A Singaporean writer has accused Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of abusing the legal process and curbing free speech after Lee sued him for defamation over an article shared on Facebook.

Lee filed suit against commentator Leong Sze Hian in December, arguing that Leong shared an article that falsely connected Lee to the 1MDB corruption scandal in Malaysia.

Leong has since submitted a defence, with an additional counterclaim against Lee for “abusing the process of the court.” The case is scheduled to be heard later this month.

Leong Sze Hian
Leong Sze Hian. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Leong, 65, described himself as a writer who “analyses government statistics” and pushed for greater transparency. Speaking to HKFP, he said he was singled out for no good reason.

“Singaporeans need to let our overpaid ministers know, once and for all, that it does not pay to sue ordinary citizens for defamation,” he said.

On November 7, Leong shared an article alleging that Lee had become a “key investigation target” in the 1MDB case and used his position as prime minister to launder money for Malaysia’s then-leader Najib Razak.

The article was published by Malaysian website The Coverage, and Leong said he shared the link on Facebook “without embellishment or comment.”

Leong said he initially chose to share the article because the 1MDB scandal was of public interest to Singaporeans: “Given that there has been so much reporting on Singapore’s involvement in 1MDB, people should get more detailed answers.”

Three days later, Leong removed the post after receiving a notice from Singapore’s Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA).

lee kwan yew
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. File photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Leong conceded that, by the time the IMDA asked him to take down the post, he had already realised that some of the article’s claims were in dispute.

Nevertheless, Leong said he was “quite surprised” that Lee chose to only target him for the lawsuit, instead of the article’s author, publisher or other readers who shared it.

Leong added that Lee and the IMDA sent mixed signals: “I thought, oh maybe it was a [crossed wire] in communication – the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

Lee’s office had previously responded to media enquiries saying that “the matter is before the courts and the prime minister will continue to take legal advice on developments.”

In a letter to Leong, Lee’s lawyers wrote that the allegations were “false and baseless and constitute a very serious libel against our client, and disparage and impugn his character, credit and integrity.”

HKFP has reached out to Lee’s office for further comment.

High-profile donor

Leong had started a crowdfunding campaign for his case, which made headlines last month after it attracted a donation from the prime minister’s estranged younger brother Lee Hsien Yang.

Both Leong and the younger Lee had been coy about the exact amount that was donated, with the latter saying that it was “a meaningful sum.”

Leong added: “Let me answer in this way: in war, do you want your enemy to know how much ammunition you have?”

Hong Lim Park
Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park, Singapore. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Gabbe.

With his court appearance days away, Leong said he was concerned about whether his case would result in more self-censorship among Singaporeans.

“This is not about me being in a fight with the prime minister,” he said. “This is a fight between the people and the prime minister – for transparency, for freedom of expression, and generally for human rights.”

Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.