SINGAPORE – Leong Sze Hian playfully describes himself as the first person ever to be sued for sharing a news story on Facebook with no accompanying comment.
The 67-year-old financial advisor, blogger and opposition politician is the latest critic to lose a punitive libel suit against Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is widely seen as following in his national founder father Lee Kuan Yew’s footsteps in using lawsuits to stifle dissent.
The offending post came at a steep price. Last month, a court judge ordered Leong to pay the premier, the world’s highest-paid political leader, S$133,000 (US$98,867) in damages for defamation.
Justice Aedit Abdullah found that Leong could not “reasonably claim that the defamatory words” in the link he shared “did not impugn [Lee’s] character.”
The article in question was published by Malaysian website The Coverage in November 2018, and falsely alleged that Lee was involved in financial fraud and working in cahoots with former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak to launder funds in the multi-billion dollar 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.
According to his lawyer, Leong was one of thousands who shared the article, which authorities in the city-state roundly rebutted soon after its publication.
However, he is so far the only person who has been sued in connection with the story’s spurious allegations. The court, in a precedent-setting decision, found that Leong had “published” the article by merely sharing it.
The case has struck a chord: Leong was able to crowdfund the entire sum of damages owed to Lee in just 11 days. The activist sexagenarian has also received an outpouring of online support from Singaporeans who contacted him vowing to pledge funds to the campaign after they received their monthly salaries.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by thousands of messages of support and encouragement,” said Leong in an interview with Asia Times. “In the past, people were really wary of criticizing the government openly, but now everybody’s just doing it. We’ve come to such a ridiculous state of affairs. The general feel of Singaporeans seems to be turning to anger.”
Prime Minister Lee, 69, who sued Leong for libel in his capacity as a private citizen, said in court that he did so to protect his reputation and integrity against the accusations made.
But some observers see the case as having hurt Lee’s political standing, particularly among key voter demographics that have already started to turn on his long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).
Singapore’s PAP leaders are no strangers to using defamation suits to clear their names. Foreign media have often been sued for alleged libel and settled out of court, while opposition politicians and online commentators have been bankrupted by the steep damages and associated legal fees in lost lawsuits.
As a wealthy business hub in a region that has struggled to curtail financial corruption, Singapore’s government prides itself on a zero-tolerance stance and is thus extremely sensitive to any allegation of impropriety against its leaders.
The premier appeared in court last year for Leong’s case and in a separate libel suit against a local news editor.
Lee, who has been in office consecutively since 2004, also took the witness stand in 2015 against blogger Roy Ngerng Yi Ling, who he had sued for implicating him in impropriety in the management of funds in a mandatory retirement savings scheme.
Ngerng was ordered to pay the prime minister S$150,000 ($111,481) in damages for defamation as well as S$29,000 ($21,553) for Lee’s legal fees. His case marked the first time the city-state’s leader had sued an online critic. Ngerng has lived in self-exile in Taiwan since 2016 and remains a vocal critic of Singapore’s government.
“The clear intent of the defamation suits are to exact hefty penalties that force the person persecuted to stop writing, and on hindsight, to even chase the person out of Singapore if the person no longer has the financial capability to stay in the country,” Ngerng told Asia Times, adding that the trial had made it difficult for him to find employment in the city-state.
Unlike Ngerng, Leong was not the originator of the claims for which he was sued. The false allegations implicating Lee in the 1MDB scandal initially surfaced on Australia-based website States Times Review (STR), run by dissident Singaporean blogger Alex Tan. The STR’s claims were then republished by The Coverage and circulated on social media.
Forty-five people responded to Leong’s November 2018 Facebook post, which was open to public view, according to the court. An expert witness who took the stand for Lee estimated that the offending post reached between 200 and 400 Facebook users, findings that Leong’s lawyer disputed as “guesswork.”
Singapore’s online content regulator, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), served Leong with a notice to remove the Facebook post, which he immediately complied with. Lee said in court that he chose to sue Leong even after he removed the post on the basis that “removal does not expunge the defamation.”
