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Soh Rui Yong grilled on stand in defamation suit against Singapore Athletic Association's ex-director

Soh Rui Yong grilled on stand in defamation suit against Singapore Athletic Association's ex-director

Soh Rui Yong crossing the finish line at the 28th SEA Games marathon event. (Photo: TODAY/Ernest Chua)

SINGAPORE: Athlete Soh Rui Yong spent hours grilled on the stand on Wednesday (Jan 12) in his own suit against a former Singapore Athletic Association (SAA) executive director for defamation.

Lawyer Mahmood Gaznavi, who is representing Syed Abdul Malik Syed Hussain Aljunied, repeatedly called Mr Soh "unreasonable" while cross-examining the long-distance runner.

He told Mr Soh that he seemed to be taking a position that his perception of facts cannot be challenged by anyone and that he was the only one who could establish the truth.

The judge overseeing the civil trial at one point told Mr Gaznavi that he was "engaging in an argument" with Mr Soh that "serves no purpose".

Wednesday was the second day into Mr Soh's lawsuit against Mr Syed Abdul Malik, who was the SAA executive director from Jul 1, 2019 to Nov 4, 2020. He is currently the acting chief executive officer of the Singapore Taekwondo Federation.

THE ALLEGED DEFAMATION

Mr Soh, a professional marathoner and two-time SEA Games gold medallist, is suing Mr Syed Abdul Malik over words he allegedly posted on his personal Facebook page in August 2019.

In his comments, which did not name Mr Soh directly, Mr Syed Abdul Malik referred to "one particular runner", saying that "marathon" messed up his "sense of logic and reason beyond repair".

In response to a comment on his Facebook post, Mr Syed Abdul Malik said "it seemed to have drained him of empathy, compassion, gratitude and the capability to love others". 

In Mr Soh's opening statement in the trial, he said Mr Syed Abdul Malik did not deny that his comments referred to him.

The words were published around the time Mr Soh was involved in an "acrimonious dispute" with the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) and the SAA over SNOC's decision to not select Mr Soh for the 2019 SEA Games even though he met all objective selection criteria, said Mr Soh's lawyers in their opening statement.

At the time, Mr Syed Abdul Malik was also the executive director of the SAA and "intimately involved" in the dispute between Mr Soh and the association, said Mr Soh's lawyers, PDLegal's Gerard Quek and Daniel Ling.

Mr Syed Abdul Malik's defence is three-fold: That the words are not defamatory; that even if they are, he can rely on the defence of justification and fair comment; and that the injury to Mr Soh is "non-existent" as the words were published to a limited audience for a short time and removed within the same day.

In Mr Gaznavi's opening statement for the defence, he said his client was not disputing that the words referred to Mr Soh, but he was not referred to by name, and only a limited number of people if any "would have been alive" to the reference.

For the defence of justification, Mr Gaznavi said he would show how Mr Soh breached the SNOC Team Membership Agreement and the SAA's code of conduct for athletes, how Mr Syed Abdul Malik assisted Mr Soh despite his breaches, and Mr Soh's conduct in his dealings with both associations and Mr Ashley Liew.

THE LINKED ASHLEY LIEW DEFAMATION SUIT

Mr Liew, a fellow marathoner, had sued Mr Soh separately for defamation and was awarded S$180,000 in damages in September last year.

Both of them were team-mates representing Singapore at the 2015 SEA Games marathon. Mr Soh won the race, but Mr Liew was later given a Special Award for Sportsmanship by SNOC for slowing down to let other runners catch up when they missed a U-turn point. 

Mr Liew also became the first Singaporean to receive the prestigious Pierre de Coubertin World Fair Play trophy. Mr Soh made several posts on his blog as well as Facebook and Instagram accounts after the event, saying that nobody slowed down and that the act of fair play by Mr Liew was "untrue".

SNOC served Mr Soh a letter of demand on Apr 1, 2019, for his allegations that Mr Liew had lied about slowing down.

The letter indicated that at least four individuals had stepped forward to give sworn statutory declarations that they had seen Mr Liew slowing down. Mr Liew's lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to Mr Soh shortly after.

EXCHANGES BETWEEN MR SOH AND MR GAZNAVI

On Wednesday, Mr Gaznavi repeatedly asked Mr Soh if he agreed that his various actions cast SNOC, SAA and Mr Liew in a negative light, but Mr Soh disagreed.

He pointed to the letter SNOC sent to Mr Soh in April 2019, where they said they had independent sources confirming that they saw Mr Liew slowing down.

"I don't believe them," said Mr Soh. He repeated an assertion that he was the only other Singaporean in the race who was close to Mr Liew and could verify facts, but that he was not asked about the matter.

Mr Gaznavi then pointed out that Mr Soh was calling witnesses to corroborate his version of events, and that these witnesses were not running the race at the time.

Mr Soh said he was the only person who had full view of Mr Liew at the time, as "no one else was running at our pace". If the SNOC had really wanted Mr Liew's account of slowing down to be verified, he was the only one who was with Mr Liew the whole way, said Mr Soh.

"Mr Soh, I'm saying to you that SNOC is entitled to seek information from neutral parties and not just from people who competed in the race, would you agree?" asked Mr Gaznavi.

"Competing in the race doesn't mean you are not neutral," replied Mr Soh.

"You are being most unreasonable in your position, I will move on," answered the lawyer.

He then asked Mr Soh why he publicised responses on the incident on social media, and Mr Soh said: "Since it's already in the public, I have a right to respond publicly."

"Shouldn't you use a civil route to respond to (Mr Liew's) lawyers rather than shouting it out on social media?" asked Mr Gaznavi.

"I did respond to the lawyers," replied Mr Soh, adding that his social media post was in response to an article instead.

"You have now brought it into the public domain," said Mr Gaznavi.

"It was already in the public domain," replied Mr Soh.

"You further bring it into the public domain," said Mr Gaznavi.

"You can't further bring it if it's already in the public domain," answered Mr Soh.

Much of the exchanges in court were in this same vein. Mr Soh said that if SNOC had evidence on Mr Liew's slowing down, it would already have emerged during his trial with Mr Liew, but Mr Gaznavi said SNOC was not a party to that trial.

When the lawyer put it to Mr Soh that he was being "very unreasonable", he disagreed. 

He also maintained that any casting of SNOC in a negative light was "not because of me" but because of their own actions.

Mr Gaznavi told Mr Soh that "everything is related to you", and that the lawyer's letters and actions by the associations were a result of his post and ripple effects, including a news article that cast SNOC in a bad light.

"No, SNOC caused SNOC to be cast in a bad light," Mr Soh replied.

At some point, Mr Gaznavi exclaimed: "Facts are not established by Soh Rui Yong. They are established by different sources sometimes ... Mr Soh, you seem to be under the impression that the only one who can establish the truth is Mr Soh Rui Yong."

Mr Soh's lawyer stood up to interject, but before he could, the judge told Mr Gaznavi to leave this point for written submissions.

"Mr Gaznavi, you are engaging in an argument with the witness that serves no purpose," he said. 

The trial resumes on Thursday.

Source: CNA/ll(gr)
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