PM Lee’s Unnecessary Libel Suit Should Not Be Used to Shut Down Questions About His Government’s Knowledge of 1MDB
This week we were treated to the spectacle of Lee Hsien Loong’s totally unnecessary, vexatious and abusive defamation suit against Leong Sze Hian finally being heard in court. The PM and other Ministers should be barred from bringing defamation suits while in office because of the potential for abuse of power, not least because of the PM’s power to appoint High Court judges, subject only to confirmation by the President (which is of course unlikely to be withheld when the President herself owes her position to an uncontested election engineered by Lee Hsien Loong).
Whilst I have no reason to think Justice Aedit Abdullah will not be impartial, there is good reason to be concerned about undue influence by the Executive when you look at his biography:
“He joined the Singapore Legal Service in 1995 and began his career as a Justices’ Law Clerk. He then taught at the Faculty of Law, NUS, before re-joining the Singapore Legal Service. He has held various appointments, such as Deputy Public Prosecutor, Deputy Senior State Counsel and District Judge of the Subordinate Courts (renamed as State Courts in 2014). He was appointed Chief Prosecutor (Economic Crimes and Governance Division), and subsequently Chief Prosecutor (Criminal Justice Division) at the Attorney-General’s Chambers in 2011 and served as special counsel at the Monetary Authority of Singapore from January 2008 to June 2009. He was appointed Senior Counsel in 2012.
He is the chair and a member of various committees.”
Most of Justice Abdullah’s career has been spent within the AG’s chambers, where he argued the Government’s case when I sued over Singapore’s loan commitment to the IMF. In that case he successfully got the Supreme Court to rule that citizens could not sue the Government unless its policies specifically only affected them and not other citizens, thus effectively removing Singaporeans’ ability to stop the Government from acting illegally or breaching the Constitution. He was also Special Counsel at MAS which is presumably why he was chosen to defend the Government’s position. His CV states that he is the chair and a member of various committees without specifying what these are but clearly if any of the committees are in any way associated with the Prime Minister’s Office then he cannot be said to be independent.
But this still leaves unanswered the question of why LHL decided to sue Leong Sze Hian whom he described on the witness stand as a “thorn in our side in a small way for a very long time”. I am not a great fan of LSH and have criticised on more than one occasion fairly basic statistical errors that he has made. He has always exercised that Singaporean trait of self-censorship (shared with those living under Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and China) and never criticised LHL or other members of the Government directly.
“Uncle” Leong told me back in 2009 that he had been asked by my late father to be the first Chairman of the Reform Party but had declined as he was not prepared to take the risk. As regular readers of my blog will know, Until he was sued by the PM, LSH had refused to put his neck on the line by standing for election, preferring instead to groom proxies (some might say patsies) like Roy Ngerng and Han Hui Hui to take the heat. When the latter two were arrested at Hong Lim Park in 2015, puncturing the Government’s propaganda that the Speakers’ Corner there was a safe space for protest, LSH was mysteriously absent, apparently after feeling suddenly unwell and deciding to go and lie down in the community centre.
LHL’s comment illustrates more his intolerance of any form of criticism and his determination to emulate his late father’s “hatchet man” tactics. He is a coward because he has never dared to sue me despite my much more hard-hitting criticism of his Government over the reserves and of him and his wife. My demands over the last five years that Ho Ching’s salary and the reasons for her appointment be made public have moved from a fringe issue that no one seemed able to understand to become a key issue that has been adopted by the whole of the Opposition. Clearly LHL has decided that suing me is likely to be counterproductive because of the association with JBJ and prefers instead to use his control of state media and influence over foreign media to ensure that my demands for accountability and transparency get as little publicity as possible among Singaporeans. However, as the last election made clear, suing minor critics (killing a chicken to scare the monkeys) is becoming less and less effective in silencing a younger and better educated generation of Singaporeans.
LHL’s testimony effectively undermined his case for damages. He said that “There are many who are more effective than him whom we have not sued. Because that’s not the answer,” And LHL went on to provide the best reason why he should not get any damages, or only a derisory amount, like $1, when he said, “Persuade Singaporeans, see if they support you, or the Government. And indeed it was put to the test in the recent General Election (GE),” Normally one is required to prove that one has suffered financial loss and to quantify that loss in order to get damages in a libel suit. This might be losing one’s job and being unable to find another or only one with a reduced salary or suffering a reduction in business or clients. Since the PM was re-elected and kept his job and the PAP still got 90% of the seats, how has he suffered any loss?