During last October’s trial, defense lawyer Lim Tean asked Lee why he sued Leong, who merely shared the article without comment, and not the online publications that initiated and circulated the claims. The premier said he did so on the advice of his legal counsel, a strategy that Lim dubbed “surrogate litigation.”
Lee described Leong on the witness stand as “a thorn in our side in a small way for a very long time” while casting him as neither “the most vocal nor most effective critic of the Singapore government.” The premier said his answer to critics like Leong, a member of the Peoples Voice (PV) opposition party, was through the ballot box.
Lee went on to cite PV’s losing performance in the country’s July 2020 general election, noting that PV candidates who included both Leong and his lawyer Lim were bested by a PAP team in the Jalan Besar group constituency by a margin of 65.3% to 34.6%.
Those elections, however, resulted in a nearly nine-point vote swing against the PAP, which retained power with a reduced share of the vote almost everywhere it won. Analysts estimate that more than half of young voters had cast their ballots for opposition parties, along with many voters in their 40’s to 60’s who were impacted economically by Covid-19.
Maa Zhi Hong, a political analyst based in Singapore, said that while average Singaporeans were “unlikely to pay much attention” to Leong’s case, the episode had struck a nerve with these two demographics, which he identified as critical to the PAP’s longer-term electoral prospects, and had in turn “damaged Lee’s reputation.”
“Many young Singaporeans below 35 view the legal suit as an attempt to stifle opposition voices. At the same time, many middle-aged Singaporeans have suffered from job losses and are disgruntled with the government. Leong’s case is a perfect channel for them to express their disagreement with the government,” said Maa.
“This prompted a wave of donations for Leong, which did not materialize for Roy Ngerng when he lost his legal suit in 2015,” he added. The first person who donated to Leong’s campaign to raise fees for the court battle in December 2018 was, in fact, Lee Hsien Yang, the prime minister’s estranged younger brother.
In 2017, Lee’s siblings accused him of abusing his executive powers in relation to a property dispute involving their late father’s home, claims that the premier has adamantly denied. Lee has not directly sued his siblings, though a separate pending libel case initiated by the premier counters claims that originated with and arguably went beyond what his siblings alleged.
Maa said that authorities’ rebuttal of 1MDB-related accusations involving Lee would have been sufficient for most Singaporeans, noting that transnational investigations into the globe-spanning financial scandal had yet to implicate the city-state’s long-serving leader.
But coming a year after the unprecedented family feud, “the prime minister had seemed determined not to appear as weak and have the final word on this matter,” opined the analyst. “But it is hard for the prime minister and his government not to look like the bully when this matter could have been easily settled without the courts.”
Singaporeans in general, Maa added, “continue to retain a strong sense of belief in the character of their prime minister even if they disagree with him politically.” But public solidarity with Leong suggests a “diminishing return on the court option, [which] should prompt the prime minister to rethink his strategy moving forward.”
During the court hearings, Leong declined to take the witness stand as his lawyer maintained that the premier’s case was “so frivolous and vexatious and abusive that we are not calling any evidence for the defense.” Leong’s lawyer asked to pay S$1 in damages, while Lee asked for S$150,000, in line with the amount paid by Ngerng.
Lim, who is the founder of the PV party, said in a Facebook post that Leong’s successful fundraising sends a “powerful message to Lee Hsien Loong and the PAP party.”
In a separate post, he said that the fundraiser had demonstrated Singaporeans’ capacity to not “bow down when we see injustice” despite the city-state’s draconian restrictions on in-person protests.
Leong has until April 24 to file an appeal against the court’s decision. He told Asia Times that his decision “depends on the advice of legal counsel, the views of Singaporeans and whether [I] have sufficient funds for the appeal costs.”
“Everywhere I go, people are putting money in my pocket. The funniest encounter was when a blind person came up to me, gave me some money and said I may be blind, but I can see the injustice,” Leong recounted, adding that he was relieved to put the more than two-year ordeal behind him.