Verdict on marathoners Soh Rui Yong-Ashley Liew defamation case could be out by end-September

SINGAPORE – After more than two years, the long-running legal dispute between ex-national marathon teammates Ashley Liew and Soh Rui Yong will soon draw to a close.

In June, the trial for Liew’s defamation suit against Soh ended and both parties filed their closing submissions a month later, followed by reply submissions in late August.

The Straits Times understands that a verdict on the case, which began in June 2019 when Liew filed court papers, could be delivered by District Judge Lee Li Choon before the end of September, at the earliest.

Liew is seeking a total of $240,000 from former teammate Soh in general and aggravated damages – in equal amounts – over five statements, the first of which the latter made in September 2018, that he alleges defamed him. The statements appeared in the form of two blog posts, two Facebook posts, and one Facebook comment.

In them, Soh had disputed Liew’s account of the latter’s act of fair play during the 2015 SEA Games marathon. Liew, a chiropractor, said that he had slowed down to allow other runners to catch up after they missed a U-turn and took the wrong path. Soh had won the race, while Liew finished eighth.

Liew later received two awards for his act of sportsmanship from the Singapore National Olympic Council and the International Fair Play Committee – which awarded him the Pierre de Coubertin World Fair Play Trophy – as well as praise from Cabinet ministers.

Liew, 34, is represented by Mark Teng and Lim Tianjun of That.Legal LLC.

Soh, 30, is represented by Eugene Thuraisingam and Chooi Jing Yen of Eugene Thuraisingam LLP.

Over 10 days in court, each party called on four witnesses.

Liew had Japanese-Cambodian runner Kuniaki Takizaki – a competitor in the 2015 race – and two observers, Kelvin Ling and Jennifer Quek on the stand, and also took to the stand himself.

Similarly, Soh took to the stand and also had his former coach Steven Quek, his father Soh Seow Hong, and friend Madankumar Balakirishnan, who had all observed the race.

Takizaki, who spoke through an interpreter and testified via video conference, told the court that Liew was “standing there” as he overtook him after the U-turn incident.

However, veteran coach Quek said that based on what he had observed, “at no point” did Liew slow down after the U-turn point.

Liew’s lawyers highlighted that his account of slowing down was corroborated by three witnesses who did not know him personally, while Soh relied on the testimony of those who were close to him.

Soh’s lawyers, however, fired back by pointing out that none of Liew’s witnesses agreed on how long Liew slowed down “dramatically” and where, as well as at which point or how long it took for Takizaki to overtake the Singaporean.

In their submission, Liew’s lawyers also claimed Soh had treated court proceedings as “ancillary to the parallel litigation… in the court of public opinion”, accusing him on “drawing maximum public attention to this case”, which they proffered should factor in the damages awarded.

“The public interest in the subject matter of these proceedings, and the perceived credibility of the defendant’s allegations as a fellow (race) participant with first-hand knowledge, has resulted in media coverage that is seen only in defamation cases involving political leaders,” they added.

They also claimed that aggravating factors in the case were “unprecedented in Singapore”.

Among them are: Soh’s conduct, which they asserted is “indicative of express malice on his part”, that he has not given any apology, and that his “relentless social media publications regarding the dispute… were calculated to draw the public’s eye”.

“Notably, in his bid to attract the public’s attention, (Soh) had constantly, and falsely, promoted himself as the protagonist of the dispute who fights ‘the battle’ to unravel the truth, whilst putting (Liew) out to be a liar,” they said.

In response, Soh’s lawyers called the sum of damages sought “extraordinary”, pointing to how it eclipsed the total damages awarded to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in defamation cases involving blogger Roy Ngerng ($100,000 in general damages, $50,000 in aggravated damages) in 2015 and Leong Sze Hian ($100,000 in general damages, $33,000 in aggravated damages) in 2021.

“The plaintiff posits that this unprecedented sum is justified as the aggravating factors in this case are unprecedented… There is nothing quite special about the present case save for the quantum of damages the Plaintiff seeks,” they said.

While they sought Liew’s case be “wholly dismissed”, Soh’s lawyers said that in the event that all of the defamatory meanings pleaded by Liew are made out, a more appropriate quantum for general damages would be $25,000, or $5,000 per statement. Aggravated damages, they added, would be only 20 per cent of general damages ($5,000).

Soh’s lawyers also argued that Liew has attempted to confine the factual issue of the race dispute to “an unacceptable narrow absolute of whether he had slowed down regardless of extent”. They argued that Liew’s testimony in court, which breaks down his act of fair play to three phases, is a “convoluted” attempt to “shift the battleground elsewhere”.

Timeline of Soh v Liew

October 2018: Soh alleges on social media that Liew’s version of events of the 2015 SEA Games marathon is “simply not true”.

He was reacting to a Facebook post by the International Fair Play Committee (CIFP) – which had awarded Liew the Pierre de Coubertin World Fair Play Trophy – which hailed Liew as a role model for fair play.

April 2019: Soh is served a letter by lawyers representing the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) – which had feted Liew for the act with a special award in 2016 and nominated him for the CIFP award – to “publicly retract and withdraw” statements he made about the 2015 SEA Games marathon.

A week later, Soh is served with a similar letter by Liew’s lawyers demanding an apology.

June 2019: Liew files a defamation claim against Soh, seeking damages and compensation for legal costs.

August 2019: Two-time SEA Games marathon champion Soh is not selected by the SNOC’s selection committee for the 2019 edition in the Philippines.

The SNOC cites “numerous instances” where Soh’s conduct fell short of the standards it expects and holds its national athletes to.

He sends lawyer’s letters to SNOC and Singapore Athletics (SA), accusing both organisations of defaming him through comments made after his non-selection. In October 2020, he discontinues his suit against SA.

October 2019: Soh files his defence and counterclaim against Liew alleging defamation and seeking $250,000 in losses and damages.

His lawyers also serve a letter of demand to One Management – Liew’s management company – and its co-founder Jed Senthil K. Jivaraju, accusing the parties of defamation, demanding compensation of $500,000 each from both parties for the injury to his “professional standing and reputation”.

September 2020: On the first day of trial, Liew takes the stand for two-and-a-half hours. He is followed by his witnesses, who include Cambodian-Japanese runner Kuniaki Takizaki via video conference.

Soh also took to the stand and among his witnesses were veteran distance running coach Steven Quek.

November 2020: Soh applies for a recusal of District Judge Lee Li Choon, claiming alleged bias. District Judge Lee dismisses the application in January.

April 2021: Soh’s appeal against the dismissal of the recusal application is turned down by the High Court.

A day later, he announces that Eugene Thuraisingam and Chooi Jing Yen of Eugene Thuraisingam LLP – the firm that had represented him at the start of the case – will take over from Clarence Lun of Fervent Chambers LLP, as his lead counsel.

June 2021: The trial draws to a close after 10 days in court. Closing submissions were filed on July 27, with reply submissions filed on Aug 31.

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