Singapore PM’s defamation suit against The Online Citizen's editor goes to trial next week

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is suing the chief editor of socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC) for defamation. — TODAY pic
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is suing the chief editor of socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC) for defamation. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, Nov 28 — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is suing the chief editor of socio-political website The Online Citizen (TOC) for defamation over an article, is set to testify next week when the trial opens in the High Court. Justice Audrey Lim will preside over the civil trial, scheduled to take place from Monday (November 30) to Friday (December 4).

PM Lee, who launched the libel suit in September last year, is represented by a team of lawyers led by Senior Counsel Davinder Singh. TOC’s editor Terry Xu will be defended by lawyer Lim Tean.

PM Lee’s siblings, Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, are also named as third parties in the suit. 

TODAY looks at the case, what it is about and how the trial could unfold next week. 

Background

PM Lee has been embroiled in a dispute with his siblings 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.

On Aug 15 last year, TOC published an article titled “PM Lee’s wife Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members”.  A link to the article was also posted on its Facebook page.

Ho had earlier shared a link to an article titled “Here is why sometimes it is okay to cut ties with toxic family members”.

The TOC article also referenced a Facebook post written by Dr Lee earlier that year, in which she said that PM Lee misled their father into believing the Oxley Road house had been gazetted by the Government.

On September 1 last year, PM Lee’s press secretary Chang Li Lin issued a letter of demand to TOC pointing out that the article and post repeated several false allegations that Dr Lee previously made about PM Lee.

Chang asked that the article be removed and TOC publish an apology. The article was later taken down but the Facebook post linking to it remained up.

Xu responded three days later, saying that the article was not defamatory and he would not comply with PM Lee’s request. He argued that he was “merely republishing the words uttered by (PM Lee’s) siblings”.

The article was then reposted on TOC and remains up to this day.

The lawsuit

A day after Xu’s response, PM Lee’s lawyers from Davinder Singh Chambers served a statement of claim and writ of summons on Xu. PM Lee is seeking damages including aggravated damages, an injunction to restrain Xu from publishing or disseminating the allegations, and costs.

His lawyers said that PM Lee “has been gravely injured in his character and reputation, and has been brought into public scandal, odium and contempt”.

There was substantial republication of the TOC article, they said, and the Facebook post “attracted hundreds of ‘reactions’ and ‘comments’”.

As for the content of the article, the lawyers said the “offending words meant and were understood to mean” that PM Lee caused his father to consider other alternatives to demolition of the Oxley Road home and to change his will to bequeath the house to PM Lee.

The lawyers also said that the article had alleged that the late Lee removed PM Lee as an executor and trustee of his will, after he learned in late 2013 that the property had not been gazetted.

“The offending words are false and baseless and were calculated to disparage and impugn the plaintiff as well as in his office as the prime minister,” the lawyers stated.

Xu said that he would contest the lawsuit.

He also said that as a Singapore citizen, he “would like to have the opportunity to ask my Prime Minister — straight in his face — why he chose to sue me for repeating allegations made by his two siblings and not them, for making the same allegations back in 2017”.

How the trial could pan out

Both parties will tender opening statements on their respective cases when the trial begins.

PM Lee’s lawyers will call their only witness, PM Lee, first. 

Lim may then cross-examine the witness.

After the plaintiff’s witnesses finish giving evidence, Lim will be able to call his own witnesses. It is not known if Xu himself will take the stand.

After both parties complete their arguments, Justice Lim will hear closing submissions. She will then decide if Xu is liable for defamation. To win a defamation case, a plaintiff must show:

The statement in question harmed the plaintiff’s credibility or reputation either directly or indirectly

The statement refers to or identifies the plaintiff

Publication or communication of that statement to a third person

If the High Court judge rules that he had defamed the Prime Minister, she will assess the appropriate damages to be awarded. The factors to be considered, among others, are the nature and effect of defamation.

If she rules that Xu did not defame PM Lee, the lawsuit will be dismissed. — TODAY

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