A burgeoning legal battle is taking shape in Singapore as the nation’s Law and Home Affairs Minister, Mr K Shanmugam, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, advance a defamation lawsuit against Mr Lee Hsien Yang (LHY).
The two ministers served legal papers to LHY via Facebook Messenger in mid-September with the court’s approval in hand, claiming the challenges of serving him in the UK, where he currently resides.
Previously, LHY has suggested to the two ministers to sue him in London courts, since the statement they took offence to was made in the UK.
LHY also highlighted that London is known to be a jurisdiction of choice for defamation suits.
On Thursday (4 Oct) LHY on Thursday proposed independent arbitration, where both parties choose an arbitrator of high international standing, and the ministers could nominate a retired Singapore Supreme Court judge as their arbitrator.
He believed that the proceedings would be conducted in confidence, but the decision would be made public, and it would be final and binding on all parties involved.
However, Mr Shanmugam insisted that LHY should seize the opportunity to defend himself in “full view of the Singapore public” if he believes the defamation claims against him are baseless.
He reiterated that they had received legal advice indicating that LHY’s statements concerning him and Dr Balakrishnan were both untrue and defamatory, and claiming tat LHY did not retract his statements and offer an apology despite given opportunity, leaving them with no recourse but to initiate legal action.
He argued that Mr Lee’s statements relate to events in Singapore and were primarily intended for a Singaporean audience. The primary target audience was not in the United Kingdom.
Minister Shanmugam further alluded that what LHY really wants is special treatment, “He wants to be treated differently from Singaporeans (and even foreigners) who are sued in Singapore for defamation.”
“Mr Lee should explain why he is entitled to make libellous statements, and yet be exempt from the rules that apply to the rest of us.”
A stark contrast to the resolute pursuit of legal battles beyond Singapore’s borders by the Late LKY
While Mr Shanmugam has emphasized the significance of LHY defending himself in a Singaporean court with the public as observers, many Singaporeans are raising questions about the apparent lack of awareness by the two ministers regarding their ability to pursue their civil legal dispute in the UK.
In the UK, they would also have the opportunity for cross-examination in an open court setting.
Meanwhile, some sceptics wonder whether the ministers’ legal team excels primarily in local court cases but becomes hesitant when facing international ones.
While the two Singapore Ministers may appear reluctant to take the case to the UK, where LHY currently resides, it’s hard not to draw a parallel comparison with the determination and will of the late Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), Singapore’s founding father, who would pursue his legal rights even beyond borders.
Notably, LKY who is also LHY’s father, once brought a defamation lawsuit to the Ontario Court in Canada against the former President of the Republic of Singapore, Devan Nair.
In 1999, during an interview with The Globe and Mail on March 29, Devan Nair labelled LKY as “an increasingly self-righteous know-all” surrounded by “department store dummies.”
Offended by Devan Nair’s remarks in the article, in June 1999, Lee sued Nair, The Globe and Mail, along with four other defendants.
LKY alleged that the article contained libellous statements that had damaged his reputation, causing him to be “brought into hatred, ridicule, and contempt.”
Devan Nair, in his Statement of Defence and Counterclaim, argued that Lee had abused the legal process by bringing the defamation lawsuit for the improper purpose of silencing his critics, including Nair.
Lee then brought a motion to have Nair’s counterclaim thrown out of court.
Lee argued that Nair’s counterclaim disclosed no reasonable cause of action and constituted an inflammatory attack on the integrity of the Singapore government.
However, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ultimately ruled in favour of Devan Nair, refusing to throw out Nair’s counterclaim.
The court held that Lee had abused the litigating process, and therefore Nair had a reasonable cause of action.
The court believed that Lee’s lawsuit was intended to silence critics and that there was an ongoing and pervasive threat associated with Lee’s actions, including the publication of confidential information from Nair’s personal records and correspondence, as well as threats related to Nair’s pension.
When reflecting on the past, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the late Mr Lee’s unwavering determination to pursue his legal rights, even when it meant taking his case to foreign soil, as evidenced by his lawsuit in Canada, which he eventually lost.
Fast forward to the present day, Singaporeans are left pondering the reluctance of the ministers to pursue their legal action against Lee Hsien Yang in a London court, a known jurisdiction of choice for defamation suits, which raises intriguing questions.
Are the ministers’ reservations about engaging in international litigation indicative of a lack of confidence in their legal team’s abilities on the global stage? Or do they find comfort in wielding their legal expertise within the familiar confines of their home ground?
It’s noteworthy that Singaporean ministers have maintained an unblemished track record in defamation suits within their own jurisdiction.
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