Sometimes Singapore's tiny size is great. It never takes more than 90 minutes to get anywhere. But sometimes, the island nation can feel a bit too small, like when the prime minister sues you over something you posted on Facebook.
That's what happened last week when a columnist critical of the government shared a controversial article from Malaysian publication The Coverage on social media. The story claimed that former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who is now facing prison time amid massive corruption allegations, arranged for stolen funds to be laundered via Singapore with the help of Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
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Lee has denied the claims, calling them "false and baseless" and "calculated to disparage and impugn the plaintiff in his office as the prime minister." On Wednesday, he sued the columnist, Singaporean financial advisor and blogger Leong Sze Hian, for defamation.
But rights groups are now calling the lawsuit the latest instance of the government cracking down on freedom of expression. Singapore, which has been ruled by one political party since independence, has a long history of using civil defamation lawsuits to silence individuals who criticize the government or taint the image of high-ranking officials. But this case, however, is unusual given that the columnist, Leong, didn't actually write anything controversial. In fact, he didn't write anything at all.
The offending article was shared without comment by Leong. In a statement he posted on Facebook, the 65 year-old writer explained how he had shared a link to The Coverage story in early November, only to take it down after being asked to do so by Singaporean regulators.
Leong, who serves on the advisory board of the Convention of Independent Financial Advisors, was accused of posting the article “maliciously” in an attempt to “damage” the PM. Pictures of the legal notice are visible in Leong’s statement, which rejected the lawsuit’s claims.
The lawsuit caught the eye of regional rights campaigners. "Sharing" or "liking" alleged defamatory content shouldn't be considered the same thing as publishing it, Priya Pillai, a Manila-based lawyer and consultant who specializes in human rights, told VICE. This incident "implicates not just freedom of expression and opinion, but also the role and regulation of social media," Pillai explained.
Others agree. Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, told VICE that the lawsuit "smacks of selective persecution."
“[So] many people shared the article in question, why is Leong Sze Hian being singled out for legal action?" Robertson said.
VICE reached out to Leong for comment, but he did not respond by publication. He's known in the city-state for his critical takes on government policies. A frequent commentator on national issues, he’s also a self-described fighter for human rights. Given the columnist’s "already fractious relationship with Singapore authorities, this may well be viewed as a way to stifle freedom of expression," Pillai explained.
The Malaysian corruption scandal, referred to as 1MDB in the press after the name of the state development fund that was allegedly raided by Najib and his cronies, is an immensely sensitive topic in neighboring Singapore. The nation prides itself as an orderly and corruption-free business hub.
But as investigators unravel the details of the 1MDB case, it's pulling some Singaporean lenders into the fray (as documented in the recent book Billion Dollar Whale). Still, there's no evidence that Lee was aware of the scandal before the allegations broke.
And some experts can't help but wonder if anyone would've even heard of The Coverage, or it's allegations of Lee's involvement in the scandal, if the lawsuit never happened. Pillai told VICE that the lawsuit is “arguably resulting in the potential for greater reputational damage."