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Amid Three-Year-Long Controversy, Harvard Economics Prof. Li Withdraws from Singapore Criminal Proceedings

The Littauer Center for Public Administration houses the Department of Economics.
The Littauer Center for Public Administration houses the Department of Economics. By Krystal K. Phu
By James S. Bikales, Crimson Staff Writer

Embroiled in a criminal case in Singapore over a private Facebook post in 2017, Harvard assistant Economics professor Shengwu Li announced last month he would no longer participate in court proceedings to avoid “dignify[ing]” government prosecutors’ conduct.

Likely to face arrest if he were to return home, Li’s decision to end his participation — which he announced on Facebook on Jan. 22 — comes after two years of legal proceedings on contempt of court charges that he deemed “politically motivated” in an 2017 interview with Reuters. The case has even allegedly touched Li’s life on Harvard’s campus, where he claimed he was approached by a process server hired by the Singaporean government in 2017. Li, however, continues to teach classes this semester and fulfill his normal responsibilities as a junior professor at Harvard.

Li declined to comment for this story. Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Anna G. Cowenhoven also declined to comment.

Singapore’s Attorney-General’s Chambers charged Li with contempt of court in 2017 over a Facebook post critical of Singapore’s judiciary system.

The case stems from an extraordinary family feud that spilled into the public eye. Li is a Singaporean citizen and the estranged nephew of current Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He is also the grandson of the country’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who died in 2015.

In 2017, Li’s father and aunt accused their eldest brother, the prime minister, of abusing his power amid a dispute among the late Lee Kuan Yew’s children over their father’s residence. In a July 2017 post that Li shared using Facebook’s “friends-only” setting, he wrote that the city state’s government is “very litigious” and has a “pliant court system” that restricts what international media can report. Li’s post also included a link to a Wall Street Journal article describing the family dispute.

In Singapore, the government can charge citizens with contempt of court for “scandalizing the judiciary,” a remnant of colonial-era common law that can lead to fines or prison time. Human Rights Watch has deemed the law contrary to the international human right of free expression.

“[The Attorney-General’s Chambers] has taken my post completely out of context,” Li wrote in an August 2017 letter to prosecutors, which he later released to the public. “What I said in my private post in context does not pose any real risk of undermining public confidence in the administration of justice.”

Li wrote in the letter that he did not authorize the post to be shared beyond his Facebook friends, but it was re-published widely by media outlets. The Attorney-General’s Chambers unveiled the charges six days after he made the post, according to a case summary on the Supreme Court of Singapore’s website.

Singapore’s Attorney-General, Lucien Wang, previously served as the prime minister’s personal lawyer, according to the Straits Times.

Prosecutors offered to drop the charges in August 2017 if Li apologized and admitted to making “false and baseless” statements, but Li refused, launching the criminal case. By that time, Li had left Singapore, according to a case summary on the Supreme Court of Singapore's website.

Li wrote in an October 2018 Facebook post that, as his lawyers fought the charges on his behalf in Singapore in fall 2017, a person hired by the Singaporean government served him papers on Harvard’s campus just after he finished giving a guest lecture in Economics 2099: “Market Design.”

Li appealed on the grounds that he had been improperly served papers out of jurisdiction. He wrote in a September 2019 Facebook post that his legal team received advice from prominent British lawyer and Queen’s Counsel David P. Pannick, who defeated British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament over Brexit last fall.

In April 2019, however, a Singaporean court dismissed the appeal, according to the case summary.

On Feb. 3 this year, the High Court ordered that Li must attend cross-examination proceedings and produce documents within 14 days, according to a media release from Singapore’s Attorney-General’s Chambers.

Li wrote on Facebook on Jan. 22 that Singapore’s Attorney-General’s Chambers asked the High Court to strike parts of his defense affidavit and seal them from the public record, prompting Li’s decision to withdraw from the proceedings.

“This is not an isolated incident, but part of a broader pattern of unusual conduct by the AGC,” Li wrote in the post. “In light of these events, I have decided that I will not continue to participate in the proceedings against me.”

In an email, Singapore Attorney-General’s Chambers spokesperson Lai Xue Ying referred to recent media statements. In a statement the day after Li’s Jan. 22 post, the Attorney-General’s Chambers wrote that Li’s decision to end his participation is a “clear acknowledgment” that Li’s defense has “no merits.”

“The reality is that Mr Li is now facing some serious questions in the hearing, and it is obvious that he knows that his conduct will not stand up to scrutiny,” the statement reads. “He has therefore contrived excuses for running away.”

“If Mr Li has nothing to hide, he should make himself available for cross-examination and answer the questions posed to him on oath,” it continues.

Correction: February 13, 2020

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Li alleged a Singaporean agent approached him on campus. In fact, he alleged a process server hired by the Singaporean government did so.

Correction: February 13, 2020

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Li's father and uncle accused their eldest brother of abusing his power. In fact, it was Li's father and aunt.

— Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

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