TOC editor says he did not believe PM Lee would keep his word

He did not comply with letter of demand to take down article with potentially libellous allegations as it came from Prime Minister's press secretary and not his lawyers

The editor of The Online Citizen (TOC) said he did not take down an article containing potentially libellous allegations about Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong because it was PM Lee's press secretary who sent him a letter of demand instead of his lawyers.

Mr Terry Xu, who is being sued for defamation by PM Lee, noted yesterday that another factor in his decision not to comply was the letter being released to the media on the same day.

As this sequence of events "deviated from the norm", it led him to believe that PM Lee "would want to escalate the matter" even if he complied with the letter, he said.

Mr Xu added that he would have taken down the article if the letter had come from PM Lee's lawyers.

This came up on the third day of the hearing, which saw testy exchanges and heated crosstalk among Mr Xu, his lawyer Lim Tean and Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, who is representing PM Lee.

The lawsuit centres on an article published on TOC on Aug 15 last year, which alleged that PM Lee misled his late father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, into thinking the property at 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted.

Mr Singh suggested that Mr Xu had acted maliciously when he responded to a letter of demand from PM Lee's press secretary on Sept 1 last year by taking down the article, before putting it back up on Sept 4 along with a letter stating his "moral obligation" to "dissipate the climate of fear".

The letter had demanded that Mr Xu take down the article, apologise and undertake not to repeat the allegations. It stated that should Mr Xu decide not to do so, PM Lee would have no choice but to sue.

But Mr Xu said he did not believe PM Lee would keep to his word. "(The letter) says if you don't (comply), I'll sue you. It doesn't say if you do, we won't continue with further action," he said.

Mr Singh then asked if it was conceivable that PM Lee would have gone back on his word and sued Mr Xu nonetheless, having made the statement publicly.

To this, Mr Xu said that as the head of Government, PM Lee has influence over the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Communications and Information.

"If I undertake the apology and say what I pubbed was defamatory, action may not follow legally but it might follow from other statutory boards or ministries," he added.

Describing this notion as absurd, Mr Singh said: "Let me show you how ridiculous your evidence is.

"It would appear that if this is the kind of prime minister you think we have, he would take such action if you apologised to his press sec's letter but would not do so if you apologised to his lawyer's letter?

"That is how ridiculous that suggestion is."

Mr Xu disagreed, adding that he believed PM Lee was trying to intimidate him by sending the letter through his press secretary instead of his lawyers.