Attorney General v Wain and Others

CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
JudgeT S Sinnathuray J
Judgment Date11 January 1991
Neutral Citation[1991] SGHC 8
Citation[1991] SGHC 8
Defendant CounselGeoffrey Robertson QC and Lalita Seenivasan (Murphy & Dunbar),K Shanmugam (Drew & Napier),Palakrishnan and Amarjit Singh (Palakrishnan & Partners)
Plaintiff CounselTan Boon Teik (Attorney General), Sowaran Singh and Yap Huan Lan (Attorney General’s Chambers)
Published date19 September 2003
Docket NumberOriginating Motion No 126 of 1989
Date11 January 1991
Subject MatterFreedom of expression,Consistency with offence of scandalizing the court,Contempt of Court,Types of contempt,No actual intention necessary,Distinction between contempt and permissible criticism,Meaning,Special features of administration of justice in Singapore,Effect and weight of allegations of bias, or a lack of impartiality, propriety or integrity,Applicability of local conditions,Defence of innocent dissemination,Whether right available for non-citizens,Fundamental liberties,Applicability of decisions from other jurisdictions,Mens rea,Civil contempt,Relevance of intention only to sentence,Constitutional Law,Defence of fair comment

Cur Adv Vult

On Thursday, 30 November 1989, Justice LP Thean delivered judgment in a libel action, in the case of Lee Kuan Yew v Derek Gwyn Davies & Ors [1990] 1 MLJ 390 in favour of the plaintiff and awarded aggravated damages against the defendants in the sum of $230,000 and costs. On Friday, there appeared on p 3 of the 1-2 December issue of the Asian Wall Street Journal (AWSJ) the following news story (the article):

Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, has won a libel suit against the Far Eastern Economic Review.

In a lengthy judgment delivered Thursday, the Singapore High Court awarded Mr Lee S$230,000 (US$117,888) in damages, plus costs over an article in the 17 December 1987 issue of the Hong Kong-based weekly magazine. The court said the article defamed Mr Lee and tended to bring him `into public odium and contempt and lower him in the estimation of the right-thinking people of Singapore`.

In awarding Mr Lee what it called `aggravated damages`, the court cited as a factor, the conduct of defence lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, a prominent Queen`s Counsel from London.
The court said Mr Robertson repeatedly attempted to cross-examine Mr Lee on irrelevant issues and put `offensive` questions to him designed to hurt Mr Lee`s feelings.

In New York, Peter Kann, president of Dow Jones & Co, owner of the Review , said:

`A Singapore court has entered a libel judgment in favour of Singapore`s Prime Minister based on an article the Prime Minister found personally offensive. The article at issue contained an essentially accurate portrayal of highly newsworthy events relating to the detention without trial of Catholic social workers by the Lee government, and relations between the Catholic Church and Mr Lee. Solely because it was read to be critical of Mr Lee, however, it has resulted in this unwarranted determination against the Review. We can only hope that in the long term, the Review`s punishment will not, as doubtlessly intended, still honest and independent voices in Singapore.

Mr Lee has insisted that members of foreign press are in no position to judge the actions of the government of Singapore.
It is nonetheless indisputable that no people is free so long as its rulers forbid criticism and its press can report only that which the government finds acceptable.

Counsel for the Review will study the judgment to determine what further legal action will be appropriate.

Dow Jones also is the majority owner of The Asian Wall Street Journal.

Mr Lee had sued the magazine`s publisher, Review Publishing Co; the editor of the time, Derek Davies; the author of the article, Michael Malik; and the Singapore company that then printed part of the Review `s circulation, Times Printers Pte Ltd.

The article quoted statements by a former Roman Catholic priest about the arrest under the Internal Security Act of 16 young Singaporean professionals, four of whom worked full time and six part time for the Catholic church.

The trial was held from 25 September until 14 October.
In his judgment, High Court Justice LP Thean ruled that words in the article `impute dishonorable and discreditable conduct and motive on the part` of Mr Lee. `They impute an attack on the Catholic church and a dishonorable and improper use by him of the powers under the Internal Security Act`, he said.

