In its defence to the lawsuit by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Lee Hsien Loong, FEER cited that the interview was of public interest not just in Singapore but also the region: “As a vocal member of an opposition party, Dr Chee is very well-known in Singapore and in South-East Asia. He has long been targeted by the PAP. [FEER] will…show Dr Chee is of interest to the region.”
It added that the public importance of the allegations made by Dr Chee go to “the governance of Singapore under the plaintiff and his son and to the question of whether Singapore is truly democratic.”
“Defamation actions chill freedom of speech and because Singaporean libel law is weighted in favour of claimants, this gives wealthy public figures an unfair advantage,” the magazine added.
“The Singapore government, under the influence of the plaintiff and his son, has refused (unlike other progressive countries) to amend its libel laws to make them more fair and more protective of democratic debate and less likely to produce miscarriages of justice.”
FEER also cited qualified privilege in its defence and that the magazine was an appropriate media for Dr Chee’s response to the “campaign of accusations and vilification against Dr Chee mounted over many years by the plaintiff [Lee Kuan Yew] and his PAP associates.”
“Dr Chee had a duty to make bona fide and relevant statements in response to such attacks and vilification and persons in Singapore and in the region who have heard or read the aforementioned vilification have an interest in receiving a communication of this response,” the defence stated.
“The article was a neutral report of the political assertions of Dr Chee,” FEER continued, “who has for many years been conducting a vigorous and ongoing debate with the plaintiff and his son over their governance of Singapore.”
And whilst the “plaintiff’s side of that debate has always been fully reported by the press in Singapore,” FEER was “doing no more than reporting Dr Chee’s side.”
The third line of defence was fair comment. In citing this, FEER relied on, amongst others, the following points:
1. [Lee Kuan Yew’s] actions in taking or supporting measures to curb political opposition indicates that he is fearful of criticism, especially criticism from opposition MPs if they could investigate and ask questions about errors and mistakes he has made whilst in government; and/or
2. the National Kidney Foundation scandal illustrates the dangers of an over-powerful and over-secretive government, of the kinds the plaintiff has fostered and directed in Singapore, and it is reasonable to ask whether similar irregularities or malfeasance attend similar organisation and entities operated under the direction, control or influence of the government; and/or
3. the fact that Mr T.T. Durai could win a libel suits in 1998 over allegations which were true raises the question of whether Singapore’s defamation laws are over-favourable to plaintiffs and may in consequence have been utilitsed by other officials to cover up misdeeds or to silent critics