Can Shanmugam & Vivian sue Lee Hsien Yang in the UK? What happens if he doesn't return to S’pore?

We find out.

Joshua Lee | Daniel Seow | August 02, 2023, 06:08 PM

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Lee Hsien Yang, the brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is facing a possible defamation suit brought by ministers K Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan.

Lee, who is currently overseas, claimed that the ministers should sue him in the UK where he made the allegations. and not in Singapore.

A lawyer and a professor of law shared with us why a defamation suit in the UK might not happen.

But first, some background on why Lee is facing a possible defamation suit

The ministers announced on Jul. 27 that Lee had defamed them by accusing them of "acting corruptly and for personal gain" in their rental of state-owned black-and-white properties.

There were two allegations in particular that the ministers took issue with.

First, that the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) gave the ministers preferential treatment by allowing them to fell trees on the properties illegally without approval.

Second, that the ministers had SLA pay for renovations for the properties they rented.

Shanmugam and Vivian said that these allegations were false.

The Ministry of Law also issued a POFMA (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act) correction order to Lee with regard to these allegations which were made in a Facebook post.

Lee complied with the order, even though he insisted that he stood by his words, claiming that the POFMA notice was "misleading".

Shanmugam and Vivian demanded, through their lawyers, that Lee apologise, withdraw his allegations, and pay damages which will donated to charity. Failing which, they will proceed to sue him.

Lee responded by claiming that he was being made to "lie in a public apology", and claimed that the ministers should sue him in the UK where he made the allegations.

So would Lee be sued in the UK?

Mothership spoke to Suresh Damodara, the managing director of Damodara Ong LLC, and Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University, to ask for their two cents on the matter.

Short answer: Probably not.

Impact most felt in Singapore

The first thing to consider is where the defamatory statement has its "real and maximum impact" on the reputation of the person being defamed, according to Suresh.

In the case involving Lee and the ministers, that place would be Singapore.

Lee's potentially defamatory statements "go into the very heart of the integrity of public office bearers in ministerial positions in Singapore", said Suresh who also pointed out that the impact is most felt in Singapore.

For example, the ministers are from the Singapore government and Lee's statements were published for Singapore readers.

Furthermore, a vast number of these Singapore readers might also be voters who have a vested interest in the integrity of their ministers, and therefore interested in the outcome of a defamation suit, said Suresh.

UK courts may decline to hear case

Similarly, Tan pointed out that if the ministers sue Lee in the UK, the English courts are likely to decline to hear the case on the basis of “forum non conveniens” as the UK has a "tenuous connection with the matter".

He asserted that Singapore would be the more appropriate forum for the case to be heard.

This is because apart from Lee, all the parties involved and the facts and the witnesses are in Singapore.

Additionally, Tan felt that it would be challenging for the "ends of justice to be served" if the case was to be brought to the UK.

Plaintiffs must be able to vindicate their rights in a court where claims are well founded, he said.

As such, the UK court would have to carefully consider whether it is able to properly hear the case.

"Otherwise, the hearing will be an exercise in futility and, of the greatest concern, the scales of justice will not balanced," Tan added.

Challenges in bringing a defamation suit overseas

Inconvenience and costs are some challenges to taking a defamation suit overseas.

For example, if the witnesses travel to London for the hearing, that would increase the costs involved for all parties, Tan said.

Making alternative arrangements to attend the hearing online could also be expensive, Suresh pointed out.

Parties would have to arrange to be beamed into the UK proceedings, while following the attendant precautions, such as ensuring that a separate set of independent lawyers are present in the rooms where the video conferencing is held.

This is to ensure that no prompting or assistance is rendered whilst parties and witnesses are being cross examined, he added.

There are some regional considerations for court proceedings too.

Suresh said that if the ministers were to institute a defamation suit against Lee while he is residing in the UK, they would also have to apply for permission from the Singapore court to serve the suit by the prescribed methods provided under the local court rules.

What happens if Lee just stays in the UK?

We also explored the other option -- if the ministers proceed with the defamation suit against Lee in Singapore, but he chooses to stay put in the UK.

Two scenarios could materialise from that, Suresh explained.

Scenario A: Lee finds lawyers to represent him in Singapore

Lee could find legal representation in Singapore to defend against the suit and get leave of the Singapore court to provide evidence.

In this case, he may be cross-examined via video conference whilst he is in the UK or another country.

Scenario B: Lee does a no-show

In the case that Lee does a no-show and allows the suit in Singapore to carry on without any resistance, the show can still go on.

Under these circumstances, the ministers as plaintiffs would still have to prove their case before the court by establishing the merits of their claim.

The only difference being that they will not be cross examined on their evidence by Lee or his lawyers.

The judge hearing the case would still under legal obligation, in the absence of Lee in the proceedings, to adjudicate the merits of the suit based on the evidence provided, and determine if the suit gives rise to a cause of action in the law of defamation.

In other words, a judgement can still be pronounced upon Lee, which can be later enforced upon.

So now you know.

Top images: Lee Hsien Yang/Facebook