Leong Sze Hian, a blogger from Singapore, got the shock of his life when he received a defamation suit from the country’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. His crime — he shared an article on Facebook that criticized Lee’s role in a corruption scandal.
The defamation suit
The article, titled “Singapore Lee Hsien Loong Becomes 1MDB’s Key Investigation Target — Najib Signed Several Unfair Agreements With Hsien Loong In Exchange for Money Laundering,” was published on a Malaysian website called The Coverage. The report accuses Lee of being involved in money laundering at 1MDB, a Malaysian strategic development company owned wholly by the country’s Minister of Finance. Interestingly, Leong did not add any comment while sharing the article.
1MDB is currently under investigation for money laundering in six nations, including Malaysia, Singapore, and the United States. The U.S. Justice Department estimates that close to US$4.5 billion was misappropriated by the organization’s officials during a 6-year period between 2009 and 2014. Najib Razak, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, is said to be facing corruption charges related to the issue.
What seems to have triggered Lee’s office filing a defamation case against Leong is that the article featured a photo of Lee with Razak and an allegation that insinuated the Singaporean PM was complicit in criminal activity relating to 1MBD. “The matter is in the hands of Mr Lee’s lawyers… [He] reserves the right to take legal action against other parties who similarly defame him,” Lee’s press secretary said to Channel News Asia.
Lee’s lawyers stated that Leong popularized the article among his 5,000 Facebook friends by sharing it with them. They demanded an apology and monetary damages from the blogger.
Free speech restrictions
Though Singapore has a high standard of living, it has a pretty backward policy when it comes to the freedom of speech for its citizens. There are strict restrictions on speaking about matters related to sedition, contempt, and libel. In fact, the Singaporean government has often used libel suits against media houses and individuals.
For instance, activist Roy Ngerng was fired from his job and asked to pay around US$130,000 in penalties after he wrote a blog post that questioned the government’s handling of the Central Provident Fund, the country’s mandatory pension fund. Interestingly, the nephew of Prime Minister Lee, Li Shengwu, is also facing contempt proceedings due to a Facebook post that stated the government and judiciary were forcing media to underreport on several aspects of Singaporean society.
“There is little real freedom in Singapore to speak critically of the government or the courts, or to peacefully protest state policies… Singapore’s broad laws on contempt, sedition, and libel, among others, are aggressively used against activists, bloggers, cartoonists, and the foreign media to stifle critical speech,” Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement (HRW).
Human Rights Watch also released its first major report on Singapore since 2005, with interviews from major activists, academics, and journalists who called on the government to stop violating freedom of expression. They also asked for a change in the laws to bring it in line with international rights standards. The organization launched the report in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as it was not sure of getting permission for the event from the Singaporean authorities.