Fill Me In
In a recent update on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s libel lawsuit against the chief editor of The Online Citizen (TOC), Mr Terry Xu explained that he would have taken down the article if PM Lee had not publicised the letter of demand.
The suit centres around an article published on the TOC website on 15 August 2019, which alleged that PM Lee misled his late father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, into thinking the property had been gazetted.
Since 2017, PM Lee and his two siblings, Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang have had disagreements over the fate of their family home at 38 Oxley Road following the death of their father and Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew.
Why Xu is being sued for defamation
Last August, amid conflict among the Lee siblings, PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching shared a link on Facebook to an article entitled: “Here’s why sometimes it is okay to cut ties with toxic family members”.
Mr Xu posted an article entitled “PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching weirdly shares article on cutting ties with family members” on the TOC website.
The article referenced earlier statements made by PM Lee’s two younger siblings, who had accused the Prime Minister of misleading his late father, which led the late Minister Mentor to think that it was futile to keep his original wish to demolish it.
The article also alleged that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had removed PM Lee as an executor and trustee of his will after it was revealed to him in late 2013 that the property had not in fact been gazetted.
By September 2019, Mr Xu was asked by PM Lee to remove the offensive article along with the Facebook post linking to it and to post a full, unconditional apology.
However, Mr Xu responded by first taking down the article, then reposting it three days later. He also released a public statement stating that he was not going to comply with the Prime Minister’s demands.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Xu argued that he did not find the contents of the article to be defamatory and “constituted fair comment” as it contained public statements by PM Lee’s siblings, who “would have been privy to the events”.
By the deadline, the article was still up on the TOC website.
Why TOC’s editor refused to take down the article
In court, Mr Xu pointed out that the main factor in his decision not to comply with PM Lee’s demands was because the letter of demand was sent by the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary and not his lawyers.
Mr Xu also added that he did not have the chance to respond to PM Lee’s letter of demand before it was sent to other media outlets, who asked for his response even before he’d even managed to read the email from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Mr Xu argues that had the Prime Minister’s lawyers sent the letter in the “conventional” manner asking for the article to be taken down “with no recourse of threat to sue”, he would have done so, as he has in other instances. He would also have apologised on the TOC site if required to.
The fact that PM Lee used his public office to issue the letter, however, led Mr Xu to believe that PM Lee intended to “escalate the matter” regardless of whether he chose to comply with the letter.
Mr Xu believes that had he chosen to comply with the PM’s demands, while legal action may not follow, other pressures will be placed on TOC, as other statutory boards or ministries may accuse TOC of publishing questionable content.
PM Lee’s lawyer responds
In response to Mr Xu’s statement, PM Lee’s lawyer, Daravind Singh highlighted the letter posted by the former, stating his “moral obligation” to “dissipate the climate of fear” by refusing to take down the post.
Mr Singh dismissed Mr Xu’s claims of intimidation by PM Lee and charged that through his “malicious” actions after he received the letter from the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr Xu was “being opportunistic” in further attacking PM Lee.
Reporting on the defamation suit
Senior Counsel Singh also accused Mr Xu of taking the chance to attack PM Lee again “under the guise of reporting on the current suit”.
The TOC editor has repeatedly posted about the suit on his personal Facebook page. In one of these posts, Mr Xu announced his intentions to fight the suit to stand his ground against “uncalled-for intimidation, especially when it is from a public servant”.
An article about the writ being served was also published on TOC on 6 September 2019 with a section on the ongoing defamation suits that PM Lee had filed, including a similar lawsuit against blogger Leong Sze Hian.
Taking the court through Mr Xu’s posts, Mr Singh further accused him of wanting to “generate hatred and contempt” for the prime minister.
In response, Mr Xu stated that he merely wanted readers to know about the suit.
In the final stages of his cross-examination, Senior Counsel Singh noted that Mr Xu had named Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang as third parties in the lawsuit, in a bid to have them bear damages if Mr Xu was found liable for defamation.
The claim has since been dropped by Mr Xu, which the lawyer suggests was because Mr Lee Hsien Yang was unable to show the allegations are true.
Mr Xu replied that this was due to advice from his lawyer that it was too late for the third party claims to be filed. Mr Singh however, noted that the trial could have been moved back, dismissing the former’s claims.
Recent updates: LKY’s lawyer Kwa Kim Li to take the stand
The lawyer who prepared six wills for the late Lee Kuan Yew took the stand last Thursday, on 3 December 2020.
Mdm Kwa Kim Li, who did not handle the late Mr Lee’s final will, was subpoenaed by Mr Lim Tean, the lawyer representing Mr Xu after the latter obtained documents that emerged during a disciplinary tribunal’s investigations into misconduct by Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s wife, senior lawyer Lee Suet Fern.
The documents included emails exchanged between Mdm Kwa and the late Mr Lee in 2011 and 2012, which prove that Mr Lee did believe his house had been gazetted before being informed by Mdm Kwa that she could not find the gazette notice.
Mdm Kwa has since verified the emails in court, stating that she had been asked to look for the gazette notice “at least twice”.
The trial concluded that same day and the parties were given four weeks to make written submissions to Justice Lim, who will deliver her judgment at a later date.