Lee Hsien Yang ordered to pay damages to Shanmugam, Vivian for defaming them over Ridout Road rentals
Mr Lee Hsien Yang will have to pay damages to ministers K. Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan for defaming them in Facebook comments about their rental of state bungalows in Ridout Road.
The High Court has granted default judgment in favour of the two ministers, after Mr Lee failed to respond to their defamation suits against him. The amount of damages to be paid will be assessed at a subsequent hearing.
Justice Goh Yi Han also granted an injunction restraining Mr Lee from further publishing or disseminating the false and defamatory allegations, which stated, among other things, that the ministers had acted corruptly and for personal gain by receiving preferential treatment for the rentals from the Singapore Land Authority.
In a written judgment on Nov 27 that followed his decision in court on Nov 2, Justice Goh said he granted the injunction as there were “strong reasons” for him to conclude that Mr Lee would repeat his defamatory statements.
The judge noted that Mr Lee had refused to take down his July 23 Facebook post despite having been issued a letter of demand by the ministers on July 27.
The post stated, among other things, that “two ministers have leased state-owned mansions from the agency that one of them controls, felling trees and getting state-sponsored renovations”.
Mr Lee had continued to refer and draw the attention of readers in Singapore to that Facebook post, noted the judge. He also repeatedly posted about the lawsuits that were under way, which again drew attention to his remarks that were the subject of the court proceedings.
In his ruling, Justice Goh said the two ministers had met the requirements for a default judgment against Mr Lee.
Mr 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 Mr Lee on Aug 2.
Mr Lee is the younger son of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
As Mr Lee was outside Singapore, the ministers applied to the court and were given leave to serve him court papers by Facebook messenger, which they did on Sept 15.
While there is no need for the ministers to prove that Mr Lee saw the documents served on him, Justice Goh noted that Mr Lee had put up a post on Sept 16 that confirmed he had seen the papers. Mr Lee then had 21 days to respond to the claims, but did not do so.
Justice Goh said the ministers’ suits raised a novel issue of the extent of the court’s power to grant an injunction during an application for a default judgment.
Updated court rules that took effect in April 2022 meant claimants could seek an injunction when applying for a default judgment, he said. Prior to the change, claimants could seek an injunction only at a later stage, after a defendant persisted in not filing a defence.
Even so, the ministers still had to show why the injunction should be granted, the judge said, noting they were not entitled to such an order just because they had applied for it and Mr Lee did not respond to their claims.
“In my view, given the potentially draconian effects that an injunction can have on a defendant, a court needs to be independently satisfied that it was appropriate to grant injunctive relief,” he said.
The judge said he was satisfied in the present case given the facts, and thus granted the injunction. This included that the Facebook post in question “remains published, accessible, and available”.
Following the judge’s decision on Nov 2, Mr Lee said in a Nov 10 Facebook post that he was made aware of the court order, and that he has “now been compelled to remove the statements from my Facebook page”. His prior posts were edited on Nov 10 to remove those statements.
In his Nov 27 judgment, Justice Goh said there was good reason to gather that Mr Lee would “repeat the defamatory allegations by continuing to draw attention to them and/or publish further defamatory allegations against the claimants”.
He said he would have found an enforceable claim under defamation law if Mr Lee had decided to challenge the ministers’ claims.
This is as a reasonable reader would have understood Mr Lee’s Facebook post to mean that trust in the People’s Action Party had been squandered because of the ministers’ allegedly corrupt conduct, from which they gained personally, he said.
It was also clear that the post referred to Mr Shanmugam and Dr Balakrishnan, though they were not expressly named, and the posts continue to be accessible to the public, he added.
The implication of Mr Lee’s decision not to respond to the suits was that the court was unable to take into account any countervailing materials regarding the claims, said the judge.