Mr Lee Hsien Yang (LHY) has taken to Facebook to share his insights on defamation laws in the United Kingdom and the United States.
In his Facebook post dated 3 February, LHY describes London as the former ‘libel capital of the world’ due to its historically plaintiff-friendly defamation laws.
The former Singtel elaborates, “In recent decades, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Johnny Depp, Lord Aldington v Count Nikolai Tolstroy, David Irving v Penguin Books are just a few of a long list of fascinating cases involving international parties in UK defamation actions.”
LHY highlights the evolution of English defamation laws, tracing their origins back to the reign of James I.
He notes the significant shift in the UK’s approach with the Defamation Act of 2013, which introduced a ‘serious harm’ requirement for claimants.
In his analysis of UK defamation laws, LHY notes that the UK Defamation Act 2013 requires claimants to demonstrate actual or probable serious harm, defined as substantial, lasting damage to an individual’s reputation or livelihood caused by defamation. He points out that in the UK, many cases do not progress unless this serious harm can be established.
LHY references James Dyson’s failed defamation claim, where the UK Court ruled that Dyson did not meet the serious harm test to his reputation. This was in response to a Daily Mirror article stating Dyson “championed Vote Leave …before moving his global head office to Singapore.” The court found that Dyson couldn’t prove significant reputational or financial loss due to the publication.
LHY also mentions the case of Lawrence Fox, who lost his defamation case. The defendants argued, “If and to the extent that Mr Fox has been harmed in his reputation, it is his own conduct and not the …comments on it that caused that harm.”
According to LHY, under the UK Defamation Act, it is a valid defence to show that a statement was in the public interest and that the defendant reasonably believed publishing it served the public interest.
Furthermore, LHY states that truth is a defence for defamation in the UK: a defendant can succeed if they establish that their statements were substantially true on the balance of probabilities.
Additionally, LHY delves into the issue of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), drawing attention to their use to “silence critical voices and stifle scrutiny and public debate.”
He cites the UK government’s policy paper on SLAPPs and the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act of 2023, which introduced the first anti-SLAPP provision into UK law.
LHY also notes that in the US, laws are designed to protect robust public discussion on important issues, topics, and events, particularly regarding public figures and matters of public concern.
He explains that US defamation laws aim to discourage baseless or strategic lawsuits that could chill speech and idea exchange.
Highlighting the widespread adoption of anti-SLAPP laws, with over 30 states having variations, LHY emphasizes that in the US, the court of public opinion, rather than a court of law, is often seen as the appropriate forum for addressing issues concerning public figures and matters of public interest.
This discourse takes place against the backdrop of LHY’s legal struggle in Singapore, where in November 2023, Justice Goh Yihan ruled in favour of Minister for Home Affairs and Law, Mr K Shanmugam, and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. in the legal dispute over a Facebook post concerning the Ridout Road saga with the two ministers.
The ministers had filed defamation suits against LHY over a post that allegedly hinted at corrupt actions on their part in the Ridout Road property matter.
In his ruling, Justice Goh said he agreed with the claimants’ interpretation of the offending words in the Facebook post as implying that the claimants acted corruptly and for personal gain.
The judge also granted the injunction order sought by the claimants, restraining LHY from publishing or disseminating the alleged defamatory statements.
In their suit, the two ministers contended that LHY’s post, dated 23 July 2023, implied that they had received unauthorized benefits linked to state-owned properties.
Despite requests for retraction, apology, and a charity donation, LHY has remained adamant about the innocence of his original statements. “Two ministers have leased state-owned mansions from the agency one oversees,” he reiterated in a 29 July post, maintaining that this does not suggest corruption or personal gain.
Mr Shanmugam, as the Law Minister, heads the Singapore Land Authority, from which he leased his Ridout property of 23,164 sqm at S$26,500 per month.
The situation is further complicated by LHY’s current residence in the UK and his preference for the litigation to be conducted there. This preference, coupled with the ongoing police investigation against him and his wife in Singapore, has sparked considerable debate and criticism over the choice of the two ministers to sue LHY in Singapore.
Despite various defamation claims made by politicians from the People’s Action Party (PAP), it remains unclear how they have suffered any damage from the alleged defamatory statements for which they have successfully sued, given their continued success at the polls.
In Singapore, unlike the case of James Dyson, actual proof of damage is not necessary for a defamation suit to succeed.
In the defamation ruling between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Leong Sze Hian, Justice Aedit Abdullah stated, “the law of defamation does not require proof of actual damage to reputation…As long as it is reasonable that one’s reputation could be harmed, it does not matter if no one with such a view is in fact found and produced to the court.”
A hearing is scheduled for 6 February in the Singapore High Court to assess damages and determine costs to be paid to the two ministers. However, this hearing will not be open to the public as it is being held in chambers.
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