Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is to receive S$133,000 ($99,000) in damages and aggravated damages from a Facebook user who linked to an article judged to be defamatory and originally published from overseas.
The verdict against Leong Sze Hian was announced in writing on Wednesday by Justice Aedit Abdullah. Submissions were heard by the court in November.
By linking to an article in Malaysian online publication The Coverage, Leong was found to have published the story about Lee’s alleged help laundering money from the scandal-hit 1MDB fund on behalf of disgraced Malaysian former Prime Minister Najib Razak. Leong did not caption the reposted article, but had set his Facebook privacy settings to ‘public’ status. His reposting received 45 reactions from other Facebook users before he took it down on instruction from the Infocomm Media Development Authority after three days.
The judge said that reposting the article was done “without making any enquiries as to its truth whatsoever (and displayed) reckless disregard of whether the article was true or not.” It was defamatory because the article suggested that Lee was “at the very least, involved in serious and dishonest criminal activity.” The judge said that malice was also implied by Leong’s refusal to apologize.
Lee and other senior government figures have a history of suing media outlets and local online users for critical comment. The Leong case is notable in that the judge explained how Singapore’s law on defamation can operate in addition to the country’s controversial 2019 fake news law, known as Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act.
POFMA allows for the government to order posters and platform operators to attach a disclaimer notice to online postings that it says are not truthful. The law also allows postings to be taken offline.
Leong’s lawyers argued that defamation should not apply if POFMA could have been used in the first instance. But, according to reporting by Channel News Asia, the judge explained that where POFMA is concerned with falsehoods, damage to the country and public confidence in the government, the pre-existing defamation law is concerned with reputation.
“The POFMA does not provide individuals with any right or cause of action arising from a false and defamatory allegation against them. This is a key distinction,” the judge said.