Runner Soh Rui Yong loses defamation suit, ordered to pay Ashley Liew S$180,000 in damages
SINGAPORE: Athlete Soh Rui Yong has lost a defamation suit mounted by fellow marathoner Ashley Liew, and must pay the latter damages of S$180,000.
Of this amount, S$60,000 is in aggravated damages due to factors including Soh's conduct and role in publicising the dispute, District Judge Lee Li Choon said in a judgment dated Wednesday (Sep 22).
BACKGROUND OF THE RACE IN QUESTION
Soh and Liew were teammates representing Singapore at the 2015 SEA Games marathon held in June that year. The marathon consisted of five loops within East Coast Park, but Liew was the only participant who made a U-turn correctly at the first U-turn point.
Soh and all other runners missed the point and ran past it before making a U-turn about 50m ahead, resulting in Liew being ahead of the rest.
Liew then purportedly slowed down to let the rest catch up, before resuming his marathon pace, and this was reported as an act of fair play on mainstream and social media.
Soh won the race, while Liew was later given a Special Award for Sportsmanship by the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) and also became the first Singaporean to receive the prestigious Pierre de Coubertin World Fair Play trophy.
After the event, Soh made several posts on his blog as well as Facebook and Instagram accounts. In one blog post in 2015, he wrote "Nobody slowed down to wait - the race was on". He again asserted in a Facebook post in 2015, referring to the act of fair play by Liew as "untrue".
"We took quite a while to catch up to him (at least 7 minutes), he certainly did not stop or slow down to wait for us whatsoever; I didn't say anything about this three years ago because I figured a team-mate of mine just had a bad race and needed something to feel better about his performance. But this fictional version of events that transpired that day... While making a good story, it is simply not true, and I think it's time to stop living in imagination," Soh wrote.
He continued to post about the incident in October 2018, saying things like: "Conjuring, exaggerating, and circulating a fictional tale of sportsmanship contravenes the fundamental values of sports – those of hard work, excellence, and integrity.”
LAWYERS' LETTERS SENT TO SOH
SNOC served Soh a letter of demand on Apr 1, 2019, for his allegations that 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 Liew slowing down.
Liew's lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to Soh shortly after and the story was picked up by the media.
Even after being served lawyers' letters, Soh made a post on his Facebook and Instagram accounts, mentioning an "idiot" who "(took) the chance to make up a hero story about slowing down to wait for others as an excuse for that's why they didn't win, then send you lawyer's letters when you call their bullshit and embarrass them publicly".
He continued to assert that he was "speaking the truth on the Ashley Liew sportsmanship tale" in a blog post in August 2019.
Liew sued Soh for defamation, saying Soh's statements meant that Liew did not intentionally slow down, that he had lied and conjured his account, that he is an athlete who does not display good sportsmanship, as well as a liar and person of dishonourable character who is not deserving of the recognition and awards.
Liew sought general damages of S$120,000, with aggravated damages of another S$120,000.
Soh, who was defended by lawyers led by Eugene Thuraisingam, denied that the statements in his posts were defamatory. He argued that he was justified in making his statements "because the act of fair play did not occur".
THE JUDGE'S FINDINGS
The judge disagreed with Soh - finding that the words in his statements were defamatory.
A reasonable reader looking at Soh's posts would think Liew had publicly taken a position that was untrue, and that Liew had dishonourably taken this untrue story to everyone for recognition and awards, the judge said.
In order for Soh to succeed in his defence of justification, he had to prove his allegations that Liew had conjured the story of slowing down.
Soh relied on his own testimony, as well as those of his father, his former coach and a friend.
Judge Lee said the fact that Soh did not see Liew slowing down does not in itself prove that Liew did not slow down. She added that it was possible that Liew's slowing down was either not visible to Soh, or that Soh was not aware of it.
The focus of Soh's father and former coach would have been on Soh, Judge Lee said, and it is possible that they did not see Liew slowing down as they were looking at Soh instead.
The judge did not find the evidence of Soh's friend credible, as he had changed his testimony and it was starkly inconsistent with Soh's.
She added that "the tone and language used by Soh would leave the ordinary reasonable person with no doubt that Soh was putting across factual statements rather than making a fair comment based on established facts".
The judge said it is clear to her that the dispute had received extensive publicity, exacerbating the harm or damage caused to Liew's reputation.
She also noted that Soh had continued to post on social media during the trial, while what he called the "battle for the truth" was being fought in court.
"In this 'battle' on Soh's front, he had sought to portray Liew as one who had constantly changed his story and whose version of events lacked credibility," said Judge Lee.
"This has clearly added to the injury caused to Liew as Soh had sought to implant into the minds of the public the idea that Liew would eventually be revealed as having lied about his act of fair play."
In a statement through his lawyer Mark Teng from That.Legal, Liew said his family is "so grateful for the vindication received" from the verdict.
He added that the 2015 marathon was dear to him because he had raced on his late mother's birthday, and thanked his lawyers, family, friends and well-wishers.
In a Facebook post on Thursday, Soh said he stood by what he said. He followed up with a subsequent post in the afternoon, where he said he would be appealing the case.
"There're a lot of falsehoods being paraded on social media, by people who don't know head from tail about this case," wrote Soh, claiming there were attacks on his integrity, character and credibility, as well as attacks on his family and friends.
"I have no choice but to respond: This marathon is not over. I will be launching an appeal in the High Court of Singapore. Will clear my name, whatever it takes," he added.
"You don't win a marathon in the first 32.2km. You win it in the last 10km."