Liew Wei Yen Ashley v Soh Rui Yong

CourtDistrict Court (Singapore)
JudgeLee Li Choon
Judgment Date22 September 2021
Neutral Citation[2021] SGDC 206
Citation[2021] SGDC 206
Docket NumberDistrict Court Suit No. 1784 of 2019
Hearing Date27 July 2021,03 September 2020,01 September 2020,08 September 2020,31 August 2021,07 June 2021,02 September 2020,24 September 2020,09 September 2020,08 June 2021,10 September 2020,11 September 2020
Plaintiff CounselMark Teng, Lim Tianjun, Ng Weng Sun (M/s That.Legal LLC)
Defendant CounselEugene Singarajah Thuraisingam (Eugene Thuraisingam LLP)
Subject MatterTort,Defamation,Defamatory Statements,Justification,Fair Comment,Damages
Published date26 January 2022
District Judge Lee Li Choon: Introduction

This is a defamation suit instituted by the Plaintiff (“Liew”) against the Defendant (“Soh”) for damages arising out of allegedly defamatory statements made by Soh. Both Liew and Soh were the two athletes who represented Singapore at the 2015 SEA Games Men’s Marathon (the “Marathon”) that was held on 7 June 2015. The Marathon consisted of 5 loops within East Coast Park with a westernmost U-turn point at lamppost B1A29 (the “U-Turn Point”). It is undisputed that Liew was the only participant in that Marathon who made the first U-turn at the U-Turn Point correctly. All of the other participants including Soh missed the U-Turn Point and ran past it before making a U-turn about 50m ahead of the U-Turn Point. As a result, Liew was ahead of the rest after the first U-Turn Point. Liew then allegedly “slowed down” to let the rest catch up before resuming his marathon pace (“the act of fair play”).

The act of fair play was widely reported on mainstream and social media, including Today Online (10 June 2015) and The 5 Show on Channel 5 (12 June 2015). Liew was subsequently given the “Special Award for Sportsmanship” by the Singapore National Olympics Council (“SNOC”) in November 2015 and on 16 September 2016, Liew became the first Singaporean to receive the prestigious Pierre de Coubertin World Fair Play trophy (“the Award”) awarded by the International Fair Play Committee (“IFPC”).

At that Marathon, Soh was the champion who won the Gold Medal for Singapore.

Soh operates and manages two Facebook accounts, one commercial and one personal – the “Facebook Page” and the “Facebook Profile” respectively1. Soh also operates an Instagram account with the handle @runsohfast (the “Instagram Account”) and a blog on his personal website at www.runsohfast.com (the “Blog”).

This suit in defamation arose out of various posts that Soh has posted on his Facebook Page, Facebook Profile, Instagram account and posts on his Blog concerning Liew’s act of fair play. It is undisputed that the privacy settings of Soh’s Facebook Page, Facebook Profile, Instagram Account, and Blog give unrestricted access to members of the public.

Soh’s Posts That Are the Subject of This Suit

I turn now to outline Soh’s posts that are the subject of this suit. In Soh’s posts, Liew was referred to as “Ashley” or “Ashley Liew”.

1st Blog Post

Soh’s first post on the subject matter of this defamation suit was a post on his blog on 22 June 2015 titled, “2015 SEA Games Marathon – In My Words” (the “1st Blog Post”)2. This 1st Blog Post was subsequently updated on 6 June 2018. On 22 October 2018, Soh shared hyperlinks to this 1st Blog Post on his Facebook Page and Facebook Profile. In this 1st Blog Post, Soh stated:

“….Teammate Ashley who had been in last place up to this point, ended up in front as we all did an about turn. Nobody slowed down to wait – the race was on.”3 (Emphasis mine)

IFPC Facebook Comments

The second instance of defamation complained of by Liew concerns Soh’s comments posted on 21 October 2018 on a 13 October 2018 Facebook post that was published by the IFPC (“IFPC Facebook Comments”)4. In the IFPC Facebook Comments, Soh commented inter alia:

“Sorry I’m going to point out something here: this story is untrue”;

“I was third in place in that race when we took a wrong turn. When we turned around perhaps 50m into the wrong turn, Ashley was already running in the other direction. We took quite a while to catch up to him (at least 1-2minutes) (Soh subsequently (on 29 January 2020) amended his comment from “We took quite a while to catch up to him (at least 1-2minutes)” to “We took quite a while to catch up to him (at least 7 minutes))5, he certainly did not stop or slow down to wait for us whatsoever”;

“I didn’t say anything about this 3 years ago because I figured a teammate of mine just had a bad race and needed something to feel better about his performance. But this fictional version of events that transpired that day…”

While making a good story, it is simply not true, and I think it’s time to stop living in imagination.

