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Leong Sze Hian a ‘thorn in our side’ but defamation suit about vindicating reputation, not silencing critics: PM Lee

SINGAPORE — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong testified on Tuesday (Oct 6) that while Mr Leong Sze Hian may have been a “thorn in our side in a small way for a very long time”, he had not sued the blogger for libel in order to “silence critics”.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arriving at the Supreme Court for his defamation case against blogger Leong Sze Hian on Oct 6, 2020.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arriving at the Supreme Court for his defamation case against blogger Leong Sze Hian on Oct 6, 2020.

  • PM Lee was testifying on the first day of his defamation case against blogger Leong Sze Hian
  • He said he sued Mr Leong to vindicate his reputation, rejecting claims by defence lawyer Lim Tean that his objective was to “silence critics”
  • Mr Lim cross-examined Mr Lee for five hours, repeatedly querying why Mr Lee sued only his client


SINGAPORE — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong testified on Tuesday (Oct 6) that while Mr Leong Sze Hian may have been a “thorn in our side in a small way for a very long time”, he had not sued the blogger for libel in order to “silence critics”.

Taking the stand after lunch on the first day of the defamation hearing, Mr Lee, 68, was responding to claims by Mr Leong’s lawyer, Mr Lim Tean from Carson Law Chambers. Mr Lim had argued that Mr Lee was singling out Mr Leong as a “staunch government critic” by launching the lawsuit against him, and in doing so, Mr Lee was trying to “strike fear in the population”.

Mr Lee said that Mr Lim — who is also an opposition politician — was flattering his client by making these claims.

Mr Lim’s cross-examination of Mr Lee in the High Court largely focused on his assertion that Mr Lee had opted to sue only Mr Leong and not others over the alleged libel for these reasons.

In November 2018, the 66-year-old blogger had shared on his Facebook an article from Malaysian publication The Coverage, which contained corruption allegations against the Prime Minister over his involvement in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

Mr Lim contended that there were “thousands of others” who also shared the very same article, including former Presidential election candidate Tan Kin Lian.

In response, Mr Lee argued that the fact that he had not sued Mr Tan as well as other opposition politicians such as Mr Goh Meng Seng who also put up the article on social media proves that he is suing not to quell dissent, but to “vindicate (his) reputation”.

“When somebody defames you, whether he’s a critic or not, I have to think very carefully what that position is and take legal advice on what to do. Regardless of whether he has published (many) articles or no articles, I have to think of how to clear my name,” said Mr Lee.

If no legal action had been taken, Mr Lee said it would have been akin to “one more drop of poison (sinking) in”, and people suspecting that there may be some truth to the allegations.

The defamation suit has drawn considerable interest, with members of the public queueing as early as 5.20am to get a ticket to enter the public gallery.

Supporters from both sides were also seen entering the Supreme Court building.


The exchange between the plaintiff and the defence lawyer, which lasted about five hours, saw Mr Lim constantly arguing that Mr Lee was suing Mr Leong to “chill political discussion”, while Mr Lee denied those allegations repeatedly.

“The Government has, and so have I, dealt with repeated, multiple, prolonged onslaughts of criticism from your client. And indeed your client is far from the most vocal, or sharp or effective critic of the Singapore Government,” said Mr Lee, who is represented by Mr Davinder Singh of Davinder Singh Chambers.

“There are many who are more effective than him whom we have not sued. Because that’s not the answer,” he added.

The answer, instead, lies in the ballot box, said Mr Lee.

“Persuade Singaporeans, see if they support you, or the Government. And indeed it was put to the test in the recent General Election (GE),” he added.

Mr Lim, who is Secretary-General of opposition party Peoples Voice, and Mr Leong both contested the Jalan Besar Group Representation Constituency at the July 10 GE, garnering 34.63 per cent of the vote.

The exchange between Mr Lee and Mr Lim was peppered with objections by Mr Singh, who questioned the relevance of Mr Lim’s line of questioning and raised the argument that his points are repetitive.

Justice Aedit Abdullah had to intervene multiple times to redirect Mr Lim’s line of questioning and also to bring a stop to the few occasions where the men started talking over each other.

Mr Lim also questioned why Mr Lee decided to sue Mr Leong for defamation instead of The Coverage or sociopolitical website States Times Review — the publication that first produced the article — and its editor Alex Tan.

Using Mr Lee’s words that not taking legal action would be like allowing “one more drop of poison to sink in”, Mr Lim asked Mr Lee why he chose to take action against a single drop in the form of Mr Leong as an individual, instead of the ocean, which is the States Times Review and The Coverage.

By going after the original publications that produced the article, Mr Lim said Mr Lee would have access to better remedies and could get as many injunctions as he wanted.

Mr Lee disagreed, and added that the court case would allow him to be grilled and the allegations demolished. “That is what clears my reputation, not who is on the other side.”

“People know me for many years and they will not likely revise their view of me. But each time a question mark is raised without a proper response, each time I don’t clear my name, a little more damage is done, and cumulatively people will start to doubt,” said Mr Lee.

Mr Lim countered: “So you think your reputation can best be recovered not by suing the originator of that article but against someone who shares it?”

Mr Lee said he is clearing his reputation whomever he sues, but he believes that filing this suit against Mr Leong is the best approach after consulting with his lawyer, who has also represented Mr Lee in previous defamation suits.

At the end of the hearing, Mr Singh expressed his desire for Mr Leong to take the stand the next day. To which Mr Lim replied that he will "assess the situation" on Wednesday after Mr Singh finishes cross-examining his expert witness Dr Phan Tuan Quang, an expert in social media from the University of Hong Kong. 

Mr Singh then questioned if Mr Leong had changed his mind, as Mr Lim's opening statement indicated that his client will present himself to be cross-examined.

Mr Singh added that he hoped Mr Leong would have the “courage” to testify on Wednesday, alluding to Mr Lim’s use of the word when he questioned the Prime Minister whether he had the “courage” to sue The Coverage or the States Times Review. 
Mr Lim responded: "My client has no lesser courage than the plaintiff in not suing The Coverage or the States Times Review.”


Related topics

Lee Hsien Loong defamation Leong Sze Hian

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