When Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued a government critic this month for defamation, it’s unlikely he expected the lawsuit to draw attention to the still lingering enmities of a bitter family feud that pits him against his siblings.

Leong Sze Hian, a financial adviser and rights activist, filed a defense and counterclaim against Lee on December 26, arguing that the premier’s libel suit over his Facebook post of a news article alleging Lee’s complicity in a financial scandal in neighboring Malaysia is an “abuse of the process of the court.”

Leong launched a crowdfunding campaign in late December aimed at raising S$10,000 (US$7,314) for his legal defense. The first person to donate: Lee Hsien Yang, the prime minister’s estranged younger brother.

Lee was quoted in local media saying that he contributed a “meaningful sum” to Leong’s campaign without specifying the amount. When reporters asked him about the move, he merely replied without elaborating, “Surely it needs no explanation?”

Though Leong says he didn’t aim to pick a fight, his legal counsel has characterized the case as a “battle to uphold freedom of expression” in Singapore, where observers say the government is increasingly targeting online criticism while it controversially mulls new legislation to curb fake news or “deliberate online falsehoods.”

Many are concerned any new law could be abused to censor legitimate dissent. According to Leong’s 17-page defense and counterclaim against Lee, the activist is seeking compensation for damage to his reputation. Lee is also seeking aggravated damages and an injunction to prevent Leong from publishing or disseminating defamatory allegations against the premier.

Singapore-Leong Sze Hian-Blogger
Activist Leong Sze Hian is under the legal gun. Photo: Facebook

The prime minister’s relationship with his siblings, meanwhile, became a major focus of public attention in Singapore following a bitter public quarrel over the fate of their parents’ bungalow last year.

The younger Lee and his sister, Lee Wei Ling, publicly accused their elder brother of abusing his power to preserve their family home against the willed desire of their father, Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, to demolish the residence.

Key meetings of the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which the deceased Lee founded and his incumbent son has sustained in power, were held in the basement of the property in the 1950s.

Though the premier’s siblings claim the elder Lee, who passed away in 2015, was unwavering in his stance that the five-bedroom Oxley Road residence be demolished immediately after his death, a ministerial committee is studying future options for the house, including preserving it partially or completely, owing to its historical significance.

The siblings posted a searing six-page statement to their Facebook accounts last June alleging their elder brother “misused his power as prime minister” and “hijacked the organs of state to pursue his personal goals.”

They also accused Lee of harboring political ambitions for his son, Li Hongyi, and seeking to preserve the house to boost his political standing.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with his son Li Hongyi. Photo: AFP Forum
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with his son Li Hongyi. Photo: AFP Forum

Lee strongly denied the allegations made against him during a parliamentary debate last July, where he provided an account of events that led up to the dispute erupting into public view and expressed regret that the incident “affected Singapore’s reputation and Singaporeans’ confidence in the government.”

The premier said he did not intend to sue his siblings over the matter because doing so would “further besmirch” their parents’ names and create “distraction and distress,” adding that he would certainly sue for defamation in “any other imaginable circumstance.”

Public quarreling between the Lee family over the still-unresolved matter had since ceased. It is, however, common for Singapore’s leaders to file crippling legal actions they almost always win for alleged defamation.

Litigation against opposition politicians has forced prominent figures into bankruptcy and disqualified them from political candidacy. Defamation suits have also been filed against foreign media outlets and more recently been lodged against the editors of local online news platforms and independent bloggers.

The article now in legal question, originally published on November 5, alleged that Lee was a target of Malaysia’s criminal investigation into graft at the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund over alleged “secret deals” with then premier Najib Razak to launder pilfered funds through Singapore’s banking system.

It was originally published by the States Times Review, an online portal run by an Australia-based dissident known to play fast and loose with the facts. Leong shared a version of the story published by a Malaysian news portal, The Coverage, two days later on his Facebook page without adding any personal comment.

A screen shot of State Times Review's website on November 14, 2018. Photo: Asia Times
A screen shot of State Times Review’s website on November 14, 2018. Photo: Asia Times

He removed the post after less than three days once he received a takedown notice from the Infocomm and Media Development Authority (IMDA), which regulates and sometimes censors online content in Singapore.

The allegations made in the article were branded as “absurd” and an attempt to “damage the prime minister” by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, who told reporters that Singapore was “the first and perhaps only jurisdiction” to secure convictions of individuals who facilitated the laundering of funds pilfered from 1MDB.

Shanmugam is part of a ten-member parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, which is advocating for more robust measures against fake news. Civil society groups, however, have raised concerns over any new legislation given the already broad laws regulating and curbing free speech in Singapore.

Despite Leong’s compliance with the government’s order, he was “bewildered” after receiving a letter of demand from Lee’s lawyers on Nov 12 instructing him to make a public apology within three days and compensate the premier for damages.

When he failed to comply, lawyers from Drew & Napier, one of Singapore’s leading law firms, commenced legal action. Lee’s lawyers have asserted that the words in the article were “false and baseless, and were calculated to disparage and impugn the plaintiff in his office as the prime minister.”

A statement by Leong’s attorney questioned why no legal action had been brought against the offending article’s publishers or any other Singaporeans who shared it.

“The predominant purpose of the claim is the use of the legal process to chill freedom of expression in Singapore generally and in particular to restrict reporting on any role the government may have had in the 1MDB scandal” said Leong’s lawyer, Lim Tean, an opposition politician and leader of the newly registered People’s Voice party.

Li Shengwu delivers a eulogy to his late grandfather and national founder Lee Kuan Yew on March 29, 2015 in Singapore in a screen grab photo from a Prime Minister's Office video.
Li Shengwu delivers a eulogy to his late grandfather Lee Kuan Yew on March 29, 2015 in Singapore in a screen grab photo from a Prime Minister’s Office video.

Leong isn’t the only person facing legal action over social media postings. Contempt of court proceedings against Lee Hsien Yang’s son, Li Shengwu, were brought by the Attorney General’s Chambers last August over a Facebook post where he accused Singapore’s government of being “very litigious” and having a “pliant court system.”

Li, a 33-year-old assistant professor at Harvard University, claimed in a Facebook post that he was “ambushed” with “court papers in public” while delivering a lecture in the United States last year and is expected to appeal a court order that permitted the serving of papers on grounds of challenging its jurisdiction to do so outside of Singapore.

While it remains to be seen whether the family feud that captivated many and distressed some Singaporeans will again break into the open, Lee Hsien Yang’s support for Leong’s legal fund amidst ongoing legal troubles faced by his son is indicative of the still-fraught relationship between the Lee siblings.

A pre-trial conference for Leong’s case is expected to take place on January 7. Carson Law Chambers, the firm representing him in the case, claims he “does not assert that what the article said or is alleged to have said was true” and that the libel suit is “not a real and substantial tort” since the false allegations against Lee were already in the public domain.

Lee’s press secretary Chang Li Lin said that “the matter is before the courts and that the prime minister will continue to take legal advice on developments.” As lead counsel in Leong’s case, Lim said he would defend his client’s case with vigor and that he “look[s] forward to cross-examining Lee Hsien Loong in court.”