I would’ve taken article down if PM Lee didn’t publicise letter of demand, says TOC editor in libel trial
SINGAPORE: The chief editor of sociopolitical website The Online Citizen (TOC) said he would have complied with a letter of demand from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s office to take down an allegedly defamatory article if the letter had not been publicised in the media.
On the other hand, PM Lee’s lawyer charged that, through his actions after he received the letter from the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr Terry Xu was “being opportunistic” in further attacking PM Lee.
Mr Xu, who rejected the assertion, was testifying on Wednesday (Dec 2) on the third day of a libel trial in the High Court.
READ: Singapore in 'very sad state' if I depend on living in Oxley Road house to 'exude magic aura': PM Lee in libel trial
The prime minister is suing him over a TOC article published in August last year, which his lawyers say contains false allegations repeated from PM Lee’s siblings that gravely injure PM Lee’s character and reputation. The lawsuit also accuses Mr Xu of malice.
The article was titled, “PM Lee’s wife Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members”, referring to an article she had posted on Facebook that was titled “Here is why sometimes it is okay to cut ties with toxic family members”.
Since 2017, PM 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.
The lawsuit concerns five specific paragraphs in the article based on allegations made by Dr Lee. They stated that PM Lee misrepresented to his father that the house had been gazetted as a heritage building and that it was futile to demolish it.
READ: TOC defamation trial: Animosity from siblings evident, but PM Lee hopes that 'matters can be repaired' one day
"DIPPED YOUR PEN IN POISON"
On Wednesday, PM Lee’s personal lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, continued cross-examining Mr Xu.
The counsel again accused him of using Madam Ho’s article as a “peg” to “turn it into an attack” against the prime minister, even though PM Lee was not the one who posted it.
“You see, you had dipped your pen in poison and you did so deliberately. It was not, as you claim, a mere report of the allegations,” Senior Counsel Singh added.
Mr Xu disagreed.
The lawyer then questioned him on why he thought Mdm Ho’s sharing of the “cutting ties” article was ironic. Mr Xu told the court that it was because he felt that Mdm Ho, instead of PM Lee, was the toxic family member.
Nevertheless, he conceded that the article did not suggest who was the toxic family member.
Senior Counsel Singh pressed him on whether he had time to contact PM Lee and his siblings to ask for evidence and their positions on the allegations before “this sensational piece” was published.
Mr Xu responded that the siblings had provided evidence on Facebook and “made their position very clear”.
“Even if I wait for another 10 years, (PM Lee) would not reply to my questions,” he added.
The lawyer then suggested that Mr Xu had asked the TOC article writer, Ms Rubaashini Shunmuganathan, to use her imagination to make non-existent connections. Mr Xu had told her that he needed “some creative writing” and had given her a list of pointers to be incorporated in the article.
“You were determined to put this out regardless of the facts,” Senior Counsel Singh said.
“I disagree,” Mr Xu replied.
WOULD HAVE TAKEN ARTICLE DOWN IF SENT IN "CONVENTIONAL" MANNER
Senior Counsel Singh then turned to the letter of demand that PM Lee’s press secretary, Ms Chang Li Lin, had sent to Mr Xu on Sep 1 last year.
Ms Chang had demanded that the article and corresponding Facebook post be taken down, for Mr Xu to apologise and give an undertaking not to publish any similar allegations.
Ms Chang added in the letter that if Mr Xu did not “take the opportunity afforded to you … PM Lee will have no choice but to hand the matter over to his lawyers to sue to enforce his full rights in law”.
READ: Court documents claim PM Lee 'suffered loss and damage' following publication of The Online Citizen article
The TOC editor initially took the article down before reposting it three days later. He also said he would not comply with the demands.
In court, he explained that he did not have the chance to respond to the letter of demand before it was sent to other media outlets.
“When I received the letter from the Prime Minister’s Office via email on Sep 1, 6pm, I just woke up. What I saw were media queries coming in asking me what was my response,” he added.
If PM Lee’s lawyers had sent the letter in the “conventional” manner, without sending it to media outlets, asking for the article to be taken down “with no recourse or threat to sue”, Mr Xu said he would have done so - as he has in other instances.
He would also have apologised on the TOC site if that was required.
He then testified that PM Lee sending the letter to other media outlets meant to him that he wanted to “escalate the matter”.
“A person of power using his public office to issue a letter, it creates some doubts as to the angle (from which) he is approaching the matter.
“If I were to undertake the apology and say what I published was defamatory, action may not follow legally but it may follow in terms of other statutory boards or ministries … coming to us and saying we’ve published questionable content,” Mr Xu added.
Senior Counsel Singh said his testimony was “ridiculous”, accusing him of changing his evidence.
“The fact of the matter, evident from your own conduct, is that far from being intimidated, you grabbed what you saw as the chance to go after him and enhance your standing,” the lawyer added.
Mr Xu disagreed.
FURTHER POSTS ON LAWSUIT
The lawyer took the court through Mr Xu’s posts on the lawsuit after Sep 4 last year.
He made a post on his personal Facebook page the next day about being served the writ of summons, with the caption: “It has begun (smiley face)”.
An article about the writ being served was also published on TOC on Sep 6. One section was about the recent and ongoing defamation suits that PM Lee had filed, including one against blogger Leong Sze Hian.
On Sep 10, Mr Xu posted on Facebook that he would fight the suit to “stand my ground against such uncalled-for intimidation, especially when it is from a public servant”.
Senior Counsel Singh accused Mr Xu of taking the chance to attack PM Lee again “under the guise of reporting” on the current suit. The editor disagreed.
“In fact, you made such a serious attack by saying a public servant had intimidated you. Doesn’t that show the amount of venom you have for the plaintiff and how much you want to damage him?” the lawyer questioned.
“If I were to agree, it would be the amount of venom I have for the plaintiff’s action,” Mr Xu responded.
When the lawyer further accused him of wanting to “stir and generate hatred and contempt” for the prime minister, Mr Xu said he merely wanted readers to know about the suit.
THIRD PARTY CLAIM
In the final stages of his cross-examination, Senior Counsel Singh noted that Mr Xu had named Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang as third parties in the lawsuit. This was in a bid to have them bear damages if Mr Xu was found liable for defamation.
Mr Xu said he could have subpoenaed them as witnesses, but wanted them as third parties so they could be represented by legal counsel.
However, he has since decided not to proceed with the third-party claim.
The lawyer asked if he made this decision only after having lunch with Mr Lee Hsien Yang and his wife, Mrs Lee Suet Fern, on Nov 4.
Mr Xu's lawyer Lim Tean had written to the court that evening to say that Mr Xu would be dropping the claim.
Senior Counsel Singh said: “I put it to you that, having regard to your interactions with Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Mrs Lee Suet Fern, you learned that Mr Lee Hsien Yang was unable to show the allegations are true, which is why you’ve chosen to come to court. That's also the reason why you’ve not proceeded with the third-party claim."
Mr Xu replied that his lawyer advised him to drop the claim in October as the trial was coming up and it was "too late to proceed with anything".
Nevertheless, Senior Counsel Singh noted that the trial could have been moved back.
He also put it to Mr Xu that he "acted maliciously and aggravated damages". The editor disagreed.
On Thursday morning, Justice Audrey Lim will hear an application from the late Lee Kuan Yew’s lawyer, Mdm Kwa Kim Li, seeking to set aside a subpoena from Mr Xu.
If the judge agrees that Mdm Kwa should not be a witness, the trial will move to closing submissions. If not, Mdm Kwa will take the stand later.
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