High Court reserves judgment on Singapore PM Lee’s defamation lawsuit against The Online Citizen editor

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) and Terry Xu, chief editor of The Online Citizen, arriving at the Supreme Court on Nov 30, 2020. — TODAY file pic
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) and Terry Xu, chief editor of The Online Citizen, arriving at the Supreme Court on Nov 30, 2020. — TODAY file pic

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SINGAPORE, Feb 15 — Lawyers for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the chief editor of sociopolitical website The Online Citizen (TOC), Terry Xu, gave their closing arguments today in an ongoing libel trial over a TOC article about the 38 Oxley Road saga.

High Court judge Audrey Lim reserved her judgment after about two hours of hearing. She will decide in due course if the article was defamatory, and if so, what damages the prime minister is entitled to.

PM Lee is seeking an unspecified amount of damages including aggravated damages, an injunction to restrain Xu from publishing or disseminating the allegations, and legal costs.

In their written closing submissions, PM Lee’s lawyers noted that where prime ministers have been accused of dishonesty or misleading others or both, the Singapore courts have awarded damages between S$300,000 and S$330,000.

However, Xu had exhibited malice and aggravating conduct that was worse than those previous cases, the lawyers argued.

Background

The current trial spanned four days late last year with PM Lee, Xu and the prime minister’s late father Lee Kuan Yew’s lawyer, Madam Kwa Kim Li, testifying in court.

The libel lawsuit centres around an article published in TOC in August 2019, titled: “PM Lee’s wife Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with 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 Lee Kuan Yew’s death in 2015.

The TOC article, PM Lee’s lawyers have said, contains false allegations repeated from his siblings that gravely injure his character and reputation.

This includes an allegation that PM Lee had misled his father into thinking the Oxley Road property had been gazetted as a heritage building by the Government, and it was therefore futile for Lee Kuan Yew to keep his direction to demolish it.

PM Lee’s lawyers also said that the article had alleged that his father removed him as an executor and trustee of his will, after learning in late 2013 that the property had not been gazetted.

Xu’s defence is that the article does not draw a link between the removal of PM Lee as an executor and when his father allegedly learned that the property had not been gazetted.

The TOC editor contends that it was ironic that Mdm Ho shared the story because he felt she, instead of PM Lee, was the toxic family member.

PM Lee ‘has no courage’ to face siblings in court: Xu’s lawyer

In his closing submissions, one of PM Lee’s lawyers, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, reiterated that Xu should have included the prime minister’s side of the story in the article.

He also argued that Xu — who is represented by Lim Tean of Carson Law Chambers — should have called Dr Lee and Lee Hsien Yang as witnesses to testify.

They were originally named as third parties in the lawsuit, with Xu intending for them to bear damages if he is found liable for defamation, but he then discontinued the proceedings against them.

Senior Counsel Singh referred to Lim’s argument that PM Lee “does not want to sue (his siblings) because he fears what they would say”, and that he “would have to accuse them of lying which is the same as suing them”.

Senior Counsel Singh noted that the prime minister previously explained in Parliament that suing his siblings in court would "further besmirch our parents' names", drag out the process for years, and cause more distraction and distress to Singaporeans.

The lawyer accused Lim of raising “gobbledygook” arguments and said he would have cross-examined the siblings if they were called.

In response, Lim, who called the proceedings a “complete waste of time and totally unnecessary”, said that PM Lee had chosen to use his position as a parliamentarian to set out his side of the story and sued Xu rather than go after his siblings — the “source of the libel”.

“His siblings have been calling him names and have been making most damning allegations against him even calling him a dishonourable son, which must be the gravest wound to any person of Chinese origin. (He) claims in this court to believe in filial piety. He takes no action against them.”

The lawyer further argued that PM Lee previously hid much of the documentary evidence, including emails between the family and Mdm Kwa, from Xu.

“He wants S$300,000 (in damages) in the hopes that it would bankrupt Xu. The inevitable conclusion one must draw is this was a man who was afraid of allowing the truth to come out,” Lim added.

He also charged that PM Lee did not disclose the documents earlier, as well as accused Xu of going on a “fishing expedition”, because he knew his siblings had the documents and he “has no courage to face them in court”.

In addition, Lim argued that the TOC article did not damage PM Lee’s reputation and that the prime minister “could not point to any evidence” of that.

Xu ‘determined to extract as much damage as possible’: PM Lee’s lawyer

Senior Counsel Singh later countered that Lim had made a “critical” failure in not calling the siblings to testify.

The lawyer argued that it was only after Xu had lunch with Lee Hsien Yang and his wife, Lee Suet Fern, about a month before the trial began that he realised the allegations were false.

“If the siblings came to court, it would only nail the lie.”

Senior Counsel Singh added: “The plaintiff was the only sibling, only child who did not want any financial benefit (from 38 Oxley). To suggest he misled his father so he could move into the house and somehow have an association with LKY (Lee Kuan Yew) through the house is an insult not only to him but all of us — Singaporeans who have repeatedly voted the party in to be leaders.

“The suggestion that we the voters would be affected by him moving into 38 Oxley is outrageous.”

He also charged that Xu was “determined to extract as much damage as possible”, having called PM Lee a racist in his closing submissions.

This was in response to PM Lee’s own submissions which noted that the TOC article was written by a Malaysian writer, Rubaashini Shunmuganathan.

Senior Counsel Singh said: “To distort that into allegations of racism shows a venom that is unprecedented and unmatched They called the plaintiff a racist knowing he is the prime minister of a multiracial country, using the privilege afforded by these proceedings to make this ridiculous allegation.”

Lim countered that there was no other purpose to point out that the article writer was Malaysian.

“(PM Lee) said he roped in a Malaysian to attack (PM Lee’s) integrity. There is no evidence of that. It is well known that Terry Xu, as editor of TOC, engages writers who are out of Singapore to write articles for him. It could be because of economic reasons,” Lim added.

Justice Audrey Lim will give her decision at a later undetermined date.

In a separate defamation lawsuit against Leong Sze Hian over a Facebook post, PM Lee is seeking about S$150,000 in damages. Justice Aedit Abdullah has yet to give his decision on the case as well. — TODAY

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