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I was one of the 20 who got a ticket to observe the first day of the proceedings of the defamation case brought by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (in his personal capacity) against financial advisor Leong Sze Hian.

I was originally just covering the hearings for a longform story that I’m working on — watch this space — but given the high level of public interest and the difficulty of gaining access to the courtroom, I’ve decided to put something together summing up the day.

The sun wasn’t up yet, and after a mere three hours of sleep my brain was only just slowly accepting that it was time to get to work again. I plodded around the corner of the Supreme Court building to… see a group of people ambling towards the red cordon marking out the queue for a spot in the public gallery.

The new arrivals seemed to know some of the others who were already in the queue, and were slowing down to say hello. I took the opportunity to, totes casually (or what my half-awake self thought passed for casual), slide into the queue, standing on the yellow safe-distancing marker by the end of the red cordon. The other newcomers moseyed into position behind me; a little later and my chances of getting into the public gallery could have been markedly slimmer, and some awkward messages might have had to be sent to my editors. (Heng ah.)

As a journalist without official accreditation from the Ministry of Communications and Information, I’m not allowed to enter the media gallery in courtrooms, and have to cover hearings from the public gallery, which means queuing up along with everyone else. So when I heard the dates of the trial, I already knew that I was in for some early mornings.

(That said, media accreditation didn’t guarantee much this time, since the media gallery was also full and a number of journalists from different outlets didn’t manage to get in.)

Based on my previous experience covering high-profile court cases, I suspected that there’d be plenty of interest. Furthermore, COVID-19 safe distancing rules mean that space in the public gallery is even more limited: in response to my queries, the Supreme Court said that “entry to the public gallery of the courtroom is on a first-come-first-served basis, subject to safe distancing measures and a maximum limit of 50 people (including judges, court officers, counsel and clients) in the courtroom.”

In the end, I decided to err on the side of kiasu and showed up at 6am. It was lucky I did; I was 14th in the queue. When it came to distributing entry tickets at 7am, all 20 were snapped up, and a few people at the back of the queue were left disappointed.

(Aside: I’ve learned that the coffee/drinks/dim sum stall in the Funan food court opens really early. I was very much in need of the teh si peng and the pork bun, which I guess you can say Milo Peng Funders of this newsletter paid for. 🙏🏼)

(Leong Sze Hian arriving at the Supreme Court on Tuesday morning.)

What’s this case about, ah?

On 7 November 2018, Leong Sze Hian shared an article by the Malaysian website The Coverage. The article was actually a republication of a piece published by the States Times Review (😒) on 5 November, which alleged that Lee Hsien Loong had become a target of 1MDB investigations because he’d been involved in helping Najib launder money embezzled from the Malaysian fund via banks in Singapore.

The allegations in the article were subject to fierce rebuttal from the Singapore government. On the same day that Leong came across the post and shared it, the High Commission of the Republic of Singapore in Malaysia issued a statement saying “categorically” that the article was “fake news and clearly libellous”. The Monetary Authority of Singapore later filed a police report against the States Times Review (STR), and Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam rebutted all claims. The Info-Communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) issued takedown notices to STR’s publisher Alex Tan, which he ignored, leading to the website being temporarily blocked. Facebook also annoyed the authorities at the (pre-POFMA) time by refusing to remove a post linking to the article.

Leong Sze Hian also received a notice from IMDA telling him to remove the link he’d shared. He did so on 10 November 2018. Two days later, he received a letter from Lee’s lawyers informing him that Lee was going to sue him for defamation.

Leong had at first tried to get the case struck out by claiming that the case brought against him was an abuse of court process, but this was dismissed by High Court Judge Aedit Abdullah, and also by the Court of Appeal.

Which brings us to 6 October.

Why was Leong the only one to kena?

Day 1’s hearing, again before Justice Aedit, was about gathering evidence via cross-examination: specifically, the cross-examination of Lee Hsien Loong, who took the stand for most of the day, from 10am to about 3:20pm (minus lunch). Submissions, where the lawyers make their arguments to the judge, will come later in the four days set aside for this trial.

The main crux of defence counsel Lim Tean’s questioning revolved around why his client, Leong Sze Hian, was the only one to be sued for defamation, even though “thousands” of others had shared STR and The Coverage’s articles.

How did Lee even come across Leong’s post? “It came to my attention because we scan the Internet and when something gets ‘hot’, the government tries to find out where it comes from. And I go there and I look and see what was there,” Lee replied. While he said that he doesn’t spend his “whole waking hours” on Facebook, he spends enough time on it every day to “track what is happening.”

While Lee agreed that Leong hadn’t edited The Coverage’s article, he nevertheless said that Leong’s sharing the article amounted to publishing it, and that it didn’t matter that he hadn’t made any comment or endorsement on his Facebook post.

