"I am sorry. I had no intent to defame you", defendant Roy Ngerng Yi Ling told plaintiff Lee Hsien Loong in the Supreme Court on Wednesday (Jul 1), at the start of a three-day hearing to assess damages the blogger has to pay after he was found guilty of defaming the Prime Minster.
But the apology was "not sincere", said Mr Lee. "The record contradicts that," he added, citing recent blog posts by Mr Ngerng.
"From the very first, the defendant set out to wound. He knowingly and maliciously published a false and vicious libel against the plaintiff to inflict maximum injury. He then cynically capitalised on, and continues to exploit, that libel and the ensuing lawsuit to promote himself as a champion of free speech," said lawyers acting on behalf on Mr Lee in their opening statement.
"He would say one thing but do another: He publicly apologised for the libel but he continued to defame the plaintff; he undertook not to repeat the libel but broke his promise; and he claims that he is sincere about wanting to resolve matters but he continues to aggravate this injury."
Mr Ngerng was unrepresented in court on Wednesday.
In November 2014, Supreme Court Justice Lee Seiu Kin issued a summary judgment that Mr Ngerng's posts on his blog The Heart Truths were considered to have given the impression that Mr Lee was misappropriating Central Provident Fund (CPF) monies.
In the opening statement, Mr Lee's lawyers from Drew & Napier said: "Such an allegation undermines the plaintiff's ability to lead the country, sustain the confidence of the electorate and discharge his functions as Prime Minister and Chairman of GIC. The defendant's allegations, unless challenged head-on, demolished in a court of law and met with a substantial award of damages, would seriously erode the plaintiff's reputation and moral authority."
The hearing was scheduled to assess the amount of damages to be paid by Mr Ngerng, after a summary judgment was filed by Mr Lee on Jul 11, 2014. A summary judgment is one that is issued without going to trial, as the judge agrees with the applicant that the defence has no grounds to support his or her case.
Mr Lee's lawyers called for "a very high award of damages", on account of Mr Ngerng's "malice and continuing attacks".
Previous awards in defamation cases involving top Government ministers in Singapore have ranged from S$100,000 to S$400,000, the lawyers noted, suggesting that a higher quantum should be awarded in this case.
"The court has consistently awarded substantial damages in cases where false allegations of criminal conduct were made in the office of Prime Minister," said Mr Lee's lawyers in their opening statement.
"The plaintiff respectfully asks that the court expresses, in the strongest terms, its indignation at the defendant's conduct. The case for a very high award of damages, including aggravated damages, is compelling."
FREEDOM OF SPEECH VS DEFAMATION LAWS
Justice Lee had previously noted that the constitutional right to freedom of speech is restricted by defamation laws, citing earlier cases in a similar vein, such as in the legal disputes between late opposition politician Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Mr Ngerng was ordered to pay Mr Lee S$29,000 for legal fees and related expenses that were borne leading up to the application for the summary judgment.
The Prime Minister’s press secretary Chang Li Lin had earlier told media that Mr Lee "stands ready to be cross-examined, a position he has earlier communicated to the court".
The blogger, a former healthcare programme coordinator at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, had written a blogpost last May comparing the Prime Minister's usage of CPF monies to the City Harvest Church leaders' alleged misuse of church funds. In his blog, he charged that Mr Lee did so via the Government’s investment arms, Temasek Holdings and GIC.
Mr Ngerng was ordered by the court to no longer publish any assertions that Mr Lee was misappropriating CPF monies. The blogger later wrote in a blogpost that although the injunction was in place, he would continue to speak up for CPF and other issues.
The blogger's application for a Queen's Counsel to take on his case was also rejected by the High Court on Jun 11, after Justice Steven Chong said that the appointed QC had no expertise in Singapore-specific defamation issues. Mr Ngerng was ordered to pay costs of S$6,000 for the dismissed application.