Leong Sze Hian, a 65-year-old financial advisor and an outspoken political activist, expressed bewilderment when lawyers acting on behalf of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong are taking him to court over a news article he shared on his Facebook page.
According to The Straits Times, the Singapore premier resorted to legal action after Leong failed to comply with a letter sent by his lawyers demanding that he make a public apology and pay for damages over the Facebook post. On Nov 8, Leong simply shared an article published by Malaysian publication The Coverage that claimed that Lee made “secret deals” with his disgraced former Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak to help launder money looted from sovereign wealth fund 1MDB.
The problematic article itself used information reported in a States Times Review piece titled “Lee Hsien Loong becomes 1MDB’s key investigation target”, which was in turn sourced from Malaysian media that interviewed Clare Rewcastle Brown, the editor of Sarawak Report who played a major role in exposing the 1MDB financial scandal. But Sarawak Report has refuted the States Times Review report, calling it erroneous and “unclear in its direction and meaning”.
The Singapore government were livid, as you would imagine. The Monetary Authority of Singapore filed a police report against the author of the States Times Review article, taking issue with its “false allegations”. The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) asked the States Times Review to remove the piece but got its request rejected. Singapore straight-up blocked the site after that.
A request was made to Facebook to deny access to the post on the States Times Review’s Facebook page, but that was turned down as well.
By that time it was too late. The contentious story had already been picked up Malaysian outlets The Coverage and China Press.
Leong Sze Hian
But considering that thousands probably shared the Coverage piece on their personal Facebook pages, why was Leong singled out for legal action? And if The Coverage was the party that made the false allegations, why is someone who simply posted the article on Facebook getting in trouble?
It’s something that has severely confused the man, who offered his side of the story in a Facebook post.
Admitting that he did share the Coverage piece, he clarified that he made no additional comments to the post that could implicate him.
“I did not add any comments or embellish the article by The Coverage.my, but merely shared it. It is therefore grossly inaccurate for certain State media to have represented to the whole of Singapore that I had made a post which was defamatory of the Prime Minister.”
According to Leong, he actually complied with a demand to take down the post. Two days after he shared the article, he received an IMDA notice demanding him to take down his Facebook post within six hours, which he did.
But the powers that be weren’t done with Leong. On Nov 12, he received another letter.
“I was therefore bewildered when Davinder Singh of Drew and Napier LLC sent me a Letter of Demand on the 12th of November alleging that I had defamed the Prime Minister and demanding that I make a public apology and compensate the Prime Minister for damages. The Letter of Demand also stated that I had posted TheCoverage.my article maliciously and to damage his client.
I reject all these allegations categorically.”
The letter was posted on Facebook, which included a section about Leong’s online reach.
“The post and the article were also available and accessible to all 5,000 of your ‘friends’ and 149 ‘followers’ of your Facebook profile page and, as at 7:47pm on 8 November 2018, attracted 22 ‘reactions’ and 5 ‘comments’. Further, the privacy setting of the post was set to ‘public’, which means you took steps to ensure that the post and article were available and accessible to all users of Facebook and the public at large.”
The document also held the apology that Leong needed to make.
The man, however, is no stranger to butting horns with the government. The Harvard Business School alumnus actively analyses and questions government policies on his blog and has been a columnist for The Online Citizen and Malaysiakini. Among other accomplishments, he had been president at local human rights NGO Maruah, and according to his bio on his blog, has been quoted over 1,500 times in the media.