Lee Hsien Loong versus Leong Sze Hian: The winner is Lim Tean

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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is a surprise. During a week when a number of big events were holding our attention, the opposition politician has, in my opinion, more than held his own in the versus libel trial. Bear in mind, US President Donald Trump was hogging the international limelight with his virus infection and his petulant demasking act, the two US vice-presidential candidates – either could be the next US president for any reason – were having it out in their debate and the Institute of Policy Studies survey on the GE2020 results has told us, more or less, that the People’s Action Party has to wake up or face decline. Big stuff indeed. But the social media here has been all about Lim Tean, Lim Tean and Lim Tean.
The libel case arose out of a post shared by Leong on his Facebook page on Nov 7, 2018, which contained a link to an article by Malaysian news site The Coverage, according to The Straits Times. The article originally appeared in The States Times Review.
The article alleged that former Malaysian PM Najib Razak had signed “secret deals” with PM Lee in exchange for Singapore banks’ help in laundering money from 1Malaysia Development Berhad. Lee’s lawyers had said earlier the article’s allegations were “false and baseless”, and that Leong had published the post “maliciously and to damage our client”. Lee sought aggravated damages and an injunction to prevent Leong from publishing or disseminating the defamatory allegations, or other allegations of complicity in matters relating to the embattled sovereign wealth fund.
Leong had taken down the post. He denied that he was being malicious. As he has decided not to take the stand at this week’s hearing which ended two days earlier than the four allotted to it, Justice Aedit Abdullah ordered both parties to file written submissions by Nov 6, with a 200-page limit. Specifically, he asked them to make arguments on whether the re-publication in this case is the kind that is “actionable” in terms of defamation.
So what do members of the public think about the whole High Court proceedings so far?
They saw a David versus Goliath trial, the legal merit apart.
PM Lee himself is no ordinary plaintiff. He said he could not take the case lightly. His personal reputation and integrity would reflect on everything he has done and everything the government has done under his prime-ministership, even though he made it clear he is suing Leong in his personal capacity and not as PM.
So I would say Lee would have sought the best legal advice available before he took action. And he got a formidable team, led by the redoubtable Davinder Singh.
And I would imagine a bit of disappointment on the plaintiff side that they were denied the chance to question Leong. As Senior Counsel Singh put it, “We have a situation where the plaintiff (PM Lee) has turned up in court and gone into the stand, unafraid of any questions and ready to defend his position….(and Leong) has turned tail and fled’ ”. This after the defendant had alleged that Lee had abused the process of court.
In itself, the case has attracted public interest because, besides invoking defamation laws in their personal capacity, as PM Lee has done to clear his name, the authorities can, light touch or not, also turn to POFMA to deal with problematic postings on social media platforms. So, there would be, for every ordinary Singaporean who has ever posted anything public on Facebook, significant interest as to whether November’s submissions would result in the alleged “republishing” being judged as “actionable” defamation. Another milestone of sorts. There are other Davids and other ants – not always the fiercest critics – who may worry about ending up facing Goliath.
Somehow or the other, however, the trial has turned out to be a heaven sent opportunity for Lim Tean to display his lawyer skills. We know him fairly well by now as an opposition politician. We first saw him as a good rally orator when he was Secretary-General of the National Solidarity Party. Then came his Facebook postings which have quite a substantial following. He also did well leading his new party People’s Voice to battle Manpower Minister Josephine Teo’s team in Jalan Besar GRC. PV captured 35 per cent of the votes.
What the public saw at the trial was Lim Tean the lawyer in action.
Arguably, Lim Tean the politician could on more than one occasion be playing to the gallery. I always thought his political persona has frequently been a little too loud and exaggerated. Like he was performing some sort of larger than life role as a conduit and government critic funnelling the anger of frustrated Singaporeans.
But Lim Tean was quite impressive during the Leong trial. He was not intimidated by either PM Lee or SC Singh. His questioning was professional, relentless and to the point:
Lim: “And I’m putting it to you that there was no proper need to pursue these proceedings since you could have and you did obtain a more valuable remedy through government action.”
PM: “We have also gone over this ground.”
Lim (interrupting): “Please answer my question. Do you agree or disagree?”
PM: “And what the government…”
Justice Aedit: “Gentlemen, hold on. Slowly. Mr Lee, do you agree or not?”
PM: “I disagree. The government has to clear its reputation. I’m doing what is needed to cover mine.”
Lim’s performance has won him admirers. I just want to quote one:
SP: “From one lawyer (retired) to another, you did a brilliant job in cross-examination of both witnesses (referring to PM Lee and Dr Phan Tuan Quang, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who has taught and researched on social media) and you were well within the court process not to call the defendant to take the stand… Plaintiff’s outburst that defendant is a coward …is too personal.” Outburst!
This has been Lim Tean’s week, for sure.

Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndepependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.

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