PM Lee seeking S$150,000 damages from Leong Sze Hian, defence lawyer suggests S$400 more like it

Huge gap.

Belmont Lay | December 01, 2020, 02:00 PM

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is seeking some S$150,000 in damages from blogger Leong Sze Hian for alleged defamation.

Counsels representing the plaintiff and defendant presented their closing arguments in court in person on Monday, Nov. 30.

PM Lee brought the defamation suit against Leong, who shared an article on Facebook without comment.

The article by Malaysian site The Coverage, alleged that PM Lee had helped former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak launder money in relation to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a Malaysian state fund that has been scandal-hit.

Why S$150,000?

Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, acting for PM Lee, said the S$150,000 to be awarded for damages was for further aggravation by cynically politicising the case and recasting PM Lee's effort to vindicate himself as victimisation, and is comparable to damages awarded in a previous defamation suit.

PM Lee had previously successfully sued blogger Roy Ngerng, who was ordered to pay S$150,000 in damages in 2015.

Ngerng had written a blog post alleging misappropriation of Central Provident Fund monies.

Singh told High Court Justice Aedit Abdullah the allegation in Leong's case is "far more serious" than Ngerng's case.

Singh said the defendant had shared the article by The Coverage without verifying whether there was a basis for the allegations, and highlighted Leong's conduct before and during the trial.

Leong gave interviews in Hong Kong and spoke at Speaker's Corner in relation to the proceedings.

He even paid for a post by the The Online Citizen on the proceedings.

According to CNA, Singh said Leong was "twisting the knife" with his conduct: "Where a defendant, knowing that he has been sued for something he knows he cannot show is true, then actually turns it around and uses all available avenues available to him to remind people of the very thing that he knows is not true, he is twisting the knife."

Singh also said Leong has a "higher standing" than Ngerng, after Leong had called himself a "prominent and well-known critic".

Singh added that allegations were made against PM Lee while he was on the stand "for an ulterior collateral purpose", which was to attack PM Lee.

Leong did not take the stand for this trial.

"Nominal" S$1 in damages per person

Leong's lawyer Lim Tean said in response that the entire proceedings "have been totally unnecessary and is an abuse of the process", reported CNA.

He asked for not more than S$1 in damages per person who read the offending post.

This would amount to no more than S$400, going by the estimate by PM Lee's expert witness of 200 to 400 readers who eventually saw the post.

Lim said Leong did not endorse the post he made on Facebook, as it was akin to telling a friend casually to look at an interesting article.

The defence lawyer also said that current defamation laws are not tailored for the social media age.

He said that, if, for example, 9,000 people had shared the article, PM Lee could not possibly sue all 9,000 of them.

Lim added that PM Lee had abused court process.

Lim highlighted PM Lee's testimony in court about how Leong had been a thorn in the government's side, and that the prime minister sued Leong to silence him ahead of the General Election in Singapore in July 2020.

Lim said he would ask only for "nominal" and "derisory" damages, if PM Lee was successful in his suit.

S$400 a "determination to humiliate PM Lee"

In response, Singh said the conduct of the defence during the trial has caused further aggravation.

Singh said Lim’s numbers reflect Leong’s “determination to humiliate (PM Lee) for doing no more than coming to court to exercise his legal rights and vindicate his reputation”, according to The Straits Times.

Singh said, according to CNA: "My learned friend has suggested that the plaintiff, who has come to court having been called corrupt, has used the full weight of the government machinery to come down on the defendant."

"It shows how the defence has used the process of this court not just to attack the plaintiff, but politicise the case, while appearing to suggest that that's what the plaintiff has done."

Singh also rebutted Lim's argument about Leong being a thorn in the government's side.

Singh characterised Lim's claim about Leong being a thorn in the government's side as the "very opposite" of what PM Lee meant.

Singh said, according to CNA: "What he said is that while he has been a thorn in a small way for a very long time, that is completely irrelevant to who he chose to sue, and for that he had to think carefully what the position and and take legal advice."

Justice Abdullah said he would provide his written judgment "as expeditiously as possible", according to CNA.

Top photos via Leong Sze Hian & Lim Tean