It’s been entertaining, until it got tiring. I am talking about the defamation suit the Prime Minister filed against Mr Terry Xu of The Online Citizen. Even “irrelevant’’ questions were interesting, like whether PM Lee Hsien Loong invited his siblings for Chinese New Year reunion dinner or when was the last time the siblings spoke to each other. I guess the questions were asked to show the extent of animosity the PM and his wife, Madam Ho Ching, had for the brother-and-sister team? But what animosity? All coming from their side, the PM asserted.
You would think some patriarch was tending to a family squabble, except that he’s dead and the issue is now before a judge. I am almost tempted to tell the two warring sides to go slug it out in a quiet alley but the police would be after me for incitement of violence.
What is this defamation lawsuit going to achieve? If the PM succeeds, will it be vindication for him? That he did not mislead his late father into thinking that the house had been gazetted?
If you haven’t been following, the allegations in TOC and its import goes something like this: The late Lee Kuan Yew wanted the house demolished and said so in his first four wills. The allegation is that after PM Lee told him the house had been gazetted and hence cannot be demolished, this particular demolition clause was taken out of the fifth and six wills. It went back into the final will, ostensibly because LKY found out that no move had been made about the house. In other words, the PM had conned his father. In fact, LKY was so angry that he removed PM Lee as an executor and trustee of his will.
Hence, law suit.
If only it were that simple.
The problem is that the TOC relied on words that PM Lee’s siblings, particularly Dr Lee Wei Ling, used in the heat of public email exchanges over the fate of the Oxley Road house in 2017. The PM decided then that he would not sue his siblings. This means we wouldn’t know if whatever they said was true since they hadn’t been tested in a court of law. The PM believes that since he had given a reply to their charges in Parliament, the issue is done and dusted. Over.
What he didn’t say then was that it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t sue others who repeated what his siblings said. And that’s perfectly legal, by the way. It’s pretty common for plaintiffs to choose to sue some people but not the others. For example, authors can get sued but not the printers or even publishers who carried the defamatory remarks.
When news broke that TOC was being sued, I thought it was an adroit move by PM Lee. What better way to tell opposition politicians that they had better be careful about using his siblings’ words against him when the general election rolls around? In fact, there wasn’t much campaigning over Oxleygate during GE2020, which either showed the opposition “got’’ the message or believed this wasn’t an issue that would energise the electorate.
The article in TOC appeared in August 2019, and it had seemed a wonder to me that nobody else had tried to besmirch PM Lee by using his siblings as a proxy in the intervening two years.
PM fired the first shot the next month in September with a “letter of demand’’ from his press secretary which was publicized in the media. When TOC declined to say sorry or take down the article, he sued because the article had gravely injured his character and reputation and brought him into “public scandal, odium and contempt’’.
I haven’t heard or read anyone who believes that TOC has a chance in hell of overturning the suit.
Perhaps, TOC would have had a better shot if the court did not turn down his application to have documents such as correspondence among the family members and minutes of Cabinet meetings related to the house for his perusal as part of the “discovery’’ process. No reason was given or, at the very least, it was not reported. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/toc-editor-fails-in-bid-to-obtain-documents-from-pm
I presume Mr Xu was hoping to uncover angry letters from LKY to his son. Or maybe he was hoping that the minutes would show that PM Lee took an active part in Cabinet discussions about the house, instead of maintaining the silence that he said he did. In any case, he had no luck there.
Mr Xu had also wanted to have the siblings involved in a third-party action. After all, he had relied on their words and if he lost, they too should bear some of the damages.
Alas, it was not to be. One month after he applied to the court to have their names included, Mr Xu’s lawyers wrote to say that this was being withdrawn.
During the trial, Mr Xu said he saw no need for this, and later said because he thought the process was “too late’’. PM Lee’s lawyer Davinder Singh jumped at this to say that this was because the siblings themselves couldn’t establish the truth behind their allegations. I was frankly quite flummoxed. What happened to the idea of having the siblings to bear some of the damages should PM Lee win the suit?
The case yesterday concluded with LKY’s lawyer, Ms Kwa Kim Li, on the stand. Finally, the public reads of the woman who appeared to have been cut out of involvement in drafting of the final will, either because she was uncontactable or deliberately ignored – depending on which warring side you want to believe.
Her testimony was short but illuminating: She said she had tried at least twice to find out if the house had been gazetted. She found nothing and had told LKY so.
Senior Counsel Davinder had no questions for her.
Some people have argued that this was just a family feud writ large – and none of anyone’s business. I disagree. I think the case has cast a spotlight on the role of the Prime Minister – as head of government, and as a member of a family. When should he wear which hat? In fact, given that MPs have the Rules of Prudence, shouldn’t there be a ministerial code of conduct as well? I recall there was one, a few decades ago.
Few people would view this defamation case in isolation, especially after the State’s successful contempt of court case against the PM’s nephew, Harvard lecturer Li Shengwu, and the 15-month suspension for his sister-in-law, Lee Suet Fern, from legal practice in Singapore. The State and the PM can argue that each case was independently pursued and based on its respective merits, but try telling that to the public. Even if independent and separate, questions would surface about the culture of conformity – whether people would do what they think the powerful would want done even without being asked to.
That Mr Li paid a derisory $15,000 fine for a case which traversed the oceans, with many stops and starts, would make a taxpayer wonder about the time and energy put into this. That Mrs Lee got a 15-month suspension instead of getting struck off the rolls as originally called for, also leaves people wondering if her role in the last will was much ado about nothing.
I suppose the argument is that a line must be drawn on what is appropriate or legal, and they have stepped across them. A good point, if consistently applied.
To answer the earlier question on what this defamation suit achieves: Glory for Mr Xu’s lawyer, Mr Lim Tean, who, by the way, is in the shadow of some pending sexual harassment case as well head of a political opposition party. He turned the suit into a question of power and authority, intimidation of the media and scare tactics. What a coup for him to be able to grill the PM on the stand, not just for this case but the earlier one against blogger Leong Sze Hian as well!