Singapore leaders’ track record of taking legal action against those who falsely impugn them has been vital to the government maintaining its clean reputation, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday as he took the stand in a defamation suit against a vocal critic. In the first day of a four-day trial in the country’s High Court, Lee was questioned for four hours by Lim Tean, the lawyer for veteran blogger and politician Leong Sze Hian . The case attracted more than the usual attention after Lim, who heads the opposition group Peoples Voice that Leong is affiliated with, was arrested last week for failing to appear before investigators in a separate criminal case . Lim – released on bail – later claimed the arrest was politically motivated ahead of Leong’s trial, drawing a sharp rebuff from authorities. Singapore’s prime minister personally sues critic for sharing article on Facebook Lee initiated the defamation action in December 2018 after Leong shared an article a month earlier on Facebook that suggested the prime minister was involved in Malaysia ’s multibillion dollar financial scandal at the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state investment fund . Leong took down the post but failed to comply with demands by Lee’s lawyers for a public apology and damages for disseminating its “false and baseless” contents. In an opening statement tendered to the court, Lee’s lawyer Davinder Singh said 1MDB had “become a byword for corruption and criminal activity”. The incriminating post featured a selfie of Lee and Najib Razak , the former Malaysian prime minister convicted in July in the first of five trials linking him to the corruption at 1MDB. Singh said the image, along with the title of the post, would have given the impression that there was a “close and cosy relationship” between the leaders, leading ordinary readers to think that Lee was “complicit in criminal activity relating to 1MDB”. Under questioning by Lim in a courtroom with reduced capacity for the public and the media because of the coronavirus pandemic , Lee dismissed the lawyer’s argument that there was no need to take civil action against Leong as the government had immediately taken action to decisively debunk the contents of the article. Lee said it was precisely “because the government has always cleared its name with clear statements and individuals who have been impugned have cleared their name through civil actions, that we are able to say these individuals are straight and their reputations have been upheld.” “And the reason why you think that government statements clear my name personally is because I have a reputation for having sued people who have impugned me wrongly,” Lee was quoted as saying in a report on the website of national broadcaster CNA. When a serious case arises and my reputation is injured, I have to act Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong “Not rightly. Not frequently. But when necessary. And therefore, when a serious case arises and my reputation is injured, I have to act. Otherwise, the question will arise – he always acts when something serious is alleged and is untrue, and in this case it’s very serious. Why is he not acting?” Leong, a financial adviser who contested July’s general election alongside Lim in the group constituency of Jalan Besar, has for years assailed Lee’s ruling People’s Action Party over its economic policies. The duo’s Peoples Voice party – formed in 2018 – has emerged as a vocal proponent of protectionism in the labour market, but did not win any seats in the polls. Lim had earlier asserted in his opening statement that it was wrong “as a matter of law and as a matter of justice” that Lee, with “the position and state machinery he operates”, had singled out Leong for “merely sharing” an article. Leong posted the article, published on the Malaysian website The Coverage, without comment. The post, Lim said, was taken down within two days and received only 22 reactions, five comments, and 18 shares. The lawyer pointed out in his opening statement that the contents of the incriminating article were rebuffed by government agencies and officials such as the law and home affairs minister K. Shanmugam – with these views prominently highlighted in media reports. “Therefore, the words complained of would not have caused any damage to his reputation because they would have been known to be false and defamatory to readers of the post” a day after it was initially posted on November 7, 2018. The Coverage’s article was a republication of material first sourced from States Times Review – an online portal run by Australia-based dissident Alex Tan. How long can Singapore walk the tightrope between the US and China? Following publication of the article, the Singapore government ordered local internet service providers to block States Times Review over the site’s refusal to take down the piece. Most of the now-defunct States Times Review’s stories are one-sided commentaries against the PAP – often not based on facts. Asked by Lim why he allowed both States Times Review and The Coverage to go “scot-free”, Lee replied that both portals were “beyond our reach”, CNA said. Lim’s cross examination of the prime minister ended on Tuesday afternoon, and the trial is expected to last until Friday. The case is one of two defamation suits Lee has launched recently. Last year, he launched a suit against Terry Xu , editor of the local independent news portal The Online Citizen, over an article surrounding the public feud between the prime minister and his younger siblings over their father’s estate. Lee, along with the late Lee Kuan Yew – his father and the country’s first prime minister – and Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded the patriarch, have a track record of initiating legal action as a counter to being defamed. While local and foreign civil activists say doing so chills free speech, the leaders say they have no other way to protect their reputation. Most recently, the current prime minister in 2014 won a defamation suit against blogger Roy Ngerng who had accused him of misappropriating state pension funds. Media organisations that previously apologised and paid damages to PAP leaders for publishing articles found to be defamatory include the Financial Times , The Economist and Bloomberg.