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PM Lee awarded S$210,000 in damages after winning defamation suits against The Online Citizen editor and writer

SINGAPORE — The High Court on Wednesday (Sept 1) awarded Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong a total of S$210,000 in damages, after he won two separate defamation lawsuits against the chief editor and a writer from sociopolitical site The Online Citizen (TOC).

PM Lee awarded S$210,000 in damages after winning defamation suits against The Online Citizen editor and writer

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) and Mr Terry Xu (right), chief editor of The Online Citizen.

  • ​Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued the chief editor of The Online Citizen and the writer of an article it published for defamation
  • The article was about founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s family home at 38 Oxley Road
  • The High Court awarded Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong S$210,000 in damages in total
  • Mr Lee intends to donate to charity the damages he has been awarded

 

SINGAPORE — The High Court on Wednesday (Sept 1) awarded Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong a total of S$210,000 in damages, after he won two defamation lawsuits against the chief editor and a writer from sociopolitical site The Online Citizen (TOC).

The lawsuits stemmed from an article published in TOC in August 2019 about Mr Lee’s family home at 38 Oxley Road.

In a 60-page judgement, Justice Audrey Lim found that the article was defamatory. 

The judge also agreed that TOC’s editor Terry Xu had acted maliciously and recklessly in publishing the article, and so aggravated damages were warranted.

Mr Lee had sought an unspecified amount of damages including aggravated damages, an injunction to restrain Mr Xu from publishing or disseminating the allegations and legal costs.

Justice Lim ruled that Mr Xu and the article writer, Ms Rubaashini Shunmuganathan, are to be “jointly and severally” liable for S$160,000 as the article was a “joint enterprise” between the pair.

Mr Xu also has to pay S$50,000 in aggravated damages.

Ms Rubaashini was found liable for damages when she did not respond to a writ of summons within the stipulated time. She was then deemed to have admitted to all the allegations brought against her.

Mr Xu had told Ms Rubaashini, a Malaysian, to write the article and said at the time that he needed “some creative writing”. 

The judge also granted Mr Lee the injunction he had sought. She will next hear parties on costs in both suits.

In response to media queries, the Mr Lee's press secretary Chang Li Lin said: “As usual, PM Lee intends to donate to charity the damages he has been awarded.”

Mr Xu said in a Facebook post that he and his lawyer, Mr Lim Tean, were very disappointed and are considering their next steps, such as appealing against the judgements.

THE ARTICLE

The article published in TOC was titled: “PM Lee’s wife Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members”.

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

Since 2017, Mr 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 their father Lee Kuan Yew’s death in 2015.

The TOC article, Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s lawyers said, repeated false allegations that had previously been made by his siblings that gravely injured his character and reputation.

Mr Xu removed the article after Ms Chang wrote to him. But he published it again three days later with a qualifier, an additional paragraph about the Prime Minister’s Office’s letter of demand, and the letter itself.

The prime minister sued both Mr Xu and Ms Rubaashini for defamation shortly after. 

In a court affidavit, Mr Lee said that a “very significant number of persons” had viewed the article. It was read about 114,000 times within about three months of its publication and a post on TOC’s Facebook page containing the link had reached about 40,000 people within the same period.

Mr Lee, through his lawyers, claimed that five paragraphs in the article were defamatory.

He argued that these paragraphs would cause readers to believe that he had misled his father into thinking that 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted as a heritage building and it was futile to demolish it, which then led Lee Kuan Yew to change his will to bequeath the house to Mr Lee.

Mr Lee also noted that the article alleged that his father had removed him as an executor and trustee of his will after learning in late 2013 that the property had not been gazetted.

Mr Lee’s position is that his father had decided as early as July 2011 to remove him as executor.

Justice Lim accepted Mr Lee’s argument that an ordinary reasonable person reading the article, using his general knowledge and common sense, would understand these to be the “natural and ordinary meaning” of these paragraphs — the standard test for defamation.

MR XU’S ARGUMENTS

Conversely, she rejected Mr Xu’s defence that the article did not draw a link between the removal of Mr Lee as an executor and when his father allegedly learnt that the property had not been gazetted.

The judge noted that Mr Xu did recognise the possibility of this misinterpretation and had admitted it in court, which was why he had added a qualifier to the article when he posted it online a second time.

Mr Xu had also argued that the article was merely recounting allegations by the prime minister’s siblings and did not suggest the allegations were true. 

But Justice Lim said this did not change the defamatory meaning of the article, which also did not give the prime minister’s version of events.

The TOC editor also contended that the article meant it was ironic for Mdm Ho to be sharing a story about toxic family members. This was because he felt Mdm Ho, and not her husband, was the toxic member in the Lee family.

Justice Lim rejected this, saying that an ordinary reasonable reader would not have understood it that way.

PUBLISHER SHOULD ‘EXERCISE DUE DILIGENCE’

In assessing the damages, Justice Lim said the libel was “grave and serious” and alleged dishonesty on the prime minister’s part. The courts have also consistently given higher damages to public leaders due to the greater damage inflicted on them.

She added: “The defamatory remarks do not merely attack his personal integrity, character and reputation, but that of the prime minister, and damage his moral authority to lead Singapore.

“TOC’s wide viewership and role lends credence to the publication, thereby rendering it more believable to the ordinary reader. This factor hence weighs in favour of higher damages.”

The judge also found that by repeating allegations made by the prime minister’s siblings and adding his own, Mr Xu had magnified their reach and added the weight of his own authority to them.

In finding that Mr Xu acted with malice, the judge agreed with Mr Lee’s lawyers that he used Mdm Ho’s post as a peg to attack Mr Lee. She also described the editor’s conduct as “reckless and irresponsible”.

“A publisher of such grave allegations should exercise due diligence and responsibility in verifying the veracity of the facts and assertions in the article. This is all the more so as Xu is the chief editor of TOC, which holds itself out as a news organisation. 

“Yet, he did not. On the contrary, he instructed (Ms Rubaashini) to do some ‘creative writing’ containing one-sided allegations against (Mr Lee) and uploaded the draft within 10 minutes of receiving it without any edits.”

The judge further noted that Mr Xu did not have personal knowledge of whether the allegations were true and did not independently verify them before publishing the article. He also did not subpoena Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang to testify on the matter.

In awarding the prime minister aggravated damages, Justice Lim said that far from keeping quiet about the suit before it concluded, Mr Xu used “various social media and news platforms… to paint a narrative of how (Mr Lee) used his position and resources to bring libel suits to intimidate and silence his opponents”.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article stated that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was awarded S$370,000 in damages. The Supreme Court has since clarified that he was awarded S$210,000 in total damages. Either Mr Xu or Ms Rubaashini will have to pay S$160,000 to Mr Lee for damages, but not both of them. On top of that, Mr Xu has to pay S$50,000 in aggravated damages. 

Related topics

defamation Lee Hsien Loong 38 Oxley Road court Terry Xu TOC

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