SINGAPORE: A court on Wednesday (Mar 24) ordered blogger Leong Sze Hian to pay Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong S$133,000 for defaming him in a Facebook post.
Mr Leong had shared an article by Malaysian website The Coverage in a public Facebook post in November 2018. The article, which was posted with no accompanying caption, 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.
Justice Aedit Abdullah found that Mr Leong could not "reasonably claim that the defamatory words did not impugn (Mr Lee's) character". The words suggest that Mr Lee was, "at the very least, involved in serious and dishonest criminal activity".
He found that Mr Leong had "published" the article because it was part of his Facebook post, being hyperlinked to it, and because Mr Leong had made it accessible.
A total of 45 people responded to Mr Leong's Facebook post containing the link to the article, and the privacy settings of the post were set to public, said the judge.
He ruled that the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) does not alter the law of defamation in Singapore, as contested by Mr Leong and his lawyer Lim Tean.
Mr Leong had contended that POFMA has a direct and significant impact on defamation, as an individual should not be able to bypass POFMA and sue in defamation if the former allows for it.
In contrast, Mr Lee and his lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, argued that POFMA is separate from and has not changed the law of defamation in Singapore.
Justice Abdullah found that POFMA is concerned with falsehoods rather than the harm caused to reputation, and meant to avoid or minimise damage to the country and its people, or public confidence in the Government and its agencies endangered by online falsehoods.
"However, the POFMA does not provide individuals with any right or cause of action arising from a false and defamatory allegation against them. This is a key distinction," he said.
The judge rejected Mr Leong's arguments that the lawsuit against him was an abuse of process.
Mr Lee had asked for damages in line with the case of Roy Ngerng, where S$150,000 was awarded. Mr Leong's lawyer asked instead to pay damages as low as S$1.
READ: PM Lee v Leong Sze Hian defamation suit: Blogger declines to take stand, lawyer says there's no case to answer
Justice Abdullah did not find the same extent of "significant malice and aggravation" as in Mr Ngerng's case, but said the defamatory statement in Mr Leong's case is worse: That Mr Lee was involved in the "defalcation of the funds belonging to the citizens of another country, in cooperation with the leader of that country".
"For that reason, I would find that despite the lower reach, an award of S$100,000 in general damages was warranted. However, as for the quantum of aggravated damages, there was a more limited basis to award such damages on the instant facts, and it would thus suffice to award roughly a third of the general damages, or about S$33,000, for a total quantum of S$133,000," he said.
In response to queries from CNA, Mr Lee's press secretary said the matter has been decided by the judge and the Prime Minister has nothing further to add.
Lawyer Lim Tean commented on Facebook about the decision, saying it was "wrong and deeply flawed" and that he was "disappointed" by the outcome.
He said he would discuss with Mr Leong and advise him on his options after the judgment.
CNA has contacted Mr Leong for comment.
WHAT HAPPENED AT TRIAL
During the trial, which spanned a few days in October last year, Mr Leong claimed that the Prime Minister was picking on him for his role as a staunch Government critic by singling him out for defamation.
In response, Mr Lee said on the stand that Mr Leong was not the most vocal nor most effective critic of the Singapore Government. He said Mr Leong had been "a thorn in our side in a small way for a very long time", but said he was entitled to his criticism.
"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 (Mr Lim) contested in Jalan Besar GRC and won 35 per cent of the vote. So that's the answer," said Mr Lee.
READ: Lee Hsien Loong v Leong Sze Hian defamation trial: Lim Tean questions PM Lee on why he chose to sue only Leong
Mr Lim repeatedly questioned Mr Lee about why he chose to sue only Mr Leong even though many others had shared the same offending article.
In response, Mr Lee said that he had to take the accusation against him "very seriously" as Prime Minister and protect his own reputation and standing. His lawyer Mr Singh objected to questions about why Mr Lee had not sued the States Times Review, which carried the offending article or its editor, citing litigation privilege.
Under this privilege, Mr Lee was not required to detail what he discussed with his lawyer, but he told the court that he made the decision to sue Mr Leong after he saw people share the article and following discussions with his lawyer.
When the turn came for Mr Leong to decide whether he would take the witness stand, he declined. His lawyer said there was no case to answer, and this prompted Mr Lee's lawyer to say that the blogger had "turned tail" from the fight.
Mr Lim said at the time that the Prime Minister's case was "so frivolous and vexatious and abusive that we are not calling any evidence for the defence".