Leong Sze Hian using defamation suit to wage public campaign to gain sympathy and support, says PM Lee
SINGAPORE: Blogger Leong Sze Hian, who has been sued by the Prime Minister for defamation over an article shared on Facebook, is allegedly using the suit "to wage a public campaign to gain sympathy and support".
This was a claim made by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his affidavit filed against Mr Leong's counterclaim that PM Lee is "abusing court process" by bringing the original suit against him.
PM Lee wrote in his affidavit dated Feb 11 that Mr Leong's "public campaign" has "cynically drawn attention to the article to keep it fresh in the minds of people in Singapore".
Mr Leong had shared an article on Nov 7 by Malaysian website The Coverage, which 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).
The article, which he had shared without any accompanying caption, was titled Breaking News: Singapore Lee Hsien Loong Becomes 1MDB's Key Investigation Target - Najib Signed Several Unfair Agreements With Hsien Loong In Exchange for Money Laundering.
In his affidavit, PM Lee responded to Mr Leong's claims that PM Lee's suit against him was an abuse of the process of court, as it was not "a real and substantial" one.
Mr Lee wrote: "That article falsely alleged that I had become a key target of the investigations into 1MDB, that Mr Najib had signed several 'unfair agreements' with me, in exchange for assistance by Singapore banks to launder 1MDB's billions, and that I am corrupt.
"That was an attack against me personally as well as against the Singapore Government, of which I am the head," he wrote.
Mr Lee added that the "libel was a very serious one and went to the heart of whether I am fit to be the Prime Minister of Singapore".
Mr Lee also wrote that he did not accept Mr Leong's argument that his Facebook post had a limited audience.
Mr Leong in his affidavit had said that the damages in the case were likely to be significantly less than the legal costs to reach trial, estimating the latter to be "in the region of S$150,000 to S$200,000 on each side".
"To proceed with expensive litigation where publication is so small is, it is respectfully submitted, an abuse of the process of court," Mr Leong claimed.
SUIT IS NOT TO CHILL FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION: PM LEE
The Prime Minister also addressed Mr Leong's accusations that he had brought the suit against the blogger to "chill freedom of expression".
He said: "I also deny the defendant's assertions ... that my claim against (him) should be struck out as an abuse of process because I have brought these proceedings against the defendant for a collateral advantage ... to protect the reputation of the Government or to chill freedom of expression by using the legal process to send a message to the population at large not to criticise me or the Government."
PM Lee said the article contained "very serious and damaging allegations" against himself, the Singapore Government, and the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).
"The Government and MAS have taken action to protect their integrity," he said. "As an individual who has been falsely defamed, I am entitled to vindicate my reputation."
He said he had given Mr Leong "a reasonable opportunity to apologise" but he "refused to do so".
"While anyone, including (Mr Leong), is entitled to criticise me or my policies, no one has the right to falsely defame," wrote Mr Lee.
He pointed out that Mr Leong, as he himself claimed in his defence and counterclaim, is a well-known and prominent government critic who has written many articles criticising government policies.
"In all that time, I did not sue the defendant," wrote Mr Lee. "This time, however, he has falsely defamed me and has impugned my integrity and reputation. He will have every opportunity to defend himself when he takes the stand to be cross-examined. I hope he takes that opportunity and will not go into hiding again."
Justice Aedit Abdullah heard applications by both sides in High Court chambers on Monday (Feb 25).
Mr Lee's lawyers, led by Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, had filed an application in January to strike out a counterclaim by Mr Leong alleging that Mr Lee's claim of defamation was an "abuse of court".
In response, Mr Leong's lawyer Lim Tean filed an application to strike out the original defamation claim, saying it was "scandalous, frivolous or vexatious".
After more than three hours, the parties exited the chambers, with the judge reserving judgment. He will deliver a written judgment at a later date, which was not revealed.
Mr Leong's defence lawyer Lim Tean told Channel NewsAsia that it was "a very good hearing".