Yesterday (1st September), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was awarded S$210,000 in damages for two defamation suits. Lee filed the suits against the editor of The Online Citizen (TOC), Terry Xu Yuanchen and Malaysian writer Rubaashini Shunmuganathan.
The two defamation suits were over an article published in August 2019 which referenced Lee’s disputes with his siblings over their family home at 38 Oxley Road. According to Lee’s press secretary, the PM will be donating the damages to charity.
The article, titled “PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members” was published on TOC’s website and Facebook page on 15th August last year. The case was later heard in Singapore’s High Court in December 2020. According to the judge, Justice Audrey Lim, the article was defamatory and “impugned Lee’s reputation and character”.
The article repeated allegations made by Lee’s siblings, Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling. These allegations had been posted on their personal Facebook pages between 14th June 2017 and 15th August 2020. The article also included claims stating that Lee had misled his father, the late prime minister Lee Kwan Yew into believing that 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted by the government. Apparently, this caused his father to change his will and bestow the house to PM Lee.
Justice Lim stated that the article was “a joint enterprise” between Xu and Rubaashini. Court findings showed that the article was drafted within the span of four hours and its content had not been verified. Additionally, Xu allegedly instructed Ruubashini to do some “creative writing” containing one-sided allegations against Lee. Xu also did not check the article for veracity and uploaded the draft within 10 minutes of receiving it and without making any edits.
“A publisher of such grave allegations should exercise due diligence and responsibility in verifying the veracity of the facts and assertions in the article,” the judge said. Xu had admitted there was no urgency to publishing the article and he had not attempted to verify the allegations with Lee’s siblings.
Xu was asked to apologise and remove the article. Upon refusal, Lee initiated a lawsuit against him and Ruubashini, accusing them of defamation. Initially, Xu listed Lee’s siblings as a third party in the lawsuit as their claims had been repeated in the article. However, the claim was later withdrawn before the case began.
Justice Lim ruled in favour of Lee, agreeing that the article had challenged his reputation and alleged he was dishonest. “The defamatory remarks do not merely attack (Lee’s) personal integrity, character and reputation but that of the PM, and damage his moral authority to lead Singapore,” she said. She added that she found “Xu had acted recklessly, with indifference to the truth and with ill-will towards (Lee) which aggravated the injury to (Lee)“.
The PM was awarded S$210,000 for the defamation suit against Xu which comprised of S$160,000 in general damages and S$50,000 in aggravated damages. Lee was reportedly awarded S$160,000 in general damages in the lawsuit against Rubaashini. Aggravated damages were not awarded against Rubaashini as she had not contested her liability nor raised a “reckless justification defence”. However, the judge noted that Lee should not be double compensated since the charges are about the same article. As such, Lee was only awarded the total sum of S$210,000.
Neither Xu not Rubaashini responded to requests for comments. However, Xu has already launched a crowdfunding drive to compensate for the damages. His lawyer expressed hope that “patriotic Singaporeans who love freedom, free speech and free press” will donate generously.