TOC defamation trial: Animosity from siblings evident, but PM Lee hopes that 'matters can be repaired' one day
SINGAPORE: While his relationship with his siblings is “not in the best state” and “animosity is evident” on their end, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that he and his wife Madam Ho Ching do not want the family feud to continue.
“I hope against hope that one day, matters can be repaired. But it’s one of those things that happen in life and this too shall pass,” he said on Monday (Nov 30) during the first day of his defamation trial.
Mr Lee is suing the chief editor of sociopolitical website The Online Citizen (TOC), Mr Terry Xu, for libel over an article published in August last year.
The article was titled “PM Lee’s wife Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members” referring to an article she posted on Facebook that was titled “Here is why sometimes it is okay to cut ties with toxic family members”.
Since 2017, Mr Lee has been embroiled in a dispute with his siblings - Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang - over the fate of their family home at 38 Oxley Road after the death of their father and Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Mr Lee is seeking damages including aggravated damages, an injunction to restrain Mr Xu from publishing or disseminating the allegations, and costs.
The TOC article, Mr Lee’s lawyers have said, contains false allegations repeated from his siblings that gravely injure his character and reputation.
It also referenced a Facebook post written by Dr Lee earlier that year, in which she said that Mr Lee misled their father into believing the Oxley Road house had been gazetted by the Government.
Mr Xu named Mr Lee’s siblings as third parties in the lawsuit but will not be calling them to testify. Mr Xu's lawyer, Mr Lim Tean, said on Monday that it was likely Mr Xu would be discontinuing third party proceedings against them as well.
READ: Court documents claim PM Lee 'suffered loss and damage' following publication of The Online Citizen article
DETACHED HIMSELF FROM OXLEY ROAD ISSUE: PM
Mr Lim spent Monday morning cross-examining the Prime Minister, who is represented by a team of five lawyers led by Senior Counsel Davinder Singh.
Both lawyers previously faced off about two months ago when Mr Lee’s defamation suit against blogger Leong Sze Hian went to trial.
When Mr Lim questioned the Prime Minister on whether he and Mdm Ho thought his siblings were “judging and gossiping about you”, Mr Lee replied: "I have a disagreement with my siblings, unfortunately, and our relations are not in the best state. Everyone knows that.”
He later added: “I think animosity is evident on one side from my siblings … I do not think on (my and my wife’s) side, we really want this to continue or hold anything against them.”
Referring to the TOC article, Mr Lim said that the feud between him and his siblings was “obvious”.
Mr Lee responded that he had detached himself from the issue by selling the Oxley Road property to his brother and recusing himself from the Government’s handling of the property.
“I have never done Facebook posts nor criticised them publicly. I have not said anything other than ministerial statements,” he said.
“Your wife has no animosity to your siblings?” Mr Lim questioned.
“Indeed. I’m not speaking on her behalf but I believe so,” Mr Lee replied.
The lawyer then asked: “Why is it that you did not invite them for Chinese New Year after your father died?”
Senior Counsel Singh objected to the question and Justice Audrey Lim agreed that the question was not relevant, reminding Mr Lim to stick to his client’s defence.
Mr Lim also pressed Mr Lee to answer why he chose not to sue his siblings, adding that it was “understandable” that Mr Xu thought he could refer to what they said.
“It is not understandable,” Mr Lee replied. “What I’ve explained in Parliament is that not anyone can say anything about the house. It’s not carte blanche for anyone else to use that to spread allegations and further defame me.”
When Mr Lim asked if he meant that journalists cannot report on his siblings’ allegations, he said that they could “report anything subject to the laws of defamation”.
The lawyer probed him further on how his character and reputation was injured which would lead to loss and damages.
In response, Mr Lee said the TOC article “made very grave allegations against me” and was “read by a substantial number of people”.
Mr Lim then asked Mr Lee about his performance at the recent General Election (GE) in July this year.
“You did very well in the last General Election, did you not?” asked Mr Lim, who was also a GE candidate with the political party Peoples Voice. “I won the elections,” Mr Lee said, adding that it was “not a referendum on 38 Oxley Road”.
“The GE is a test of your integrity and reputation, is it not?” the lawyer questioned.
“If counsel wants to go in this direction, in 2015 (the People’s Action Party) won 69 per cent. In 2020, we won 61 per cent of the popular vote. I do not accept that it’s because of the house but if I accept counsel’s argument, the house did a lot of harm,” Mr Lee said.
"MY WIFE SHARES WIDELY": PM LEE
Under cross-examination, Mr Lee also revealed that he had not read Mdm Ho’s Facebook post that led to the TOC article.
“I would have gone to read what my wife said but she didn’t say anything. TOC said she shared it. My wife reads often and shares widely. I have full confidence in her judgment,” he added.
Mr Lim then asked Mr Lee if it was reasonable for anyone reading Mdm’s Ho post, given the background and context of the dispute, to draw the inference that it was a commentary on his family’s dispute.
Mr Lee said he disagreed with that statement.
Before the cross examination on Monday, both parties tendered their opening statements to the court. A summary of Mr Lee’s case is as follows:
- Readers of the TOC article will think that Mr Lee misled his father into thinking the Government would gazette the Oxley Road house and it was futile for Mr Lee to keep his direction to demolish it
- They will also think he caused Mr Lee to consider other alternatives to demolition and change his will to bequeath the house to Mr Lee
- Readers will believe that Mr Lee removed Mr Lee as an executor and trustee of his will after learning in late 2013 that the Government did not gazette the property
A summary of Mr Xu’s defence is as follows:
- The allegedly defamatory statements, when read in the context of the whole article, meant it was ironic for Mdm Ho to share the post “given the publicised poor relationship” between Mr Lee and his siblings
- Readers will know it was Mdm Ho who shared the post and the “so-called irony” had nothing to do with Mr Lee
The trial continues on Tuesday morning with Mr Lee on the witness stand again. He will be the only plaintiff witness.
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