Growing Crowdfunding Blunts Singapore Leader’s Libel Tactics

Opposition politician’s public haul pays off defamation suit

Singaporeans appear to be growing more and more fed up with the incessant defamation suits and contempt of court actions filed by the prime minister and the government against opponents, if the latest crowdfunding action to aid an opposition politician is any indication.

Although others have come close, Leong Sze Hian has become the first individual to raise enough public money to fully pay off S$133,000 (US$99,000) ordered by the high court after he was convicted of sharing an article uploaded onto Facebook deemed to have libeled Lee Hsien Loong, Leong told Asia Sentinel.

Crowdfunding for damages, which has been used by a growing number of defendants, thus appears to be weakening the power of libel actions and other legal tactics used by Singapore leaders in local courts for decades. The Prime Minister’s younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, in a bitter tangential family feud over the disposition of their father’s home, was one of the 2,000-plus people who donated to Leong’s crowdfunding campaign.

“I was happy to be one of the many donors who came forward to help Leong to pay off the damages awarded by the court. It is very significant so many Singaporeans came forward to express their support,” Lee Hsien Yang told Asia Sentinel.

Ironically, it was Hsien Yang’s father the late Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of independent Singapore, who pioneered the tactic of suing for defamation opposition politicians as well as a long list of foreign media like the Financial Times, The Economist, Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal and the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek and the International Herald Tribune.

“I am very grateful for the support and encouragement of Singaporeans,” said Leong, a member of the opposition People’s Voice party. “Thousands have written to me. It seems that the fear of the people may be turning into anger. I hope that this will be the last time that any politician will sue ordinary citizens for defamation (in Singapore), as they must realize now that it does not pay to continue to do so.”

On March 24, High Court Judge Aedit Abdullah ordered Leong to pay the damages to Lee for sharing on Facebook the defamatory article, taken from a Malaysian website The Coverage, which contained unsubstantiated allegations that Lee had forged improper deals with Najib Razak, when he was Malaysian Prime Minister to facilitate money laundering from the now-defunct Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

“It is but a pyrrhic victory,” Leong said. “The people have in a sense fought for their freedom of expression and need not fear for themselves and their children, in the exercise of the right to free speech.”

On April 4, Leong announced on his own Facebook page that his crowdfunding effort, launched 11 days earlier on the same day of the judge’s order, had raised the full amount with donations from 2,065 people, with the highest donation being S$5,000. On March 29, Leong said on Facebook that the “most hilarious message” came from a blind donor who told him, "I may be blind, but I can see the injustice!"

Prime Minister Lee is also suing Terry Xu, the chief editor of a local news portal called the Online Citizen, over an August 15, 2019 article which contained allegations by Hsien Loong’s estranged sister Lee Wei Ling, which the Prime Minister’s secretary Chang Li Lin said were libelous. A Singapore court is expected to announce a verdict on Xu’s case in several months. Although Lee sued the Online Citizen, he didn’t sue his sister.

“I hope that the two recent libel cases of Leong Sze Hian and Terry Xu are the last of the political libel trials our nation will witness,” said Lim Tean, the lawyer defending Leong and Xu. “Henceforth, the PAP should know that any attempt to curb free speech using antiquated libel laws will be met with the full resistance of the people, who are not prepared to be steamrolled any longer,” said Lim, the founding leader of People’s Voice.

“They may win the courts but these will be pyrrhic victories. The real winners will be the common man of Singapore who are willing to pay any price to support their champions such as Leong Sze Hian and Terry Xu, as this extraordinary crowdfunding campaign has demonstrated,” said Lim, whose legal work for Leong was pro bono.

Leong must still pay the legal fees of Prime Minister Lee on the court’s orders. These legal fees could be S$50,000 or more, according to estimates in Singapore legal circles. Leong’s crowdfunding campaign will continue so he can offset the legal costs, Lim said.

Even if Leong has to pay legal costs, he is unlikely to suffer the fate of two other Singapore opposition politicians, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Juan, who were bankrupted from having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages in defamation lawsuits by Singapore leaders. The late Jeyaretnam was declared bankrupt in 2001, while Chee, the secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), was declared bankrupt in 2006.

“Defamation lawsuits by the ruling party are intended to punish critics, and cripple them financially. If one disregards the time and effort that the defendant has to spend on his defense, then donations by the public to support the public mean that neither of these objectives is achieved,” said a Singaporean lawyer based in Hong Kong.

“Critics are likely to keep their silence for fear of the financial cost associated with losing these defamation claims. If the financial cost is covered by donations, however, this removes a significant disincentive for offering criticism, and could encourage more people to speak up,” said the lawyer, who declined to be named.

Ravi Philemon, the secretary general of another local opposition party Red Dot United, disclosed on Facebook on March 30 that he donated to Leong’s crowdfunding campaign.

“My reason for donating to Sze Hian is simple,” Philemon said. “Even if Sze Hian had harmed the reputation of Mr Lee, Mr Lee has ample resources at his disposal to set it straight without taking Sze Hian to court to exact a pound of flesh. It is about proportionality and fairness. Being the leader of our country, it is not enough for PM Lee to be honest. He also has to be magnanimous to his citizens.”

An SDP politician, Tan Jee Say, confirmed to Asia Sentinel that he had donated to Leong’s crowdfunding campaign, but declined to reveal the amount.

Even a Singapore retiree unaffiliated with any political party donated to Leong, the retiree said. “I hesitated a bit before making a S$133 contribution to Leong Sze Hian’s crowdfunding appeal because I did not at all support his act of sharing the article, which made claims of the Prime Minister’s collusion with Najib’s grand larceny of public funds in Malaysia. In fact, apparently, thousands shared the article and when one friend actually asked me if it was true, I immediately said it was nonsensical.”

Yet, the retiree said, “He was the only one singled out and sued. That was an unwarranted victimization, plus clearly an act to intimidate the public, and a resorting to some very nasty old habits in Singapore politics. So in the end, I decided to join those who were trying to push back against such a regressive step in our politics.”

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