Runner Soh Rui Yong fails in appeal against defamation suit loss to Ashley Liew
SINGAPORE: A High Court judge on Monday (Mar 28) dismissed marathoner Soh Rui Yong’s appeal against a defamation suit mounted by fellow runner Ashley Liew.
Soh, 30, lost the defamation suit and was ordered by a district court in September last year to pay Liew damages of S$180,000. His appeal was heard by Justice Valerie Thean.
The case centres on an act of fair play carried out by Liew at a SEA Games marathon in 2015. Soh and Liew were teammates representing Singapore at the race held in June that year.
The marathon route consisted of five loops within East Coast Park, but Liew was the only participant who made a U-turn correctly at the first U-turn point.
Soh and all the other runners missed the point and ran past it before making a U-turn about 50m ahead, resulting in Liew being ahead of the rest.
Liew then purportedly slowed down to let the rest catch up, before resuming his marathon pace. This was reported as an act of fair play on mainstream and social media.
Soh eventually won the race, while Liew was later given a Special Award for Sportsmanship by the Singapore National Olympic Council. He also became the first Singaporean to receive the prestigious Pierre de Coubertin World Fair Play Trophy.
Following this, Soh made five statements online claiming that the act of fair play did not happen.
In one such statement in October 2018, he wrote on Facebook: “I didn’t say anything about this three 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 has been repeated and published time and time again … While making a good story, it is simply not true, and I think it’s time to stop living in imagination.”
LIEW’S “PUBLIC ACCOUNT”
The thrust of Soh’s appeal was that his statements were not defamatory as the “public account” of Liew’s act of fair play that existed at the time of the statements was untrue.
The appellant denied that the gist and “defamatory sting” of his comments was that Liew had not slowed down at all.
According to Soh’s team of lawyers, led by Mr Eugene Thuraisingam, the public account was:
- Liew “dramatically slowed down to wait for his competitors”, slowing to a “crawl”.
- Once his competitors “overtook him in the same order” that they were in before the U-turn point, Liew resumed his race.
- This act of slowing down cost Liew a gold medal, or at least a medal.
This public account could be gleaned from a TODAY article and live interview on Channel 5 in June 2015 and an October 2018 Facebook post by the International Fair Play Committee, said Soh’s lawyers.
Liew had the opportunity to correct any exaggerations in the public account, but he did not, said Mr Thuraisingam. This created the impression to a “reasonable and objective person” that Liew slowed down and that act cost him a medal.
However, Liew could “never” have won a medal at the race, said the appellant, citing the six minutes and 52 seconds between his finishing time and that of the eventual bronze medallist.
This was longer than the two-and-a-half minutes that Liew said it took for his competitors to catch up to him after slowing down, according to the appellant.
“It is logically and mathematically impossible for (Liew) to have won a medal, even if he did not slow down at all,” said Mr Thuraisingam.
Soh’s lawyers also contended that over the course of the defamation suit, Liew made “clawbacks” in his account of the extent to which he slowed down, how much of his competitive advantage was lost and the impact this had on him during the race.
Additionally, Soh’s lawyers challenged the “exorbitant” sum of S$180,000 damages awarded.
They argued that the district judge had relied on media reports that “grossly exaggerate” the extent to which Liew slowed down, and therefore the damage to his public standing, when deciding on the sum.
Mr Thuraisingam compared the sum to the lower damages awarded to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in past defamation suits won against bloggers Roy Ngerng and Leong Sze Hian.
He also challenged the district judge’s order for Soh to publish an apology and a retraction, saying that this was unprecedented and no exceptional circumstances were identified to justify the order.
SOH’S “NEW STING”
In response, Liew’s lawyer Mark Teng argued that Soh’s appeal was an attempt to reframe the defamatory sting from claims that Liew had not slowed down at all, to claims about the “public account” described by Soh’s lawyers.
The reliance on this “new sting” was “misconceived and unsupported by legal principles”, he said.
Mr Teng argued it was clear from Soh’s statements that he had made “very specific, absolute statements” that Liew had not slowed down during the race, and framed the issue as such “time and time again”.
The lawyer cited Soh’s 2018 comments on Facebook, in which he said that Liew “certainly did not stop or slow down to wait for us whatsoever”.
“Ordinary readers would understand that (Soh) is disputing the entirety of (Liew’s) act of fair play, and accusing (Liew) of lying about the same,” he said.
The lawyer also challenged Soh’s argument that Liew could “never” have won a medal at the race, saying that “anyone leading the race could have finished first”.
He added that Liew’s personal best timing that year was better than Soh’s eventual first-place timing at the race.
On the issue of damages, Mr Teng asked the court to additionally consider Soh’s post-judgment conduct.
“I am not sure there has ever been a precedent case where the defendant has not stopped insisting he is right, even during appeal,” said Mr Teng.
He said there was a “media circus” surrounding the defamation suit, including after the district court’s ruling, and accused Soh of “pandering” to the media to gain sympathy.
The lawyer said Soh took action to bring the defamation suit to the attention of as many people as possible, and that this was to the extent of taking away the effect of vindication for Liew.
He also argued that the injury to Liew’s reputation was higher than that to the Prime Minister in the defamation suits against Mr Ngerng and Mr Leong cited by the appellant.
This was because the publication of the defamatory statements in those earlier suits was more limited in reach and for a shorter period, he said.
In contrast, Soh’s statements were widely published and republished, and “cloaked … with some form of believability” given Soh’s status as a national athlete and participation in the race.
In her judgment, Justice Thean said it was clear that Soh’s comments went “far further” than claiming that Liew was undeserving of the recognition he received.
Soh’s comments went so far as to say that the narrative of the act of fair play was untrue, and that no one slowed down to wait, said the judge.
Justice Thean upheld the district judge’s ruling, including the findings that Liew did slow down during the race. However, she set aside the order for Soh to retract the defamatory statements and issue a public apology.
Justice Thean also ordered Soh to pay S$18,000 in costs for the appeal hearing. This is on top of about S$125,000 in costs that Soh was ordered to pay in February for the district court trial.