PM Lee seeks damages from The Online Citizen writer for defamation, defendant fails to turn up
SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is seeking unspecified damages for defamation from a writer at The Online Citizen (TOC) over an article that repeated allegations made against him by his siblings.
TOC writer Rubaashini Shunmuganathan, who had been consistently served court papers from December 2019, failed to show up for the brief hearing for assessment of damages on Monday (May 31) over Zoom.
Mr Lee's lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, told the court that a representative visited Ms Rubaashini's address in Selangor, Malaysia. A man claiming to be her brother said she has not lived there since early this year.
Ms Rubaashini did not appear for the lawsuit and she was found liable for defamation on Dec 31, 2019. The defamation was contained in an article she wrote for the TOC website on Aug 15, 2019, titled: "PM Lee's Wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members".
In the article, Ms Rubaashini referred to the post by Madam Ho, Mr Lee's wife. Mdm Ho shared an article titled "Here's Why Sometimes It Is Okay to Cut Ties with Toxic Family Members".
Ms Rubaashini wrote about a "Lee family feud" between Mr Lee and his siblings, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, over the family home at 38 Oxley Road.
In the article, she repeated allegations by Dr Lee that the Prime Minister had "misled" the late Lee Kuan Yew into thinking that the Oxley Road property had been gazetted by the Singapore Government, causing him to change his will to bestow the house to Mr Lee Hsien Loong.
Ms Rubaashini also cited an allegation by the two siblings that the Prime Minister wanted to keep the house "to inherit (Lee Kuan Yew's) credibility".
Mr Lee, who appeared in court briefly via Zoom on Monday, said in his affidavit that Ms Rubaashini did not take any steps to verify whether the allegations were true.
"She wrote the article in a matter of hours, not caring whether the allegations in the offending words were true or false," he said. "These matters show that the defendant was completely reckless and malicious."
READ: I would’ve taken article down if PM Lee didn’t publicise letter of demand, says TOC editor in libel trial
According to court documents, TOC editor Terry Xu contacted Ms Rubaashini on workplace messaging app Slack on Aug 15, 2019, to share the Facebook post by Mdm Ho. Mr Xu has also been sued by Mr Lee over the publication of the offending article.
In his message to Ms Rubaashini, Mr Xu said he "needed some creative writing", and she replied a few hours later with a draft of the article. He replied to her saying "very good! no edits needed" before the article was subsequently published.
Mr Lee said the article contained "sensational allegations" against him that were likely to "attract a great deal of attention and go viral on the Internet and on social networking sites".
"The article was plainly designed to attract the maximum readership among Singaporeans because of its attacks against me and my honesty and integrity," he said.
His lawyers from Davinder Singh Chambers sent a letter to Ms Rubaashini in October 2019 asking her to take steps immediately to remove the article from the website and to publish an apology and undertaking.
Ms Rubaashini ignored the letter, as well as emails, a Facebook message and a LinkedIn message sent to her by Mr Lee's lawyers.
A process server from a Malaysian law firm served the Writ of Summons, the Statement of Claim and other documents on Ms Rubaashini in person on Dec 4, 2019, but she did not appear for the suit.
READ: Singapore in 'very sad state' if I depend on living in Oxley Road house to 'exude magic aura': PM Lee in libel trial
READ: TOC defamation trial: Animosity from siblings evident, but PM Lee hopes that 'matters can be repaired' one day
WHO IS RUBAASHINI SHUNMUGANATHAN?
According to Mr Timothy Lin, a director at Davinder Singh Chambers, he believes that Ms Rubaashini uses a LinkedIn account which states she is a writer and subeditor at TOC.
She continues to write for TOC, the court heard. Her LinkedIn profile page states that she is from Selangor, Malaysia and attended Cardiff University from 2014 to 2015, said Mr Lin.
Mr Lee asked the court to order Ms Rubaashini to pay unspecified damages, including aggravated damages, and costs.
Mr Singh asked for three weeks to prepare submissions on what arguments Ms Rubaashini might make, and what his responses would be, according to his "duty". The judge adjourned the case for the submissions to be prepared, and will rule on how much damages Ms Rubaashini will have to pay at a later date.
Mr Xu, who is also facing a defamation suit from Mr Lee, attended the hearing on Monday morning. Justice Audrey Lim, who is also presiding over Ms Rubaashini's case, reserved her judgment for Mr Xu's case in February this year.