A Balakrishnan and Others v Nirumalan K Pillay and Others

JudgeKarthigesu JA
Judgment Date18 May 1999
Neutral Citation[1999] SGCA 37
Docket NumberCivil Appeal No 315 of 1998
Date18 May 1999
Published date19 September 2003
Plaintiff CounselHoward E Cashin, Daniel Xu and G Krishnan (G Krishnan & Co)
Citation[1999] SGCA 37
Defendant CounselLiew Teck Huat and Chua Hwee Ping (Niru & Co)
CourtCourt of Appeal (Singapore)
Subject MatterNatural and ordinary meaning of words,Defamatory statements,Whether there are facts for defence of fair comment,Whether words refer to respondents,Defence of fair comment,Damages,Tort,Defamation,Whether or general editor liable,Whether passages defamatory considering,Whether extent of publication affects assessment of damages


(delivering the judgment of the court): This is an appeal from the decision of Goh Joon Seng J in which he allowed the plaintiffs` claim for damages for defamation arising from an article which appeared in the publication called The Hammer .

2. The facts

The third appellant is the Workers` Party, a political party in Singapore. The first appellant, A Balakrishnan, is an insurance agent and a member of the Workers` Party. The second appellant, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, is an advocate and solicitor and the Secretary General of the Workers` Party. The party publishes a bi-monthly newsletter called The Hammer , which is sold to the public.

3.The respondents were members of the organising committee for the 1995 Tamil Language Week (`the organising committee`). The first, third and fourth respondents are advocates and solicitors; the second respondent is a retired school principal; the fifth, sixth, eighth, ninth and tenth respondents are school teachers; and the seventh respondent is a computer operation officer.

4.The 1995 Tamil Language Week was conceived in 1993 by 16 Tamil organisations with the aim of promoting the Tamil language and culture. Preparations for the event began in October 1993 and a co-ordinating committee was formed comprising members from 15 of the Tamil organisations under the chairmanship of the first respondent. Nine other Tamil organisations subsequently joined in, bringing the number of organisations involved to 25. As preparations for the event gained momentum, the 25 Tamil organisations appointed the organising committee to take charge of the preparations and execution of the event, including the solicitation of funds. In their public correspondence, the organising committee used letterheads printed for its use in connection with the 1995 Tamil Language Week. The names of the respondents were listed on the letterhead as members of the organising committee. The letterhead also listed the 25 Tamil organisations with a statement that the Tamil Language Week was organised by them. Sub-committees were formed by the organising committee to assist in various aspects of the organisation. Taking into account the organising committee and the sub-committees, there were nearly 430 persons involved in the preparations.

5.In February 1995, the organising committee called a press conference to announce the 1995 Tamil Language Week, at which all the respondents were present. The press conference was covered by members of the press, radio and television corporations and was reported in The New Paper , The Straits Times , the Tamil Murasu and the Tamil Nesan and in the Tamil News on television and radio FM 96.8.

6.8 April 1995 saw the official opening of the 1995 Tamil Language Week with the opening ceremony held at the Marina Mandarin Ballroom with about 700 guests in attendance. The event was carried live on radio and television. With that began a week of activities which included cultural shows, debates and seminars. As part of the activities, 5,000 copies of the Thirukkural were also distributed. The Thirukkural is a Tamil classical work of pithy sayings contained in 1,330 couplets composed by the Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar. In the Thirukkural distributed, there was a list of the 25 Tamil organisations as well as the members of the organising committee. The activities came to an end on 15 April 1995 with the closing ceremony held at the Mandarin Hotel attended by about 1,100 guests.

7.On 28 May 1995 a `Thank You Dinner` was hosted by the organising committee for all volunteers who assisted in the organisation and running of the Tamil Language Week. The dinner was reported in The Straits Times and the Tamil Murasu .

8.In August 1995, there appeared an article in Tamil in the issue of The Hammer written by the first appellant about the 1995 Tamil Language Week, entitled `The Tamil Language Week - A Drama Enacted for Written Judgment` (`the article`).