Ashley has had enough accomplishments to live by and doesn’t need to rely on this story, which takes away his credibility from those who saw what really happened that day”.6

(Emphases are mine)

Soh’s Facebook Posts

On 26 October 2018, Soh uploaded 2 identical posts – one on his Facebook Page7 and the other on his Facebook Profile8 where he said:

“When I first saw this ‘slowing down to wait in the name of sportsmanship’ claim going around after the 2015 SEA Games Marathon, I knew immediately that it was untrue.”;

I was right there in the race as one of the affected parties, and saw for a fact that nobody slowed down to wait for anyone else after that fateful wrong turn”;

“Plus, if it helped Ashley Liew feel better about his race (he was disappointed after), so be it”;

“I really didn’t expect this story to be brought up over and over again over the past 3 years … as a shining example of what all Singaporeans should aspire towards. … I was reminded that I knew the truth, but had chosen to say nothing about it.”

I’m all for sportsmanship, but it must be true.”

Conjuring, exaggerating, and circulating a fictional tale of sportsmanship contravenes the fundamental values of sports – those of hard work, excellence, and integrity.”9

(Emphases are mine)

Hate Running Posts

On 1 April 2019, Soh was served with a letter of demand from SNOC’s solicitors (M/s Rajah & Tann (“R&T”)) as his allegations that Liew had lied about slowing down also casts aspersions on the merits and integrity of SNOC’s nomination of Liew as a candidate to the IFPC. R&T’s Letter also informed Soh that “[a]t least 4 individuals [had] since stepped forward to provide SNOC with sworn statutory declarations affirming that they had seen [Liew] slow down”. In this letter, an invitation was extended to Soh to view the statutory declarations by way of prior appointment.

Shortly after R&T’s Letter, Liew’s solicitors sent a cease-and-desist letter to Soh on 9 April 2019 concerning Soh’s 1st Blog Post, the IFPC Facebook Comments and Soh’s Facebook Posts. This came to the attention of mainstream media Today News Paper and Channel News Asia and articles with the headlines “Marathoner Ashley Liew breaks silence, sends legal letter to teammate Soh who questioned fair play award” and “Marathoner Ashley Liew sends legal letter to Soh Rui Yong over allegations on act of sportsmanship” were published on the same day. A further cease-and-desist letter sent to Soh’s then solicitors on 15 May 2019 became publicised by Soh in his Facebook Page10 and Facebook Profile11, in which he said:

“6 days ago, Ashley Liew sent me a 6-page lawyer’s letter demanding that I take down the following blog post, apologise for not agreeing with his story, and pay him $120,000 in compensation”.12

On 26 May 2019, Soh uploaded the post, “42 Reasons Why I HATE Running Marathons - #21 to #30” on his Facebook Page13, Facebook Profile14 and Instagram Account15 in which Soh mentioned about a certain “idiot” who “who take the chance to make up a hero story about slowing down to wait for others as an excuse for that’s why they didn’t win, then send you lawyer’s letters when you call their bullshit and embarrass them publicly” (the “Hate Running Posts”). Soh stated:

“42 Reasons Why I HATE Running Marathons #21 to #30:

Marshallers sleeping, risk of wrong turn. (sleepy face emoticon)

When #23 happens you might have idiots who take the chance to make up a hero story about slowing down to wait for others as an excuse for that’s why they didn’t win, then send you lawyer’s letters when you call their bullshit and embarrass them publicly. (3 bin emoticons) Takes up space in my trash can!”16

(Emphases are mine)

2nd Blog Post

On 6 August 2019, Soh uploaded an article on his Blog titled “My 28th Birthday message to my supporters, Ashley Liew, and SNOC” (the “2nd Blog Post”)17, where he said inter alia:

“the purpose of this blog post is to clarify certain facts and bring us back to the focus on the main point of discussion: Ashley Liew’s tale of sportsmanship at the 2015 SEA Games Marathon”;

“Everything that’s happened the past few days is a result of me speaking the truth on the Ashley Liew sportsmanship tale”;

“The telling of the truth on Ashley Liew was not to the liking of some officials. All I did was post the truth on FB: [Hyperlinks]”

“4) Calling the SNOC biased and failing to properly investigate the Ashley Liew sportsmanship tale18

(Emphases are mine)

Thereafter, on the same day, Soh uploaded hyperlinks to his 2nd Blog Post on his Facebook Page19, Facebook Profile20and Instagram Account21.

Liew’s Case Against Soh

Liew’s case against Soh is that the statements made by Soh in his posts bear the following meanings both in their ordinary meanings and by way of innuendo: Liew did not intentionally slow down during the 2015 SEA Games Marathon and the act of fair play did not occur. Liew had lied and conjured his account of the act of fair play to obtain recognition for the same and the Award. Liew is not deserving of the recognition given for this act of fair play. Liew is not deserving of the Award. Liew had lied and conjured his account of the act of fair play that resulted in the Award. Liew is an athlete who does not display good sportsmanship. Liew is a liar and a person of dishonourable character. (“the Alleged Defamatory Meanings”)

Soh’s Defence

Soh denies that the statements in his posts are defamatory. In closing submissions, Soh submitted that the meaning of (a) above is simply a statement of fact of Liew’s actions during the Marathon. As not slowing down is not a crime nor an act that automatically imputes any dishonourable or dishonest character, there is no defamatory meaning in the statement. As to the alleged defamatory meanings in (c) and...

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