SINGAPORE — The High Court on Wednesday (24 March) awarded Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong $133,000 in damages in his libel suit against veteran blogger Leong Sze Hian.
The case revolves around a Facebook post by Leong on 7 November 2018, which contained a link to an article alleging that Lee corruptly used his position as prime minister to help former Malaysian PM Najib Razak launder billions from insolvent Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB.
In his judgement, Justice Aedit Abdullah noted that while PM Lee’s counsels argued that Leong had published the defamatory words despite knowing them to be untrue or recklessly not caring, he accepted that there was “at least a prima facie case established” that Leong knew that the defamatory words were untrue.
“While the article had referred to a quote from Ms Clare Rewcastle-Brown, whom the defendant believed to be a respected investigative journalist who had played a role in uncovering the 1MDB scandal, that did not ipso facto absolve the defendant from verifying the veracity or otherwise of the article before linking to it in his post.”
“It was, at the very least, reckless disregard of whether the article was true or not for the defendant to have posted it without making any enquiries as to its truth whatsoever.”
The judge added that he was not helped by the lack of direct evidence as to Leong’s state of mind, and was satisfied that Leong’s recklessness as to the truth of the article might be inferred.
“In any event, I am also satisfied that, when seen cumulatively with his refusal to apologise for the defamatory words, malice may be made out on the facts.”
In determining the quantum of damages, Justice Abdullah took into account the case of blogger Roy Ngerng, who had been sued by PM Lee over a blog post in 2014. A total of $150,000 in damages was awarded to PM Lee then.
The judge considered that the Ngerng and Leong's standings were "roughly comparable" as both were "socio-political commentators who did not hold any formal positions of public office, and both had some modicum of following on their websites and online pages".
Justice Abdullah then considered that Ngerng's defamatory material had a further reach, but that Leong's defamatory statement was worse, as it alleged that PM Lee was involved in a cross-border defalcation of the funds belonging to the citizens of another country, in cahoots with the leader of that country.
The judge awarded $100,000 in general damages and $33,000 in aggravated damages - about a third of the general damages.
In response, Leong's lawyer Lim Tean said he would be discussing and advising Leong on his options following the judgement.
Background to the case
The article in Leong's post, by Malaysian news site The Coverage, was entitled “Breaking News: Singapore Lee Hsien Loong Becomes 1MDB’s Key Investigation Target – Najib Signed Several Unfair Agreements With Hsien Loong In Exchange For Money Laundering”.
Leong’s post was accompanied by a photo of Lee and Najib smiling for a wefie.
The article alleged that Najib “signed several unfair agreements with Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong like building the Singapore-Malaysia High Speed Rail when the country was in a trillion RM debt and a grossly under-priced water sale agreement, in exchange for Singapore banks’ assistance in money laundering 1MDB’s billions.”
At the time of Leong’s post, criminal charges had already been brought against Najib for criminal breach of trust and money laundering in relation to 1MDB.
The Wall Street Journal reported as early as July 2015 that Malaysian investigators probing 1MDB had traced nearly US$700 million of deposits into what they believed were Najib’s personal bank accounts. Following the May 2018 Malaysian general election, in which Najib was ousted from his premiership, the new Malaysian government began investigating him for possible crimes in relation to 1MDB.
Leong removed his Facebook post three days later on 10 November 2018, after being told to do so by the Infocomm Media Development Authority. His post had received 22 reactions, 5 comments and 18 shares.
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