PM Lee v Leong Sze Hian defamation suit: Blogger declines to take stand, lawyer says there's no case to answer

PM Lee v Leong Sze Hian defamation suit: Blogger declines to take stand, lawyer says there's no case to answer

Lim Tean, Leong Sze Hian
Lim Tean and Leong Sze Hian at the High Court on Oct 7, 2020. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: Mr Leong Sze Hian did not take the witness stand in the defamation case brought against him by the Prime Minister on Wednesday (Oct 7), with his lawyer saying there was no case to answer and Mr Lee Hsien Loong's lawyer saying Mr Leong has "turned tail" from the fight.

This means there will not be any more hearings for the rest of the week and all parties will file written submissions and return to court on Nov 30 for oral arguments to determine liability.

Mr Leong, a blogger and financial adviser, is being sued by Mr Lee for defamation over a Facebook post Mr Leong made in November 2018, sharing an article by Malaysian website The Coverage.

The article, which was originally published on the States Times Review, contained allegedly libellous material. It claimed that Mr Lee had helped former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak launder money in relation to corruption-mired Malaysian state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

NO CASE TO ANSWER: LIM TEAN

Mr Leong's lawyer, opposition politician Lim Tean, told the court that he did not think it was necessary for Mr Leong to take the stand since there was no case to answer.

Mr Lim said that the Prime Minister, as the plaintiff, bears the burden of proof for most of the issues set out in his opening statement, and most of the matters could be settled via written submissions.

"We are very satisfied that we have sufficient submissions from the plaintiff to meet our pleaded case," said Mr Lim. "The defendant's evidence, therefore, cannot assist."

Leong Sze Hian Oct 7, 2020
Leong Sze Hian arriving at the High Court on Oct 7, 2020. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

He said he would submit that Mr Lee's case is "so frivolous and vexatious and abusive that we are not calling any evidence for the defence".

In response, Mr Lee's lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, said the real reason Mr Leong was not taking the stand was because "he knows that he is unable to defend what he said in his affidavit and is afraid of the truth".

HE HAS CHOSEN TO SILENCE HIMSELF: DAVINDER SINGH

Mr Singh said that Mr Leong "never had any intention" of taking the stand to be cross-examined and was instead giving "contrived" reasons for not doing so.

READ: Leong Sze Hian not the most 'effective critic' of the Government; suing him is not picking on him, says Lee Hsien Loong

Addressing Justice Aedit Abdullah, Mr Singh said: "From the very first, he made the most serious allegations against the plaintiff. Not just those in the offending words but of abuse of process, of having a collateral purpose, of stifling freedom of expression and speech, of wanting to send a message to the population that the Government will not tolerate criticism, on picking on him, and of running a case of malice and aggravation without basis."

He added that the evidence showed Mr Leong saying from the very beginning that he was "going to take on the Prime Minister". Mr Singh pointed to Facebook posts by Mr Leong, where he claimed the court action was "bigger than just the one ordinary Singaporean that I am", but is for "every Singaporean today who has ever shared a post on Facebook" and the "unborn generations to come".

Mr Singh quoted from a public Facebook post by Mr Leong on Dec 26, 2018, which said "together we can show the PM and his advisors that they cannot use defamation suits to silence ordinary Singaporeans".

The lawyer said the irony was that Mr Leong has "chosen to silence himself by not taking the stand".

"He had repeatedly held out that he will stand up and fight, not just for himself, but for his supporters and Singaporeans," said Mr Singh. "In fact, he was associated with a campaign to raise funds for him to fight. And what do we have? We have a situation where the plaintiff has turned up in court and gone into the stand, unafraid of any questions and ready to defend his position, and yet - the person who alleges that (Mr Lee) has abused the process of the court has turned tail and fled."

Leong Sze Hian, Lim Tean and supporters Oct 7, 2020
Leong Sze Hian, Lim Tean and several supporters outside the High Court on Oct 7, 2020. (Photo: Lydia Lam)

He said this is "deeply disappointing" and claimed Mr Leong has not just let himself down, but let his supporters and Singaporeans down, doing the "very opposite" by avoiding the fight after claiming that he would stand up.

Mr Leong was expressionless as the veteran lawyer made these arguments. The Prime Minister was not present in court at the time.

In response, Mr Lim said he could not help but think that what Mr Singh said "was in the nature of a political speech designed for publication in the mainstream media tomorrow to humiliate my client".

READ: Lee Hsien Loong v Leong Sze Hian defamation trial: Lim Tean questions PM Lee on why he chose to sue only Leong

"Your honour, I am a politician, but in this court, I have played out my professional duty as a lawyer and only as a lawyer," he said.

"When I made the call with the consent of the defendant not to call evidence for the defence, it was solely because we came to the conclusion that the plaintiff's case is so frivolous and vexatious as to be laughable and should be laughed out of court.

"And therefore, it's no consideration of whether the defence has the courage to go into the witness stand - which he has an abundance of - but we are not going to help this plaintiff, who has come to this place to pollute the fountain of justice."

OFFENDING POST REACHED 200 TO 400 PEOPLE: EXPERT WITNESS

This development came after a witness took the stand for Mr Lee via a Zoom video call on Wednesday morning and was cross-examined by Mr Lim for a few hours.

The witness, University of Hong Kong's Associate Professor of Innovation and Information Management Phan Tuan Quang, gave his expert opinion that the offending post reached between 200 and 400 Facebook users.

Mr Lim put it to Dr Phan that he could not be an independent witness due to his "bias" towards the Prime Minister, as he had received several grants in the past from the Singapore Government.

Dr Phan disagreed.

Mr Lim also put down Dr Phan's research and expert opinions relied on in Mr Lee's case, by claiming that his analysis was "really guesswork", based on speculation as there was no real evidence of how many people had read the post. The post had been taken down by Mr Leong shortly after authorities told him to do so.

Mr Lim put it to Dr Phan that his efforts in his report were "so lacking in proper material that it is useless". Dr Phan disagreed with all these claims.

At the close of the hearing, Justice Aedit ordered both parties to file written submissions by Nov 6, with a 200-page limit.

Specifically, he asked parties to make arguments on whether the re-publication in this case is the kind that is "actionable" in terms of defamation.

They must also answer to what extent defamation is understood in the traditional context, given the current presence of POFMA (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act) legislation, and what the appropriate balance is between defamation and Article 14 under the Constitution, which refers to the freedom of speech and expression. 

Replies are to be tendered by Nov 20, with parties returning for oral submissions on Nov 30.

If the judge finds Mr Leong liable for defamation, the case will then go into another tranche for assessment of damages. 

Source: CNA/ll(cy)

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