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Singapore’s Litigious PM Lee at it Again
Premier goes after opposition politician, editor in libel suits as rights activist ordered to court
Barely three weeks after undergoing heavy criticism for allegedly using the courts to bully his brother’s wife over the disposal of his late father’s landmark home, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is back in court, seeking damages in simultaneous libel suits, one from an opposition politician and another against the editor of an online news site.
At about the same time, a local civil rights activist, Jolovan Wham, has been charged in an illegal public assembly in a one-person demonstration – holding up a cardboard sign with a smiley face on it near a police station, yet another indication of heavy-handedness on the part of Lee and the government against critics. The arrest has spurred others to pose with smiley pictures on Facebook, poking fun at the government.
The cascading number of court cases, especially as they involve what appear to be petty personal affronts, are placing growing stress on a court system that critics regard as the Lee family’s personal score-settling mechanism in a tiny country that has pegged its reputation to an ironclad impression of integrity, earned or not.
Adding to the embarrassment, the Lee family feud has inevitably seeped into cross-examination in the libel cases, with Hsien Loong forced to acknowledge that the family patriarch and modern Singapore founder Lee Kuan Yew had removed him and his wife Ho Ching, chief executive of Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings, as executors of his will. The will has become the focus of an embarrassing and acrimonious feud between the siblings that has spilled into widespread public view.
In the first of the two libel cases, Lee Hsien Loong’s lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, on November 30 sought damages of S$150,000 (US$112,000) in the Supreme Court for libel against Leong Sze Hian, a member of the opposition People’s Voice party. Leong briefly shared without comment on Facebook an unsubstantiated article from a Malaysian website, TheCoverage.my, as Asia Sentinel reported, containing allegations that Lee was implicated in Malaysia’s massive 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal. Leong almost immediately took the article down when the government complained.
The S$150,000 of damages Lee is seeking is within the range awarded by Singapore courts in past defamation cases. However, Lim Tean, the lawyer representing Leong, told the Supreme Court the damages should not be more than S$400, arguing only 200 to 400 people saw Leong’s upload. Lim, the founding leader of People’s Voice, was quoted in media reports saying, "I would not go so far as to ask the smallest coin in the realm, which is five cents. But a dollar is not out of the question."
Prime Minister cross-examined
Also on November 30 in the High Court, Lim cross-examined Lee for the latter’s defamation lawsuit against Terry Xu, chief editor of the Online Citizen. Lee is suing Xu over an August 2019 article titled “PM Lee’s wife Ho Ching weirdly shares an article on cutting ties with family members.” It referred to an article she posted on Facebook that was titled “Here is why sometimes it is okay to cut ties with toxic family members”.
Hsien Loong and his siblings, sister Lee Wei Ling and brother Lee Hsien Yang, have been at loggerheads over Lee Kuan Yew’s landmark colonial home at 38 Oxley Road. The elder Lee had wanted the home demolished lest it becomes a shrine to him. Hsien Loong is asking that it be preserved, his siblings allege.
Hsien Loong has denied the siblings’ angry Facebook accusations of dishonorable behavior. The affair culminated in late November with a judicial panel temporarily disbarring Hsien Yang’s wife over allegations she had unduly influenced the patriarch to change his will over the home.
In reaction to the Online Citizen article, Hsien Loong’s press secretary sent Xu a September 1, 2019 demand letter. Under cross-examination on November 30, the prime minister said he sent the letter through his press secretary, not his lawyers, in the hope of avoiding a lawsuit as long as Xu removed the article and apologized.
Xu did not accede to those demands. The article was temporarily removed from the Online Citizen website but was subsequently back with a statement by Xu that he has a “moral obligation” to “dissipate the climate of fear.”
Lim asked, “I suggest to you, Mr. Lee, that your actions indicate a man who was out to intimidate?”
Lee replied, “I don't solve these problems by intimidating people…. Intimidation gets you nowhere because if you intimidate somebody without justification and it goes to court you will get a black eye.”
Lim asked Lee why he chose to send that letter with the letterhead of the Prime Minister’s Office instead of his lawyer. By using the Prime Minister’s Office letterhead, Lim asked Lee if this was a signal to Xu, “I am coming after you as the prime minister of this country.”
Lee replied, “No, I am saying "You have defamed me as the Prime Minister of Singapore personally, but I am the prime minister and I have been defamed and I want you to take notice."”
“What I explained in parliament is not that anybody can say anything about the house, but that on the allegations which had been made by my siblings I had decided to take a different approach with them, and it did not mean carte blanche for anybody else to use that to spread those allegations and further defame me,” Lee added.
In his statement to Parliament in July 2017, Hsien Loong said suing his siblings would "further besmirch our parents' names" and cause distraction and distress to Singaporeans. He acknowledged in court that his relations with his siblings were “not in the best state,” but expressed the hope the family feud would end one day.
Hsien Yang told Asia Sentinel that Hsien Loong has never invited either of the siblings to Lunar New Year family reunions since Lee Kuan Yew died in March 2015.
On December 1, Xu was questioned by Lee’s lawyer Davinder Singh on whether he had verified the allegations by the siblings which were reproduced in the Online Citizen article. Xu replied he “saw no way” of doing this, adding that the siblings have supplied their own evidence.
Under cross-examination by Singh on December 2, Xu said the letter from Hsien Loong’s press secretary was an act of intimidation, but denied bearing “venom” and malice. An important factor in winning a libel lawsuit is to prove the person who made the allegedly defamatory statements did so maliciously.
It remains to be seen how the cases will play out. But another fact that emerged from testimony is that Lee Kuan Yew met members of his son’s cabinet on July 21, 2011. At that meeting, Lee senior said he wanted his house demolished sometime after he died, in his “usual” forceful manner, Lee Hsien Loong disclosed. All the ministers present at that meeting except Lee Hsien Loong opposed demolition, he added. “I did not say anything because I was conflicted. I was his son.”
Kuan Yew’s first will was drafted by his late wife Kwa Geok Choo in 1995, with executors including Lee Hsien Loong and Ho Ching, Hsien Loong revealed under cross-examination on December 1. After the cabinet meeting on July 21, 2011, the second will was drafted on August 20, 2011 on Lee Kuan Yew’s orders by Kwa Kim Li, a lawyer and niece of Kwa Geok Choo. The second will no longer included Lee Hsien Loong and his wife as executors, Lee Hsien Loong admitted. The final will has only Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling as its executors.
Lee Hsien Loong admitted that on July 23, 2011, his father wrote to him saying, "As there could be contention over 38 Oxley Road I have left you out as an executor. The house is worth over 20 million and both of them (Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang) have told me they would resist confiscation without compensation."
On November 30, Xu posted on his Facebook a photograph of himself standing outside the Singapore Supreme Court wearing a face mask with a smiley face, saying he was smiling in solidarity with Jolovan Wham.
Wham was charged in a Singapore district court on November 23 with two offenses under the Public Order Act. The 40-year-old Singaporean is said to have demonstrated support for Xu and Daniel De Costa, a contributor to the Online Citizen, by holding up a piece of paper with the words - "Drop the charges against Terry Xu and Daniel De Costa."
Xu and De Costa were charged on December 13, 2018 with criminal defamation for allegedly defaming members of the Singapore cabinet in a letter published on the Online Citizen website. Their cases are still pending.
Amnesty International, in a statement on November 27, called on the Singapore government to “immediately drop its absurd case” against Wham who is facing two charges of “illegal assembly” for posing on his own for a photo with a placard of a smiley face.”