Singapore’s Law and Home Affairs Minister, Mr K Shanmugam, and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, have taken to Facebook Messenger to serve legal papers concerning a defamation suit to Mr Lee Hsien Yang (LHY).
On 16 September, LHY shared on Facebook, “Ministers Shanmugam and V Balakrishnan have just served papers for the alleged defamation on me. The Singapore courts granted permission for them to do so via Facebook message.”
Earlier, the ministers’ legal representatives had sought the court’s approval to serve the documents through Facebook Messenger, citing the impracticality of serving them to LHY in the United Kingdom.
The ministers are represented by three lawyers from Davinder Singh Chambers, including the renowned senior lawyer Davinder Singh, who is known for representing Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in past high-profile defamation cases.
The timing of this revelation is notable, coinciding with the 100th birthday of the nation’s late founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who is also LHY’s father. A day meant to celebrate Lee’s legacy, orchestrated by the People’s Action Party government, is now overshadowed by this legal drama.
On 14 August, the two ministers’ legal team initially requested the court’s permission to serve the papers on LHY in the UK, where he currently resides, considering the Singapore court as the most appropriate venue for the case.
In their affidavits, Mr Shanmugam and Dr Balakrishnan highlighted their prominent roles as ministers in Singapore and underscored the relevance of the alleged defamatory statements to events in Singapore.
By 16 August, the court permitted the papers to be served on LHY outside its jurisdiction.
On 28 August, the ministers’ lawyers proposed substituted service through Facebook Messenger, asserting its potential success in reaching the defendant.
Substituted service is typically sought and ordered when the plaintiff struggles to personally serve the writ on the defendant, resorting to alternate delivery methods such as registered post, email, or newspaper ads.
In 2016, the High Court acknowledged that court papers could be served digitally for defendants challenging to reach in person. However, in that case, the plaintiff had made multiple personal service attempts, whereas, in this situation, the two ministers are bypassing personal service in the UK.
The two ministers’ legal action against LHY originates from his Facebook post on 23 July 2023. In it, they claim he insinuated their involvement in corrupt practices with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA)—an allegation both ministers have categorically denied.
Per the court documents, their lawyers, on 27 July, asked LHY to remove his post and its related comments, demanding a month-long public apology on his Facebook page.
In their correspondence, they suggested a S$25,000 donation to charity, describing it as a fraction of potential legal damages. No specific amount was stipulated in their claims, but damages in High Court litigation typically start at S$250,000.
In a Facebook post on 29 July, LHY refuted the allegations by the two ministers, emphasizing he was merely conveying public facts.
He encouraged the ministers to sue him in the UK and clarified that his words did not imply corruption or personal gain.
LHY on 31 July further alleged that the two ministers were pressuring him to issue a public apology that he perceived to be falsified.
He claimed the ministers demanded he make a specific statement: “I recognise that the Post meant and was understood to mean that Mr K Shamugam/Dr Vivian Balakrishnan acted corruptly and for personal gain by having the Singapore Land Authority give him preferential treatment by felling trees without approval and illegally and having it pay for renovations to 31 Ridout Road.”
LHY staunchly defends his initial words: “Two ministers have leased state-owned mansions from the agency that one of them controls, felling trees and getting state-sponsored renovations.”
He believes his original statement does not equate to an allegation of corruption or personal gain, and criticizes the ministers for insisting on a “false apology” for words he claims he did not utter.
In a subsequent Facebook post on 4 September, LHY stated he had invited the ministers to pursue legal action against him in the UK, noting, “Instead, they opted to commence legal proceedings in Singapore. The public can draw their conclusions on their reasons.”
LHY must respond within 21 days after being served with the papers, indicating whether he intends to contest the claim by the two ministers.