Veteran Singaporean blogger Leong Sze Hian says he experienced an “Easter Sunday miracle.”
On Apr. 4, he shared the good news on his Facebook page: that he managed to raise a total of $133,000 via crowdfunding to pay his prime minister Lee Hsien Loong after the leader won a high-profile defamation lawsuit against him.
“It was a two-year ordeal and I’m just glad it’s over,” the 66-year-old, who is also a member of the country’s fledgling political opposition, told VICE World News.
Leong also added that he was extremely grateful and touched by the overwhelming public support he received in the months following the hearings.
Singapore’s leaders have a long history of resorting to the country's courts as a way to control criticism, using both criminal and civil law, according to rights groups. Many international media outlets, including the New York Times, Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal, were not spared from paying damages.
In 2019, Lee, also the secretary-general of the longtime ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), sued Leong for defamation over a news article he had shared on Facebook alleging Lee’s role in Malaysia’s 1MDB financial corruption scandal. There is no evidence backing up the claims.
Lee’s actions were swift, filing a writ of summons against Leong within days for defamation and harshly discrediting him in court as being “not the most vocal or effective critic” of his government.
In court, Lee’s legal team argued that Leong’s actions on Facebook were “highly defamatory” and contained “false and baseless accusations.”
Leong’s lawyer Lim Tean contended that he was not responsible for writing or publishing the original article and that there was no proven evidence anyone had even clicked on it.
“People share posts on Facebook every day but I was specifically targeted for doing so,” Leong said in his defense. He also removed the offending post.
In a ruling that surprised nobody, high court judges ruled earlier this year in favor of Lee, saying that Leong had displayed “reckless disregard of whether the article was true or not” and shared the defamatory article “without making any enquiries about its truth.”
Singapore's late prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was a firm believer in defamation lawsuits. PHOTO: KITAMURA TOSHIFUMI / AFP
While Leong was able to raise the funds for his case, other Singaporeans like human rights and political activist Roy Ngerng, now living safely in Taiwan, haven’t been so lucky.
In 2014, Ngerng was successfully sued by Lee for defamation and stood his ground in court, even cross-examining him. He told VICE World News that it was a “proud moment in history” for him. Unlike Leong, however, he was unable to pay the full amount and eventually fled the country.
But he said Leong’s case marked a step forward.
“Protests are not allowed in Singapore but the fact that Leong Sze Hian was able to raise that amount of money to pay off our prime minister sends a strong signal that Singaporeans no longer tolerate our government’s abuse of the law to go against those who dare speak up,” Ngerng said.
“Protests are not allowed in Singapore but the fact that Leong Sze Hian was able to raise that amount of money to pay off our prime minister sends a strong signal that Singaporeans no longer tolerate our government’s abuse of the law to go against those who dare speak up.”
Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch, agreed.
“The PAP’s defamation lawsuits are simply about maintaining control. But Singaporeans [are becoming bolder and braver] and will not be fooled,” he said.
The old supreme court building in Singapore. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Yet the outcome begs the question of why the leader of a wealthy, modern country continues to bring lawsuits against his own citizens?
Singaporean political expert Eugene Tan, also an associate law professor, said the island nation’s leaders see defamation as a “serious threat” to the standing of the government and of their own fitness to rule.
“It is consistent behavior on their part to turn to the protection of law should they be defamed, [they believe] not doing so would risk their reputations.”
Tan explained that suing was regarded as “the only way” to clear their names and reputations.
“To be clear, one is free to comment about politics and the government in Singapore and this includes criticizing their competency and capabilities in any policy domain,” he said.
“But the sting lies in suggesting dishonesty, corruption or fraud. Then the person making the allegations must be able to back them up, otherwise defamation law comes into play.”
“One is free to comment about politics and governance in Singapore but the sting lies in suggesting dishonesty, corruption or fraud.”
For his part, Leong hopes that his case and the publicity around it would mean an end to future lawsuits.
“I hope that this will be the last time any of our ruling party politicians will sue citizens for defamation,” Leong said.
“The PAP has to realize that it does not pay to sue ordinary Singaporeans, the people who they are meant to be protecting, by bringing us to court and treating us like criminals.”
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