SINGAPORE, Sept 23 — National marathoner Ashley Liew has won a high-profile defamation suit against teammate Soh Rui Yong, who was ordered by a district court to pay S$180,000 in damages.
This sum includes S$60,000 in aggravated damages, partly due to Soh’s repetition of the defamatory comments about Dr Liew in the media and on his social media accounts, District Judge Lee Li Choon ruled in a 65-page written judgment issued on Thursday (Sept 23).
The judge added that Soh had continued posting on social media about the “battle for the truth” even while the trial was under way, which “clearly added to the injury caused” to Dr Liew.
The aggravated damages, which refer to a sum granted over and above compensatory damages, came on top of S$120,000 in general damages that the judge awarded to Dr Liew.
The judge also granted Dr Liew’s request for an injunction for Soh not to repeat the libellous comments, remove the posts, publish an apology on his Facebook and Instagram pages, and retract the statements he made.
The apology and retraction can be shared by Dr Liew on his own accounts.
In a Facebook post after the verdict, Soh said that he plans to file an appeal in the High Court.
He said that there were “a lot of falsehoods being paraded on social media, by people who don’t know head from tail about this case”.
“There are attacks on my integrity, character and credibility. Most disgustingly, there have been attacks on my family members, friends and loved ones.
“I have no choice but to respond: This marathon is not over.”
He added: “Will clear my name, whatever it takes.”
A two-time Southeast Asian (SEA) Games gold medallist, Soh, 30, alleged in several social media posts that Dr Liew, 35, lied about slowing down at a SEA Games marathon event in 2015.
Dr Liew had found himself leading the 12-runner race in the men’s marathon held at East Coast Park in Singapore, after his rivals missed a U-turn and took the wrong path.
He slowed down to wait for them to catch up — an act that later won him the Pierre de Coubertin World Fair Play Trophy, a global prize for good sportsmanship. It was the first time a Singaporean received the award.
Soh claimed the gold medal when he finished the marathon at 2hr 34min 56sec. Dr Liew came in eighth at 2hr 44min 2sec.
The Singapore National Olympics Council in 2016 also recognised Dr Liew with a special award for sportsmanship at the Singapore Sports Awards.
In October that year, the International Fair Play Committee, which recognises acts of fair play by athletes or sports teams, awarded Dr Liew the Pierre de Coubertin World Fair Play Trophy, in the category of “Act of Fair Play”.
He was further commended by several Singapore ministers, including Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam.
Dr Liew’s case was that Soh had defamed him by saying that he lied and cooked up his account of the act of fair play to obtain recognition for that as well as the award.
Soh disputed Dr Liew’s account of the event in five posts — the first in a blog post in June 2015. His fifth and final online post on the matter was in August 2019.
Dr Liew’s lawyers sent cease-and-desist letters to Soh in April and May 2019.
Soh publicised these letters on his Facebook and Instagram pages.
He denied that his posts were defamatory, saying that they were simply a statement of fact of Dr Liew’s actions during the marathon, and that he was justified in making the statements because the act of fair play did not happen.
In October 2018, the International Fair Play Committee put up a Facebook post congratulating Dr Liew on his act of sportsmanship.
Soh commented on the post to say that the runners who had fallen behind had taken “quite a while to catch up to him (at least one to two minutes), he certainly did not stop or slow down to wait for us whatsoever.”
He then edited his comment to “about seven minutes”.
The judge noted that Soh did not explain this change, saying that it “would not be far-fetched to deduce” that he did so to align his testimony with his position that Dr Liew did not slow down.
Posts an ‘attack on Liew’s credibility’
District Judge Lee found that Soh’s tone and language would leave readers with no doubt that he was making factual statements, rather than a fair comment based on established facts.
Importantly, his allegations had to be seen in the context of Dr Liew being publicly lauded and awarded for sportsmanship, which meant that the charge was “even more stinging and aggravated”, the judge said.
She also found that Soh’s posts were “clearly an attack on Liew’s integrity and credibility”.
“(They) mean that, contrary to Liew’s recognition for his sportsmanship, he is in fact a liar, a dishonourable person who had conjured up a tale to make himself feel better, and by receiving an award for something that did not happen, he is a person who lacks integrity,” District Judge Lee said.
Soh’s defence of justification meant that he bore the burden to prove the allegations were substantially true — that is, to prove that Dr Liew did not slow down.
It was not for Dr Liew to prove that he did carry out the act of fair play, added the judge.
District Judge Lee noted that Soh’s testimony and evidence lacked credibility, because his witnesses were either not observing Dr Liew or could not have observed him during the material part of the race on account of where they were standing.
In contrast, Dr Liew’s account was supported by his witnesses, none of whom had a personal relationship with Dr Liew, the judge said.
Soh had called three people as witnesses — his father, his former coach Steven Quek and his good friend Madankumar Balakrishnan.
Dr Liew’s witnesses included himself, Japanese-Cambodian runner Kuniaki Takizaki, who was a fellow participant, and two spectators.
Takizaki testified through video-conference that he had seen Liew, or “the runner with white shirt”, giving a go-ahead hand sign to him and other runners who had missed the turn.
The judge found that minor inconsistencies in Dr Liew and his witnesses’ testimony did not detract from the fact that they were consistent with his slowing down.
‘Reckless and totally unmeritorious’
In deciding to award Dr Liew the full sum of S$120,000 in general damages, she disagreed with Soh who argued that Dr Liew was not a person of high standing and that the evidence did not show the posts reached an extensive audience.
“Both Soh and Liew may be considered our ‘national heroes’. Because of that, the dispute between them has attracted a fair amount of public attention and has been widely publicised,” the judge said.
Soh had taken his position “without due regard as to the truth of the matter, or with a careless or reckless attitude towards the defamatory imputations that could result from his statements”, she added.
In assessing aggravated damages, District Judge Lee noted that Soh had wilfully refused to avail himself of the chance to inspect four statutory declarations from independent witnesses obtained by the Singapore National Olympic Council.
This meant that his plea of justification was reckless and totally unmeritorious, she said.
This closes a long-running civil trial that began in September last year and, at one point, saw Soh alleging that District Judge Lee was biased towards Dr Liew.
His application for the judge to recuse herself was later dismissed.
In a statement after the verdict, Dr Liew said that his family was grateful for the vindication and it was his hope that “we can all heal for the betterment of sport in Singapore”. — TODAY