Ridout Road rentals defamation case: Lee Hsien Yang ordered to pay S$200k each to Shanmugam, Vivian

Lee Hsien Yang (from left) had alleged in a post made on his Facebook page on July 23, 2023, that Cabinet ministers K. Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan had acted corruptly in their rental of state bungalows. - ST FILE, LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE

SINGAPORE: Lee Hsien Yang has been ordered by the High Court to pay S$200,000 each to Cabinet ministers K. Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan for defaming them in a public post on his Facebook page about their rental of state bungalows in Ridout Road.

Shanmugam, who is Law and Home Affairs Minister, and Dr Balakrishnan, who is Foreign Minister, had filed separate defamation suits in the High Court against Lee in August 2023.

Lee is the younger son of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and brother of Senior Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The legal action arose over the post on Lee’s Facebook page made on July 23, which falsely alleged that the ministers had acted corruptly by having the Singapore Land Authority give them preferential treatment.

In a written judgment on May 24, Justice Goh Yihan set out the factors that pointed towards the award of higher damages.

The judge noted that Lee had “consciously chosen” not to respond to the defamation suits, which meant he cannot contest his liability at an assessment of damages hearing.

Justice Goh said the case must therefore be decided on the basis of evidence from the two ministers, who took the stand on May 2, and arguments from their lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh.

The judge found that Lee’s defamatory allegations against the two ministers were “of the gravest kind”, as they referred to their personal integrity, professional reputation and honour, as well as core attributes of their personalities.

He noted that Shanmugam and Dr Balakrishnan are public leaders and persons of the highest integrity who have a high standing, while Lee is well-known in Singapore.

The judge said it was well-established that the higher the standing of the claimants and of the defendant, the higher the damages that will be awarded.

Justice Goh added that there has been and continues to be substantial publication and republication of the defamatory allegations in Singapore.

The judge said it was significant that Lee did not apologise or remove the post despite being given an opportunity to do so.

On July 25, 2023, two days after the post was published, Mr Lee edited it to include a correction direction that had been issued under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act.

Lawyers for the two ministers then wrote to him on July 27 that year to give him a chance to apologise, to remove the post, and to pay $25,000 to each minister.

However, Lee did not comply by the July 31 deadline. The defamatory words were removed only on Nov 10 that year.

Justice Goh also found that Lee had acted with malice because he “knew that the offending words were false, that he published them recklessly, and/or without considering or caring whether they are true or not”.

The judge said malice in defamation means any ill-will, spite or some wrong or improper motive, and justifies the award of not only higher damages but also aggravated damages.

In assessing the quantum, Justice Goh considered two separate defamation suits brought by Lee Hsien Loong when he was the prime minister, both of which involved statements on Facebook.

In one case, financial adviser and blogger Leong Sze Hian was ordered to pay $100,000 in general damages and $33,000 in aggravated damages for sharing an article falsely linking the then-prime minister to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal in Malaysia.

In the other, chief editor of The Online Citizen Terry Xu was ordered to pay $160,000 in general damages and $50,000 in aggravated damages over an article published on the news site and posted on its Facebook page.

The article falsely accused Lee Hsien Loong of misleading Lee Kuan Yew into thinking that his Oxley Road house had been gazetted by the Government.

Justice Goh found that the defamatory allegations in the current case were more serious than those in the case against Xu.

The judge took into account that Lee was “as, or slightly more well-known” than Leong or Xu, while the standing of a Cabinet minister was slightly lower than that of a Prime Minister.

Justice Goh said Lee’s conduct and malice was worse than that of Leong, who removed his post after a few days.

“In the present case, the defendant took to social media with the offending words and repeatedly drew attention to them with subsequent posts,” he added.

Justice Goh awarded $150,000 in general damages and $50,000 in aggravated damages each to Shanmugam and Dr Balakrishnan. - The Straits Times/ANN

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