On November 7, 2018, Leong Sze Hian, a financial advisor and blogger, shared an article on his Facebook page, without comment. The article, published by Malaysian website The Coverage, alleged that Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had become a target of ongoing investigations in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal, a massive case of graft in Malaysia that drew in banks in Singapore, Hollywood stars, and Saudi royalty. The article claimed that Malaysia, under former Prime Minister Najib Razak, had signed unfair deals with Singapore in return for help to launder stolen funds.
These were serious allegations, particularly in Singapore, where the government is ultra-sensitive to any suggestion of corruption. The response, unsurprisingly, was strong and swift: the law and home affairs minister issued a clear rebuttal, Singapore’s High Commission in Kuala Lumpur described the article as libelous, and the Monetary Authority of Singapore lodged a police report against the author of a similar article published in the States Times Review, a website run by a Singaporean in Australia who is highly critical of Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party.
The Infocomm Media Development Authority, Singapore’s media regulator, told Leong to remove the link from his Facebook page; he did. But it was already too late to save him from trouble. Two days later, he found out that Prime Minister Lee was going to sue him for defamation.
Last month, the High Court ruled that Leong did defame Lee and ordered him to pay almost $100,000 (133,000 Singapore dollars) in damages. It’s an extraordinary sum for a simple Facebook link that stayed up for only three days. But there’s a particular legal precedent in Singapore: public leaders are usually awarded higher damages when they win defamation suits related to their character or integrity.
In his judgment, Justice Aedit Abdullah quoted a previous case in which the courts stated that public “leaders are generally entitled to higher damages also because of their standing in Singapore society and devotion to public service.” He continued, “Any libel or slander of their character with respect to their public service damages not only their personal reputation, but also the reputation of Singapore as a state whose leaders have acquired a worldwide reputation for honesty and integrity in office and dedication to service of the people.”
While Lee won the case, public opinion is a different matter. Leong crowdfunded the $100,000 in just 11 days, with over 2,000 people contributing amounts large and small. In the eyes of many Singaporeans, including myself, getting sued by one of the most powerful men in the country simply for sharing a link on Facebook seems ludicrous, especially since the allegations have already been robustly rebutted through the government’s many platforms and wide reach. In conversations with friends and acquaintances from different backgrounds and walks of life, another common refrain has been: “Why didn’t the prime minister sue the source of the false allegations? Why only pick on Leong Sze Hian?”
These questions also featured heavily in court, where hearings were held in person. When I attended the first day of the trial in October 2020, I watched as Leong’s lawyer, Lim Tean, revisited these questions over and over in his cross-examination of Lee. Not much clarity was achieved: Lee’s response was simply that the publishers of the allegations were outside Singapore and therefore out of jurisdiction. His decision to sue Leong was one that he had arrived at after consultation with his lawyer. Any attempts to probe Lee and his lawyer further led to one answer: these considerations were protected by lawyer-client privilege.
For ordinary citizens like myself, this defamation ruling tells us that the mere act of sharing a link that might showcase a public leader in a negative light isn’t safe. It isn’t safe even if we share the link without comment, or even if we remove it shortly after posting. The range of options and the amount of discretion available to those with power and resources are vast. For those of us known to comment openly and critically on politics and human rights, the precedent set by this case joins an already extensive array of considerations we have to constantly keep in the backs of our minds.
A decade ago, the Singaporean government, formed by the ruling People’s Action Party, was still talking about taking a “light touch” approach to regulating online spaces. It’s clear that those days are well and truly over. It’s not just defamation cases; in recent years, people have also been hauled up for investigation under laws relating to racial and religious harmony, harassment, and contempt of court, simply because of posts on Facebook. The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act allows government ministers to issue orders demanding corrections, content removal, or the blocking of Singaporeans’ access to particular websites or Facebook pages. The government issued over 70 orders under this law between October 2019 and the general election period in July 2020, then stopped. There has been no explanation for this development, welcome though it might be. But the law continues to hang over people’s heads — as long as it’s on the books, the government will have the option of using it.
Regular people don’t have so many avenues open to them. While citizens can take action against falsehoods spread about them by applying for court orders under the Protection from Harassment Act, it’s not quite the same as a government minister being able to bypass the courts and issue executive orders. Hiring lawyers and launching defamation suits can also be costly, intimidating affairs. Although there have been cases of ruling party members launching smear campaigns against critics, they’re playing with different stakes, because it’s much more unlikely that the targeted individual will be willing or able to take serious action against them.
Singaporeans are able to vote for the government they want once every five years or so but outside of that, have only limited leverage against the government’s arsenal of broad, expansive rules, and the willingness of wealthy politicians to take legal action against Facebook posts. When the playing field is so uneven, we end up with a situation where an ordinary citizen ends up more accountable to the government and political leaders than the other way around.