It was recently reported that British billionaire Sir James Dyson lost his libel case against the publisher of the Daily Mirror.
The 76-year-old inventor initiated legal proceedings against Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) after they published an article in January 2022.
In court, Sir James stated that the article was “a personal attack on everything I have achieved in my lifetime, causing significant distress and hurt.”
However, following a two-day trial in November, the British Royal Court, on 1 December, dismissed Sir James’s lawsuit.
The court sided with MGN’s defence, emphasizing that Sir James failed to demonstrate “any financial loss due to these publications.”
Contrast this with the recent defamation case in Singapore, where Singaporean Ministers K Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan successfully sued Lee Hsien Yang (LHY).
In their defamation suits, the Ministers alleged that LHY insinuated in a Facebook post on 23 July that they received preferential treatment from the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), evidenced by unauthorized tree cutting and government-funded renovations at the controversial addresses 26 and 31 Ridout Road, where the Ministers reside.
This followed a heated debate in Parliament, with Members of Parliament questioning the rental of two large state-owned bungalows by the Ministers, who defended their actions as proper and free from abuse of power.
The Ministers, through their lawyers, demanded that LHY retract his statements, publicly apologize, and donate S$25,000 to charity.
LHY, steadfast in his position, maintained that his original post did not imply corruption or personal benefit.
He firmly stood by his initial words in his Facebook post, “Two ministers have leased state-owned mansions from the agency one oversees,” and also referenced the tree cutting and state-sponsored renovations.
LHY argued that this did not suggest corruption or personal gain and criticized the Ministers for demanding a “false apology” for claims he denies making.
Nevertheless, the Ministers proceeded with legal action against LHY after he declined to apologize. Despite LHY’s challenge, they chose not to pursue a lawsuit in the UK, opting instead for the Singapore court.
Comparing Sir James Dyson’s lawsuit with that of the two Ministers, it becomes apparent why they chose to sue LHY in Singapore rather than in the UK.
The reason isn’t that the Singapore court is biased towards the two Ministers, but actually due to the significant differences in legal standards between the two jurisdictions, influenced by laws shaped by politicians such as Mr Shanmugam and Dr Balakrishnan.
The Singapore court ruled quickly in favour of the Ministers due to the absence of a counterclaim from LHY in the verdict delivered on 27 November, with the judge concurring with the Ministers’ interpretation of the Facebook post, implying corrupt and self-serving actions by the Ministers.
Troubling as it may seem to the untrained public, no evidence of reputational damage was necessary for the cause of action to be sustained.
In contrast, the UK legal system in the post-Defamation Act 2013 landscape, as shown in Sir James’ failed defamation suit, requires substantial evidence of significant reputational harm.
This standard poses a considerable challenge for plaintiffs, even those as influential as Sir James Dyson. To sum up, in Singapore, the burden often shifts to the defendant to disprove defamation, whereas the UK demands plaintiffs prove “serious harm” to their reputation.
While the two Ministers justified their decision to sue LHY in Singapore as based on legal advice and their conviction that Singapore was ‘clearly and distinctly the most appropriate forum for the trial’, it is evident that their lawsuits against LHY would likely fail under the standards of UK defamation law.
It can also be hypothesized that the two ministers opted to serve LHY the legal papers for the suit via social messaging, rather than through physical service, because LHY might have contested the service if it were physically delivered.
Furthermore, the UK court might have dismissed the service, as defamation laws in the UK have significantly evolved, standing in contrast to those in some Commonwealth countries, where colonial laws originally designed to stifle criticism against the elites are still in place.
One should pause to consider what reputational harm the politicians who filed defamation suits actually suffered, especially when they continue to be elected as leaders of Singapore in General Elections. Moreover, what damage did they incur when their income solely relies on being elected into political office?
The decision of the Singapore Ministers to litigate within their jurisdiction, despite LHY being in the UK, is also troubling. Particularly since they are aware that LHY is unlikely to return to Singapore to attend court if he contests the claims.
It bears noting that Mr Shanmugam mentioned in a March parliamentary session that LHY and his wife had left the country after being contacted by the police for investigation assistance. This raises questions about the fairness of suing someone in a manner that limits their ability to respond effectively.
Unless there are changes in the legislature, which is unlikely under a People’s Action Party government, defamation lawsuits in Singapore will continue to be at risk of being used as tools by the wealthy and powerful to silence their critics.
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