Lee also agreed that, at the time of sharing the article, Leong hadn’t known if the Malaysian authorities was really investigating the Singapore government or not. But he argued that there had been malice in Leong’s sharing of the article because he did not “take the trouble to know” before sharing it. “This is reckless disregard of the truth,” he said.

Multiple times over the course of the hearing, Lim tried to get Lee to answer questions about why he didn’t sue anyone else, like The Coverage, or STR, or Alex Tan, or any of the other people who shared the articles, including former presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian and opposition politician Goh Meng Seng.

“So you allowed the perpetrators of this defamation, the STR and The Coverage, to go scot-free?” he demanded of Lee, after the latter said that he hadn’t sent letters of demand to either publication, nor STR’s publisher Alex Tan.

Lee’s responses to this repeated line of questioning usually came in one of two forms:

  1. That STR, Alex Tan, and The Coverage were out of jurisdiction because they were not in Singapore, and/or
  2. That the decision to sue Leong, and only Leong, was the result of discussion with legal counsel. At multiple points, Lee’s lawyer Davinder Singh would jump up to say that the discussion was privileged, and therefore Lim could not go down this line of questioning. Justice Aedit allowed the objection and told Lim to move on from this line of questioning — something that he reminded him of more than once.

On the point of jurisdiction: when Lim pointed out that Lee had sued foreign publications before, Lee responded that these publications, such as Bloomberg, had a presence in Singapore: “All foreign newspapers and news agencies which operate in Singapore are required to have a Singapore presence and to have a Singapore address where a suit may be filed against them, specifically for this reason, because otherwise we can’t reach them.”

But Lim also pointed out that, in an ongoing defamation case against The Online Citizen, Lee has also sued TOC’s writer in Malaysia (this is acknowledged in TOC’s report of these defamation proceedings). Lee’s answer was that in that case, TOC, the principal defendant, is in Singapore.

I suspect we’ll hear more about Leong being the only one getting sued over the course of the next few days, since it seems to be a big part of Leong’s defence. At one point, Lim Tean described it as “incredible” that the only person Lee was suing for defamation in relation to this matter was also the only individual who had been ordered by the IMDA to remove his post, even though many others had similarly shared the article. Lee said that his personal decision to sue was not connected to whatever the IMDA had done.

Still, Lim asserted that there is a “collateral purpose” to the lawsuit, “which is to silence critics such as the defendant and make sure that the Singapore people do not talk about the Singapore government's involvement with 1MDB, or allegations made about the Singapore government's involvement with 1MDB.”

Were the government responses enough?

Early in his cross-examination, Lim also pointed out that Singapore’s High Commission in Malaysia, the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and K Shanmugam had all vigorously rebutted the claims made in the articles in STR and The Coverage, putting it to Lee that there was actually no need for him to sue Leong Sze Hian to protect his reputation given that so much effort had already been made by the government to set the record straight.

Lee rejected this assertion, saying that Lim Tean’s attempt to argue “that rebuttals are sufficient and court trials are unnecessary” was a “simplistic proposition”.

Lee said: “I have a reputation for having sued people who have impugned me wrongly. Not lightly, not frequently, but where necessary. And, therefore, when a serious case arises and my reputation is injured, I have to act. Otherwise the question will arise: ‘He always acts when something serious is alleged, which is untrue, and in this case it is very serious. Why is he not acting?’”

Throw shade throw here throw there

While he didn’t raise his voice, Lee Hsien Loong got more spicy towards the end of the day, as Lim continued to suggest that there’d been some improper motive in “picking on” Leong, a critic of the government.

Lee rejected this assertion, saying that while Leong had been “a thorn in our side in a small way for a very long time”, he hadn’t been sued before because the PAP preferred to put it to “the test of the ballot”. This became an opportunity for Lee to mention that Lim and Leong’s People’s Voice team only won 35% of the vote in Jalan Besar in the 2020 general election.

More shade was forthcoming. “Your client is far from the most vocal or sharp or effective critic,” Lee told Lim Tean at one point. “There are many who are much more effective than him whom we have not sued, because that's not the answer. The answer is we’ll win the political fight, we’ll meet you — whether in Parliament or outside — debate you, win the argument and persuade Singaporeans.”

He later also characterised Leong’s criticism of the government as “ant bites”.

What next?

Day 2 is expected to begin with the cross-examination of Dr Tuan Quang Phan, an associate professor of marketing and innovation and information management at Hong Kong University Business School. (According to his website, he’s currently on leave from the National University of Singapore.)

It’s not yet clear if Leong will take the stand on Day 2. Lim Team indicated that he’ll “assess the situation” after the morning’s cross-examination.

(Leong’s lawyer Lim Tean speaking to the press before the hearing on Tuesday morning.)

I’m going to head down in the morning (or, looking at the time, after I’ve had a few hours’ sleep), but no promises about whether I’ll get in for Day 2!

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