In Singapore, with general elections expected in a few months, legal battles over libel are ongoing and there is a real possibility of fights over fake news.
One ongoing libel case involves Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s lawsuit against Leong Sze Hian, a shadow finance minister of the People’s Voice Party (PVP), an opposition party registered on October 31 last year. A pre-trial conference is scheduled for October 10.
Prime Minister Lee is suing Leong for sharing on Facebook in November last year a Malaysian website’s article alleging Lee was improperly implicated in a multibillion-dollar money laundering scandal involving a defunct Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Prime Minister Lee has denied this.
Another pretrial conference over a libel case is scheduled on October 15. This one involves Prime Minister Lee’s libel lawsuit against Terry Xu, the editor of a Singaporean Internet newspaper, the Online Citizen, over an article posted on the Online Citizen’s website and Facebook page. Subsequently, Prime Minister Lee’s press secretary Chang Li Lin wrote a letter to Xu ordering him to take down the article, saying it “repeated several false allegations against” Prime Minister Lee by his sister Lee Wei Ling. The sister’s allegations include the Prime Minister having misled his late father Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore, over the patriarch’s house where Lee Wei Ling now lives.
Although Xu initially removed that article, he subsequently put back the article on the Online Citizen’s website.
On September 10, Xu wrote on his Facebook that he intended to defend himself in court and would ask PM Lee about why he did not sue his sister and his younger brother Lee Hsien Yang. In response, PM Lee’s press secretary said his siblings could take the stand with Xu. Since 2017, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling have posted on their Facebook pages allegations against their brother which would have brought on defamation lawsuits if the allegations were made by anyone else. Prime Minister Lee said he has not sued his siblings for the sake of their parents, but does not rule out doing so if they make more allegations in future.
What if the Prime Minister’s brother and sister testified in Xu’s trial? Given that Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang have made explosive allegations against their brother since 2017, they may perhaps continue to make explosive allegations which Prime Minister Lee would most probably deny. If that happens, high drama would rule the courtroom.
In a mirror effect, something similar occurred between Xu and the Straits Times, Singapore’s main English-language newspaper.
In a letter published by the Straits Times on September 29, its writer Chng Hui Ling alleged the Online Citizen employed foreign writers who wrote negative articles about Singapore and passed them off as Singaporeans.
In a Facebook post on October 1, Xu described the letter’s allegations as “highly defamatory” and said he had written to Straits Times demanding the letter be taken down. Similar to Xu’s reaction to Prime Minister Lee’s demand, the Straits Times initially removed the letter but later reinstated it.
On October 2, the Straits Times quoted the legal counsel of its parent company Singapore Press Holdings, who said, “We have taken further legal advice and are re-posting the original Forum letter, and stand ready to defend our position.”
The contest surrounding Xu and Leong raises the possibility that not everybody accused of flouting Singapore’s new anti-fake news law might take it lying down.
Singapore’s anti-fake news law, called the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), came into force on October 2. Pofma gives the Singapore government additional powers to stop the spread of falsehoods which would hurt the public interest. Under this law, a Singapore minister can order the removal of a statement which the government deems a falsehood against the public interest, although this order can be appealed against.
Given the unyielding intensity of the disputes among Xu, Leong, Prime Minister Lee and the Straits Times, if Pofma is ever used against someone, one wonders whether that person would similarly fight back.
What is relevant to the coming polls is Pofma covers fake news which influences elections.
The next elections in Singapore, expected in several months, might see distractions by the abovementioned legal battles and the possible use of Pofma. The People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore since 1959, will fight a two-front war, a political contest against opposition parties and Prime Minister Lee’s legal battles.
It is anyone’s guess as to how the elections will turn out, but there are historical examples of nations suffering from two-front wars. Germany fought on two fronts in two world wars, and lost. Even if the Prime Minister won all his legal battles, how will the PAP fare in the ballot box?
Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer based in Hong Kong. The opinions expressed in this article are his own. /TISG