SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is seeking damages of about S$150,000 for alleged defamation by blogger Leong Sze Hian.
Both sides made closing arguments in person on Monday (Nov 30) in the libel trial brought by Mr Lee against Mr Leong after he 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.
Mr Lee's lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, gave the figure of S$150,000 and compared it to the case of Roy Ngerng, who was sued for a similar sum by the prime minister.
Addressing Justice Aedit Abdullah, Mr Singh said the allegation in Mr Leong's case is "far more serious" than the one made in Mr Ngerng's, as 1MDB is an issue "which is global in nature".
"It's not about just CPF (Central Provident Fund) monies which in itself is also very critical and important, but this is about 1MDB’s billions, which are the subject of investigations at that time in different countries and it had come to be associated with serious criminal conduct, including abuse of power, money laundering and criminal breach of trust," said the lawyer.
He said the allegations placed Mr Lee in a position "which is no different from how Mr Najib was being viewed".
A STUNNING ALLEGATION: DAVINDER SINGH
"One is hard put to think of any other allegation that can be made against the Prime Minister that is more serious," said Mr Singh.
"And when you make that kind of allegation, which is a stunning allegation to associate him with 1MDB and its billions and the abuse of office to corruptly lend help for money laundering, it beggars belief that the damages can be or should be anything but substantial. People must know that there are consequences for such grave falsehoods."
The S$150,000 figure also includes the aspects of alleged malice, aggravation and Mr Leong's "higher standing" than Mr Ngerng, which Mr Singh said was in Mr Leong's own words as Mr Leong had called himself a "prominent and well-known critic".
Mr Singh said the defendant had shared the article without verifying whether there was a basis for the allegations, and pointed to his conduct before the trial and during the trial.
Mr Leong had sponsored a post by the website The Online Citizen on the proceedings, given related interviews in Hong Kong and spoke at Speaker's Corner in relation to the proceedings, Mr Lee previously testified.
"Where a defendant, knowing that he has been sued for something he knows he cannot show is true, then actually turns it around and uses all available avenues available to him to remind people of the very thing that he knows is not true, he is twisting the knife," said Mr Singh.
"And when he twists the knife, it is aggravation. In this case, it's not just reminding people, he then recasts the issue as one of victimisation. And what is the victimisation? It is the use of the court process to vindicate one's reputation for libel which he is not even saying is true."
He said doing so is to cynically use the court process to one's advantage, without sympathy for the plaintiff Mr Lee, "who is merely exercising his legal rights".
Pointing to how the trial was conducted, with allegations made against Mr Lee while he was on the stand and with Mr Leong not taking the stand, Mr Singh said the defendant was in court "for an ulterior collateral purpose" to attack Mr Lee.
READ: PM Lee v Leong Sze Hian defamation suit: Blogger declines to take stand, lawyer says there's no case to answer
LIM TEAN ASKS FOR NOT MORE THAN S$1 PER READER IN DAMAGES
In response, Mr Leong's lawyer Lim Tean reiterated the defence that the entire proceedings "have been totally unnecessary and is an abuse of the process".
He asked for not more than S$1 in damages per person who read the offending post, if the judge rules that Mr Leong is liable for defamation.
Taking the estimate by Mr Lee's expert witness of 200 to 400 readers who saw the post, this would be no more than S$400, said Mr Lim, adding that "a dollar is not out of the question".
He argued that the fact that the post was made on Facebook is "critical", and said it was "a naked post" that his client "in no way endorsed".
Instead, it was akin to telling a friend casually - look, there is this article, it may be an interesting article, you might want to look at it, he said.
Mr Lim argued that hundreds of thousands of people in Singapore alone use Facebook, and most of them are ordinary people who do not know what "defamatory" means.
"Very often, they come across something interesting and they want to share it. Are we saying that each of them is potentially liable to a defamation lawsuit? I think your honour, that is drastic," he said.
READ: Lee Hsien Loong v Leong Sze Hian defamation trial: Lim Tean questions PM Lee on why he chose to sue only Leong
He added that the application of defamation law "must change with the environment", pointing to the introduction of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act laws.
He also argued that Mr Lee had abused court process, pointing to his testimony in court of how Mr Leong had been a thorn in the Government's side in a small way for a very long time.
Mr Lim claimed that the Prime Minister came to court "under the guise of a personal lawsuit (and) sued a Government critic to silence him ahead of the General Election".
He added that the burden was on the plaintiff to prove publication and republication of the defamatory material, which they have not done beyond the 22 reactions and 18 shares of the post.
He said if the judge ruled to award damages, he would ask only for "nominal" and "derisory" damages.
"I would not go so far as to ask the smallest coin in the realm, which is five cents. But a dollar is not out of the question," said Mr Lim.
JUDGMENT MUST REMIND SOCIAL MEDIA USERS NOT TO HURT INNOCENT PEOPLE WITH JUST ONE CLICK: MR SINGH
In reply, Mr Singh said the judgment should remind people that they cannot hurt innocent people with "just one click" just because they are on social media.
"Your honour's judgment should, in my respectful submission, remind people ... that the laws apply to them equally," he said.
"People must know that just as you cannot hurt and damage reputations in the physical world, the law does not allow you to do so just because it's easier - where as I said, with one click you can reach thousands, tens of thousands, using an architecture which is built for the purpose of helping you gain as much coverage as possible, like Facebook.
"My learned friend has suggested that the plaintiff, who has come to court having been called corrupt, has used the full weight of the Government machinery to come down on the defendant," said Mr Singh, adding that this was not only irrelevant but further aggravation.
"It shows how the defence has used the process of this court not just to attack the plaintiff, but politicise the case - while appearing to suggest that that's what the plaintiff has done."
In response to the argument on Mr Leong being a thorn in the Government's side, Mr Singh read out the full response by Mr Lee and said Mr Lim had picked out only one line from it.
READ: Leong Sze Hian not the most 'effective critic' of the Government; suing him is not picking on him, says Lee Hsien Loong
Instead, what Mr Lee said was "the very opposite" of what Mr Lim was claiming.
"What he said is that while he has been a thorn in a small way for a very long time, that is completely irrelevant to who he chose to sue, and for that he had to think carefully what the position and and take legal advice," said Mr Singh.
He said there must be a limit to the use of the court "to make wild allegations".
"We need to understand this. We are in Singapore, where there is an embedded culture. A set of values of political leadership which or where under Singaporeans come to expect that their leaders will sue if allegations are false. And if they don't sue, they have to explain," said the lawyer.
At this, Justice Abdullah said: "That might beg the question - should the courts continue to facilitate that?"
"It's not so much that facilitating of that by the courts," answered Mr Singh. "It's the question of whether .. (did) the plaintiff sue, did he pick on this defendant ... and second, why did he need to do so despite the Government's statements (debunking the allegations)."
He added that the reason was "this reality of an expectation where false allegations will be taken to court" and the plaintiff will open himself to cross-examination.
"To run the case that - oh, you know, there are Government statements and you said they are effective and so your case is therefore an abuse, this is reasoning which doesn't bear scrutiny," said Mr Singh.
"It ignores the reality of the need to have one’s reputation vindicated in a court of law where the forensic process and the third party, an impartial tribunal, will make a ruling."
Justice Abdullah said he would provide his written judgment "as expeditiously as possible", adding that he was aware both sets of lawyers had other proceedings as well.
The hearing came after Mr Lim defended The Online Citizen's editor Terry Xu in the morning, in a separate defamation lawsuit brought by the prime minister.
The alleged libel is for an article published on the sociopolitical website titled “PM Lee’s wife Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members".