The father of a 31-year-old debater who committed suicide after being accused of sexual misconduct has sued the Debate Association of Singapore, claiming that his son would still be alive, if it had not been for the organisation’s “wrongful” actions.
The Instigating Event
Mr Lucas Li Guangsheng, a programme director of the Debate Association, took his own life on 8 August 2018, a day after the association announced in a statement on Facebook that a member had been “permanently banned” due to his inappropriate behaviour.
Although Lucas was not named, the post did refer to a former director of the debate development initiative (DDI).
Lucas had set up this debate training programme for young debaters in 2012, and was its director from 2012 to 2014.
The statement went on to claim that the member had behaved inappropriately, creating a WhatsApp chat group called “DDI Darkness” where participants engaged in discussions of a sexual nature.
According to one of the members in the chat group, Lucas had purportedly shared explicit photos of himself, which resulted in a “physical sexual encounter” between Lucas and the member in 2014.
As such, Mr Lawrence Li See Kit, Lucas’ father, sued the Debate Association for unspecified damages on the grounds that its actions have caused mental distress to his son, as well as bereavement and the loss of dependency for himself and his wife.
The couple were financially supported by their 31-year-old son who used to work at Enterprise Singapore as a government scholar.
In return, the association has said that it should not be held liable for Lucas’ death, and that its actions were justified, given the seriousness of the sexual allegations.
Upon taking the stand, Mr Lawrence Li claimed that his son tried to create a safe space for trainees to discuss personal issues, but the discussion “got out of hand” and Lucas was “unable to control it.”
He also said, “It doesn’t matter whether (the allegations were) false or true, the point here is that he was not given a chance to speak.”
His lawyer, Mr Paul Ong of Paul Ong Chambers, said in his opening statement that Mr Lucas was “completely blindsided” by the association’s executive committee’s (Exco) statement.
The court heard that Lucas was not informed by the organisation that he was being investigated and that he was being accused of sexual misconduct.
Hence, he was not given the chance to respond to the allegations, or give his side of the story, before the Exco decided to ban him and make the matter public.
Furthermore, the association lodged a police report and notified Enterprise Singapore and the World Universities Debate Championship Council about the allegations, without allowing Lucas to explain himself first.
Mr Ong concluded, “This is a tragedy which could have been avoided if Lucas had been treated fairly by the defendant and accorded the full due process that he was entitled to as a matter of law.”
He added that the association had been unfair in its conduct and had made the statement with the intention to cause distress to Lucas and destroy his life through the “machinations” of the former president Cherylyn Wee and other Exco members in 2018.
Moreover, Mr Ong claims that the association was aware of Lucas’ mental condition—namely cyclothymia, a mental disorder that involves periods of depression and mood swings—as well as the risk of suicide.
Thus, it is his client’s belief that his son would still be alive today, if the association had acted properly and given Lucas the respect he deserved.
Arguments from the Debate Association
The debate association, which is represented by Invictus Law Corporation, argued that the organised was justified in its decision to ban him and post the statement, as the sexual misconduct allegations also involved a minor.
In the opposing counsel’s opening statement, they said that auditors were appointed to investigate the truth behind these allegations, and the findings of their report were further substantiated by members of DDI.
It is understood that the report and its findings will be submitted as evidence, to prove that Lucas had behaved inappropriately towards members of the chat group which included minors.
The defendant’s lawyers—Darren Tan, Joshua Tan and Silas Siew—contended that Ms Wee did not pressure the other Exco members to take action concerning the allegations and denied the association having any knowledge of Lucas’ mental condition at that time.
They added that Mr Lawrence Li’s claims against the debate association appear to be “motivated by certain bitterness and resentment” against members of the Exco at the material time, and even inferred that the lawsuit is fuelled by grief.
Later, the opposing counsel also questioned the father, “So if Lucas had been given a chance to respond, he would still be alive?”
Mr Lawrence Li said he was sure.
Mr Tan continued, “Even if the allegations against (Lucas) were true, he would still be able to take it?”
Mr Li reiterated his answer again, stating that if his son had been given the opportunity to offer his side of the story, he would still be alive.
“The point here is that he was not given a chance to speak, so I can’t attest to whether the allegation is true or false.”
Citing an Institute of Mental Health (IMH) report from Oct 2017, the opposing council noted that Lucas had said that the men in his family had “anger issues”, and that he has been subjected to physical punishment and verbal abuse.
Towards this Mr Lawrence Li admitted that the “men in his family” likely referred to himself and added that his second son was also hot-tempered.
Mr Lawrence Li also said that he did whip his second son when he was younger but denied ever whipping Lucas.
The IMH report also stated that Lucas was not close with his brothers. The father explained that Lucas had different interests compared to his two younger brothers; he was into debates while his younger siblings preferred sports.
When it came to the unspecified damages, Mr Tan asked Mr Li about the income that Lucas would have earned.
Mr Li said that his son would have continued earning as long as he was alive, pointing out that Lucas was in the top 10% at Enterprise Singapore. His salary has only increased over the years as he was able to hit his key performance indicators (KPI) and obtain performance bonuses.
The court also heard that Lucas would give his mother and father $500 each and had done so since 2016 up until his death. This money supposedly came from his pay.
Under the circumstances where he gets a substantial pay rise, Mr Lawrence Li believes that his son would have increased his allowance to them.
He quoted his son, saying that Lucas told them not to worry as he promised to look after them, and even wanted them to move in with him once he gets his own house.
In response, the defence called Lucas’ prospective earnings “speculative at best”, as Lucas was a suicide risk.
When Lucas’ mother took the stand, she informed the court that Lucas told her that he had made a mistake in entertaining the advances of a former student in DDI back in 2014.
He insisted that they had not gone beyond the exchange of photos, and that they had both consented to it as legal adults.
Allegedly, Lucas told his mother before he took his own life that he was “a disappointment” to his parents and that he had brought shame to the family.
All in all, the mother describes her son as a sensitive person.
Prior to the suicide, Lucas’ mom had asked him what happened, and Lucas said that he had received an email that banned him from participating in debate events.
She added that she was not fully cognizant of the allegations against her son.
“I only knew of this through the (court) process, because basically, I was just very badly affected (by) the passing of my son and that was just my focus.”
Mr Lawrence Li will be calling up four more witnesses: two members of the DDI programme, a member of the 2018 Exco, and the psychiatrist responsible for Lucas’ case.
The debate association will be bringing in four witnesses—two members of the 2018 Exco, one of whom is Ms Wee, the member who alleged that he had a sexual encounter with Lucas, as well as a psychiatrist.
The trial continues on Wednesday.
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