Singapore

Blogger made no attempt to ascertain the truth of his post: PM Lee

Defence counsel charged that Leong Sze Hian was sued because he was a staunch government critic

Mr Leong Sze Hian may not have known the allegations he shared were false, but he made no attempt to ascertain the truth either way, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, taking the witness stand in the second half of yesterday's defamation hearing.

Responding to Mr Leong's lawyer, Mr Lim Tean, who had asked why PM Lee accused his client of malice when he did not know the truth, Mr Lee told the High Court: "Because he didn't take the trouble to know. This is reckless disregard of the truth."

PM Lee is suing Mr Leong over a post the blogger shared on his Facebook page on Nov 7, 2018, which contained a link to an article by Malaysian news site The Coverage.

The article contained allegations that former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak had signed "secret deals" with PM Lee in exchange for Singapore banks' help in laundering money from scandal-ridden Malaysian state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB.

Its content had been taken from the States Times Review (STR) site, owned by Singaporean Alex Tan Zhi Xiang, who lives in Australia.

During the hearing, Mr Lee was asked at several points why he chose to sue Mr Leong, instead of Mr Tan and STR or The Coverage. Mr Lim argued that Mr Leong's publication of the article was "technical and limited"; he had merely shared it on Facebook without comment.

"I disagree. Sharing is publication," Mr Lee said.

Mr Lim asked: "Can you tell the court of a single living person who has thought the worse of you because of the sharing of this article by the defendant?"

"This is not the way we approach such questions," Mr Lee said. "A very damaging allegation is made, published, circulated around. Either it is responded to publicly and cleared, and I vindicate my reputation, or one more drop of poison sinks in."

Mr Lim then asked if Mr Lee would rather take action against the drop - referring to his client - rather than the "ocean" that was STR and The Coverage.

The drop was not Mr Leong, PM Lee replied. "The drop is each accusation against me that is not rebutted - whether Leong Sze Hian or STR or The Coverage - it's the same grave accusation."

His decision to sue Mr Leong was the best approach he found after consulting his lawyer, Mr Lee said, adding that each time he does not clear his name, a little more damage is done and people will begin to wonder if there is some truth to the allegations.

The lawyer then asked if Mr Lee would not have obtained better remedies had he sued Mr Tan and STR, to which Mr Lee replied: "That's for me and my legal counsel to decide."

Both The Coverage and STR are out of Singapore's jurisidction, Mr Lee added.

Mr Lim then charged that Mr Leong was sued because he was a staunch government critic, saying he was picked to frighten others, not to protect Mr Lee's reputation.

"I did not do that," PM Lee replied, adding that Mr Leong has been "a thorn in our side in a small way for a very long time".

He noted Mr Leong had criticised many government policies on many occasions and forums, as he is entitled to.

"And our answer to that is, in the end, put it to the test, the test of the ballot."

PM Lee also told the court that Mr Leong is "far from the most vocal or sharp or effective critic of the Singapore government". There are many who are more effective than him, who have not been sued, he added.

Replied Mr Lim: "You admitted (Mr Leong) has been a thorn in the government's side. That's why you chose to sue him."

PM Lee responded: "I've explained to you that having borne this cross for so many years, there was no reason to sue him on the basis of his criticisms. We have learned to live with these ant bites."

Mr Lim then said that other prominent critics, such as former presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian and People's Power Party chief Goh Meng Seng, had not been sued.

He added: "The witness had not sued other opposition politicians but chose to pick on the defendant because he's a staunch government critic. And you were trying to strike fear in the Singapore population."

PM Lee responded: "Your Honour, he flatters his client."

COURT & CRIME