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Li Shengwu fined S$15,000 for scandalising judiciary in 2017 Facebook post

SINGAPORE — A High Court judge on Wednesday (July 29) found Mr Li Shengwu — who is the nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong — guilty of contempt of court and fined him S$15,000 for a 2017 Facebook post which scandalised the judiciary.

Mr Li Shengwu wrote in a friends-only Facebook post that the Singapore Government was “very litigious” and has a “pliant court system”. He was commenting on the Oxley Road saga.

Mr Li Shengwu wrote in a friends-only Facebook post that the Singapore Government was “very litigious” and has a “pliant court system”. He was commenting on the Oxley Road saga.

  • Mr Li, who is Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s nephew, was found guilty of contempt of court
  • If he cannot pay the fine within the next two weeks, he will have to serve a week in jail
  • Since January, Mr Li, who is based in the United States, has refused to take part in the legal proceedings
  • The case arose over a 2017 Facebook post where he wrote that the Singapore Government was “very litigious” and has a “pliant court system”

 

SINGAPORE — A High Court judge on Wednesday (July 29) found Mr Li Shengwu — who is the nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong — guilty of contempt of court and fined him S$15,000 for a 2017 Facebook post which scandalised the judiciary.

Mr Li, an assistant economics professor at Harvard University, was not present at the hearing.

If he cannot pay the fine within the next two weeks, he will have to serve a week in jail. Justice Kannan Ramesh also ordered him to pay S$16,570 in costs for the legal proceedings.

Since January, Mr Li — who is based in the United States — has refused to take part in the proceedings.

In February, the court ordered him to return to Singapore to be cross-examined as he did not answer under oath various questions posed to him by the AGC. 

In the Facebook post, which Mr Li put up on July 15, 2017 under a friends-only setting, he wrote that the Singapore Government was “very litigious” and has a “pliant court system”.

He was commenting on the dispute between his father Lee Hsien Yang, his aunt Lee Wei Ling, and his uncle, PM Lee, over the fate of the home of his grandfather, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, at 38 Oxley Road.

WHAT THE JUDGE SAID

Justice Ramesh’s sentence aligned with that sought by representatives of the AGC earlier this month.

The judge said: “It is clear that the post conveys the meaning that the judiciary is not independent and impartial, and is susceptible to influence or pressure from the Government when legal proceedings are brought by its leaders. 

“It is axiomatic that this undermines confidence in the administration of justice.”

Mr Li’s use of the words “a pliant court system” implied that “comprehensive and accurate reporting on the Oxley Road dispute would likely result in legal proceedings being brought by Singapore’s leaders, with the judiciary deciding in their favour because it is compliant and subservient to the Government”, Justice Ramesh added.

He rejected Mr Li’s assertion that he was referring to how defamation laws have developed in Singapore — that is, in a way that supported broader state interests. The interpretation was “simply not apparent” from the post, the judge said.

As to the argument that the post was on a friends-only setting and not intended for the public to see, Justice Ramesh said it avoided “the core issue of whether it was reasonably foreseeable that the post would be republished”.

An inference could be drawn that Mr Li had a substantial number of friends, including reporters, which increased the risk of republication, the judge said.

“Mr Li’s mere expectation that his ‘friends’ would maintain the confidentiality of his private Facebook posts was insufficient. In any event, it seems that his expectations were misplaced given that the post was in fact republished,” Justice Ramesh added.

He imposed the default jail sentence after finding Mr Li’s case similar to that of activist Jolovan Wham and opposition politician John Tan, who were also fined for scandalising the judiciary.

WHAT THE CASE IS ABOUT

Mr Li uploaded the post while in Singapore. After failing to comply with requests by AGC to apologise and delete the post, AGC began legal proceedings against him for scandalising the judiciary. 

In February this year, the High Court dismissed his application to set aside the various questions that AGC had posed to him. 

These included how many Facebook friends he had, who they were, and how many of them were reporters.

Written legal submissions on the application were due a week before Mr Li’s February hearing. 

However, he wrote on Facebook on Jan 22 that he would no longer take part in the legal proceedings.

AGC said that to date, he has refused to answer its questions under oath or produce certain documents referred to in his defence affidavit filed on Sept 24 last year. 

In his post, Mr Li said that his decision to refrain from future participation was due to AGC’s actions in court.

In particular, he singled out AGC’s application to strike out parts of his defence affidavit, such that they would not be considered during the trial. 

The next day, AGC said in response that parts of Mr Li’s defence affidavit had been struck out because it contained matters that were scandalous and irrelevant to the issues in the case.

It also said that his decision to withdraw from the case was to avoid the prospect of answering questions under oath and disclosing information. 

The High Court ruled to strike out parts of Mr Li’s affidavit in November last year. 

Neither Mr Li nor AGC specified the parts of his affidavit that had been removed. 

Mr Li had also previously appealed the High Court’s decision to allow AGC to serve legal papers on him in the US.

The Court of Appeal ruled in April last year that the papers had been properly served.

The AGC argued that the risk of his post being republished was “entirely foreseeable”. 

At the time, the Oxley Road saga was fresh in the public’s mind and his “inflammatory comments” meant that the “potential for widespread dissemination is very clear”.

The post in question remains up on Mr Li’s page but the phrase “pliant court system” has been removed.

Deputy Chief Counsel Low Siew Ling argued earlier this month that Mr Li did not publicly clarify or disclose what the amendment to his post was, as he “clearly intends for the sting of the post to remain in the public domain”.

The fact that he later amended the post was also “telling because it shows he accepts the original post could carry a contemptuous meaning”, Ms Low added.

Mr Li had also sent his defence affidavit to several “selected” foreign media organisations in breach of the Supreme Court’s practice directions, as well as Singapore news media CNA after Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post published an article on the affidavit. 

In a Facebook post on Wednesday following the court's judgment, Mr Li wrote that he disagreed with the judgment and was worried that it will "reinforce the PAP's (People's Action Pary's) tendency to suppress ordinary political speech".

"In response to three words in a private Facebook post, the government has wasted three years of civil servants' time," he wrote. 

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