticised many Government matters, Central Provident Fund matters, Government of Singapore Investment Corporation matters regularly on many forums ... as he is entitled to.
"And our answer to that is - in the end, put it to the test. The test of the ballot. Persuade Singaporeans, see if they support you, or the Government. And indeed it was put to the test in the recent General Election: When the defendant and yourself contested in Jalan Besar GRC and won 35 per cent of the vote. So that's the answer.
"A legal case is not the way to answer that question. But when somebody defames you, whether he's a critic or not, I have to think very carefully what that position is and take legal advice ... on what to do. As is what happened in this case."
The Prime Minister is accusing Mr Leong of libel by sharing, in a public Facebook post in November 2018, an article by Malaysian website The Coverage.
READ: Lee Hsien Loong v Leong Sze Hian defamation trial: Lim Tean questions PM Lee on why he chose to sue only Leong
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.
Mr Lim asked why Mr Lee continued to serve his legal letter to Mr Leong on Nov 12, 2018, when the offending post had already been taken down.
"Because removal does not expunge the defamation," said Mr Lee.
"He has not apologised, he has not explained, he has not undertaken not to … (repost) and the lies continue to circulate as a result of this post."
When Mr Lim again pressed that the Prime Minister was suing Mr Leong because of the latter's status as a Government critic, Mr Lee said he had already explained.
"Having borne this cross for so many years, there's no reason for me to sue based on these criticisms," he said.
Mr Lim asked why Mr Lee had not sued Mr Goh Meng Seng or Mr Tan Kin Lian, both Government critics; Mr Lee said this showed that he does not sue someone because they are such critics.
Mr Lim suggested to the Prime Minister that he had "not sued other prominent opposition politicians" but picked Mr Leong because "he's a staunch Government critic", and that Mr Lee was "trying to strike fear in the population".
Mr Lee replied, addressing the judge: "Your honour, he flatters his client."
THE QUESTION OF "COURAGE"
Mr Lim also repeatedly asked why Mr Lee chose to sue Mr Leong, one of several who shared the offending article by Malaysian website The Coverage, instead of the author of the article itself.
He accused Mr Lee of not being "courageous enough" to sue The Coverage, instead taking "the easy route" by suing Mr Leong.
"I took advice and I decided to sue Mr Leong Sze Hian. It's not a matter of courage. It's about how best to vindicate my reputation," said Mr Lee, adding that by doing so, issues would come to light in court.
He repeated a response to the same effect when Mr Lim asked him why he had not sued Alex Tan, the editor of the States Times Review (STR), which carried the original offending article.
When Mr Lee said Mr Tan and The Coverage were not in Singapore's jurisdiction, Mr Lim pointed out that the Prime Minister had sued a Malaysian writer staying in Malaysia writing for alternative website The Online Citizen.
Mr Lee maintained that that offending article was published in Singapore, while The Coverage's article was not.
He had testified in the morning's proceedings that he had made the decision to sue Mr Leong after discussing it with his lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh.
The hearing ended at about 3.30pm, and the Prime Minister was released from the witness stand.
The hearing will resume on Wednesday morning, with an expert witness, University of Hong Kong's Associate Professor of Innovation and Information Management Dr Phan Tuan Quang, expected to take the stand to testify for Mr Lee.
Mr Lim declined to state if Mr Leong would take the stand for the defence thereafter.
At this, Mr Lee's lawyer Davinder Singh interjected to say he hoped Mr Leong would have "the courage to take the stand" as he had indicated in earlier documents.
Mr Lim replied: "My client certainly has no lesser courage than the plaintiff in not suing The Coverage or the STR."