The same argument was made by George Carman in Goh Chok Tong’s 1997 libel suit against JBJ, the infamous police report suit. The judge Rajendran agreed at least partially with Carman because he only awarded Goh $20,000 but Goh appealed and the damages were increased to $100,000 plus costs.
It seems overwhelmingly likely given the Lee family’s phenomenal statistical success rate in defamation suits before judges that they appoint, LHL succeeds in winning damages against LSH for merely reposting an article, It has already had the desired “chilling effect” on discussion of the Government’s role in the 1MDB scandal and how much was known by PM Lee and his Ministers. This is what I wrote back in December 2018 in my blog “PM Lee’s Crackdown on Any Whiff of Dissent Finds Some Strange Targets“:
“While it is clearly libellous without evidence to suggest that there was a secret agreement between Najib and LHL in which the latter assisted the former in laundering money in return for concessions to Singapore from Malaysia, it does beggar belief that the Singapore authorities and intelligence services did not have some inkling of what was going on at 1MDB given that a significant portion of the money allegedly stolen ended up in Singapore bank accounts. And Mahathir himself has questioned why Malaysia signed some one-sided deals with Singapore, including giving up the land and in particular the historic railway terminal owned by Malaysian Railways. Singapore only took action against money laundering after the US Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit in July 2016 seeking to seize 1MDB’s stolen assets and using the pseudonym “Malaysian Official No.1” to refer to Najib. Despite the lawsuit LHL allowed himself to be photographed with Najib in that infamous durian-eating photo from around the same time. As PM, LHL must have been privy to any intelligence Singapore had about Najib’s nefarious activities. “
There was also the strange incident of state media mouthpiece, the Straits (or rather State) Times, which in July 2015 ran a piece of fake news designed to smear Malaysian publication The Edge and The Sarawak Report (which played a leading role in exposing the 1MDB scandal). I wrote about this in May 2018 (Don’t Interfere in Our Domestic Politics But We’ll Feel Free to Intervene in Yours:
“The fake news in question concerned an article published in the ST’s print and online editions on July 24 2015. This took the form of an exclusive interview with a former employee of PetroSaudi (which was one of the entities to which large sums of IMDB’s money money were allegedly diverted), Xavier Andre Justo, who was then languishing in a Bangkok jail after he tried to sell the information about PetroSaudi being used as a vehicle to steal money from 1MDB and being accused of theft and blackmail by his employer.
The report was headlined “I was offered $2.7m for stolen data: Ex-PetroSaudi employee Xavier Andre Justo on the 1MDB saga” and went on to say that the group to which Justo handed documents related to 1MDB’s transactions with PetroSaudi told him they intended to “modify the documents” and use them to “bring down the Malaysian government” of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The ST report named only Sarawak Report Editor, Clare Rewcastle-Brown but provided a smoking gun for Najib’s Government to allege that The Edge was seeking to bring down a democratically elected government by publishing a series of allegedly fake articles on 1MDB that were based on documents received from Justo. The Edge was suspended from publication though the suspension was later reversed.”
Given that everything ST publishes has to be approved by the PM and his Government and that it makes no secret of the fact that it is basically an ISD-controlled organisation, there is a strong case to answer that the Government was in fact leaning over backwards to help Najib and discredit his domestic opponents. To say as much should not expose one to the risk of a defamation suit, even if there is no evidence for it, on the well-established principle in English law that Government entities cannot sue for defamation (Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers and others):
“It is of the highest public importance that a democratically elected governmental body, or indeed any governmental body, should be open to uninhibited public criticism.”
Now that Najib has been sentenced to jail and the 1MDB scandal is starting to fade away, it is important that the PM and his Government provide answers to these questions and not use Singapore’s defamation laws and excessively executive-friendly judiciary to silence those who demand answers in this as well as other areas of greater concern to Singaporeans such as the size of our reserves and the remuneration of the PM’s wife, Ho Ching, as well as the justification for her appointment.