On 19 December 1989, an application was made by the A-G for leave to move the High Court for orders of committal against the five named respondents:

First: Barry J Wain - the editor

Second: Michael J Wilson - the publisher

Third: Dow Jones Publishing Co (Asia) Inc - the proprietors/publishers

Fourth: Singapore Newspapers Services Pte Ltd - the printers

Fifth: Changi International Distribution Services Pte Ltd - the distributors

The grounds on which leave was granted were that the five respondents had brought into existence by publishing, printing and distributing the article in the 1-2 December 1989 issue of the AWSJ which scandalized the High Court in Singapore, in particular Justice LP Thean (the judge), by imputations of bias, lack of integrity and impartiality in that he decided the case in favour of the plaintiff because he was the Prime Minister.
It was alleged that the other offending matters in the article were the statements that the news account in the Review were `essentially accurate` but `solely` because it was read to be critical of Mr Lee it had resulted in an `unwarranted determination` against the Review . And, that aggravated damages were given against the Review by way of punishment to facilitate the suppression of honest and independent opinion in Singapore.

Case for the applicant

At the hearing of the application, the A-G submitted that any ordinary person reading the objectionable statements in para 4 of the article in the AWSJ would come to the following conclusions.

(1) The judiciary in Singapore can be influenced, and that in fact it had been influenced in the libel case because the plaintiff was the Prime Minister.

(2) In stating that the `Singapore court` gave `judgment in favour of Singapore`s Prime Minister, based on an article the Prime Minister found personally offensive`, the implication was that the judge had not decided the case on the merits; it was an attack on the impartiality of the judge.

(3) This was emphasized in the next sentence: `The article at issue contained an essentially accurate portrayal of highly newsworthy events ...` meant that, notwithstanding that the facts were `essentially accurate`, the judge had found the Review `s article defamatory. It imputed, once again, that he was biased.

(4) These imputations were driven home to the readers in the sentence that followed: `Solely because it was read to be critical of Mr Lee, however, it has resulted in this unwarranted determination against the Review. ` The use of the word `solely` read with `unwarranted` was contemptuous of the judge.

(5) Finally, by the last sentence in the paragraph, `We can only hope that in the long term, the Review `s punishment will not, as doubtlessly intended, still honest and independent voices in Singapore`, it was said that the judge in awarding the aggravated damages to the plaintiff had punished the Review , and that the punishment imposed by him was without doubt intended to silence honest and independent opinion in Singapore. The imputation here is that the judge had acted on improper motives in awarding damages.

The submission was that viewed as a whole, the article was in contempt of the High Court generally, and Justice LP Thean in particular, on three grounds.
One, it alleged bias on the part of the judge who had given judgment against the Review ; two, it imputed that as the trial judge, he had not been impartial in that he had not decided the case on its merits; and three, that he had acted improperly in awarding aggravated damages to the plaintiff in order to further the intention of the executive government to suppress honest, independent opinions in Singapore. The A-G said that it was impossible to attribute any other meaning to those statements in the article. He also questioned as to why it was necessary to state further down in the article, `counsel for the Review will study the judgment to determine what further legal action will be appropriate`, when the only available next step for the Review was to appeal to the Court of Appeal against the decision of the High Court, and this could have been simply said in so many words.

The crux of the case, said the A-G, is the effect of the article on the public mind.
The question to be decided in this application is what effect the article had on the mind of the ordinary reader and not what the writer intended the effect of the article to be. He said that there was no doubt that the article would lead persons to believe that when the Prime Minister is a party to an action, the judge or the courts in Singapore would decide in his favour regardless of the merits of the case. The imputations and allegations in the article were clearly calculated to undermine public confidence in our judiciary and to lower its authority. He said that the sole reason why he had brought these proceedings was because of the unwarranted attack in the article on the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary in Singapore which would adversely affect the proper administration of justice. He emphasized that the application was not made to still honest criticism of our courts. He concluded that the article was clearly a contempt punishable under s 8(1) of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (Cap 322).

Case for the first three respondents

Mr Robertson QC, for the first three respondents, divided the article into two parts: (a) the report of the decision in the libel action, and (b) the reaction to the decision by the president of Dow Jones, the third res.
The latter was published because the comments were newsworthy items on a matter of considerable public interest in this region.

Broadly, the submission was that if an ordinary reader reads the article merely as a criticism of the courts in Singapore, there is no contempt of court because courts, like other public institutions, must accept criticism, provided that the criticism does not pose a serious threat to the administration of justice.
Secondly, it was contended that the article cannot conceivably be read as an attack on the probity of the judge as the alleged objectionable statements of the president of Dow Jones said no more than that he had come to a wrong decision. Counsel said that the president of Dow Jones was entitled to take that view, and what he said was newsworthy for the first respondent to have it reported. In short, the first three respondents denied liability. They maintained that the article did not contain matters that were in contempt of court.

On the article itself, counsel made the following observations:


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7 books & journal articles
  • Administrative and Constitutional Law
    • Singapore
    • Singapore Academy of Law Annual Review No. 2008, December 2008
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