9.The respondents were of the view that certain passages in the article were defamatory of them and commenced an action on 26 December 1995 against the appellants claiming damages for defamation. They claimed against the first appellant as the author of the article, against the second appellant as the editor, and against the third appellant as the publisher.

10.We now set out below an English translation of the article and for easy reference we number the paragraphs numerically as they appeared in the article, with the alleged defamatory words italicised (`the offending passages`):

[1] In the midst of a gathering of vultures determined to ensure that the number of intellectuals do not increase, we are proud to see the sacrificial white doves of 25 Tamil Organisations mingling in a national mainstream called the Tamil Langugage Week.

[2] Having begun at the Marina Mandarin in April, it ended at the Orchard Mandarin with the slogan, `Let us speak sweet Tamil everyday`. It must not end with the pomp of the Tamil Language Week. Although this Tamil Language Week is a drama enacted for written judgment by the government , it turned out to be a festival that shared the Tamilians` feelings. The Tamil language is a feeling inseparable from lives. There is a lot more services, works we need to do for Tamil. We wish to narrate the initial chapter for those who are elated that the Tamil Language Week has concluded in a manner to be proud of.

[3] We respectfully request the honourable Tamils to see not only one side of the coin but the other as well.

[4] 40 years have passed since Tamil received official recognition according to the Constitution in 1954. Despite that why have the 25 organisations remained tight-lipped and silent instead of proposing a resolution to question as to why Tamil has not been offered as a subject in the National University of Singapore. Is this your service to Tamil? You are cheating the Tamils living in Singapore generation after generation. Is this just? The Tamil Langugage Week you organised also resulted like what Bharathivar said `You are a warrior at words (no action).` Besides you gathering and dispersing, what have you achieved? Do you realise that by giving immigrants more respect, we are becoming a community without roots?

[5] Ministers and Members of Parliament representing us, following western style, spoke more in English than in Tamil at the function. Should those who pave the way do thus? We are in a position to think about those who barbecue and eat their own conscience!

[6] That there being no Tamil offered at the University, would the organisers know that the Ministry of Education has granted no approval whatsoever for Tamil teachers to study a degree course by post. Instead of saying `Speak Tamil`, we plead with you to help speak Tamil and help it grow. According to our latest information, the Tamil daily, Tamil Nesan, which has been printed in Malaysia since 1924, and sold here, has been restricted to a circulation of 2,000 copies only.

[7] Many of us think that we are only 7% of the population. There is nothing wrong in seeking one`s rights. The mustard seed is small; but its effect is telling. The atom has the power even to destroy the world. Those who wonder whether it really can, please step aside. Those who say it can, surge forward. Besides Tamil Nadu, some 50 million Tamilians live in 42 countries of the world. Other than Tamil Nadu, Tamil is an official language only in Sri Lanka and Singapore.

[8] Mr Shanmugam, Member of Parliament for Sembawang GRC, who was part of a team visiting China and who returned to Singapore before his team did, participated in the Tamil Language Week`s closing ceremony and proudly claimed that he had hurried back for the said function at the expense of other functions for the sake of Tamil. In the beginning of this year we read in the newspapers that Mr Sinnakaruppan had been invited to the 8th World Tamil Language Conference and that he would be attending the said conference. But he made a statement that he did not attend the said conference. We know that no one attended it on behalf of the Government. That Tamil is an official language in this country is mere lip service.

[9] The organisers have told us that many fear that the Tamil language would die in the future. For that, there is no necessity for us to obtain the assurances of ministers who are in power today and who disappear tomorrow. We are creators of history for achievements! Let us realise and so act that so long as there is one Tamilian, Tamil will not die in Singapore.

[10] We learn that faces which have not been seen amongst Tamilians so far have, with an intention to seek political gain, taken on responsibilities in the Tamil Langugage Week. If that were true, we ask them not to prostitute nakedly and wander for position in the name of Tamil.

11. Decision below

The respondents complained that these underlined passages in the article were defamatory of them. The learned judge considered each of the passages `in the context of the article` and found that these were defamatory of the respondents. On the passage in para 1 (`first offending passage`) the learned judge held that the word `vultures` referred to the Singapore government and that the respondents of the organising committee were the `sacrificial white doves` of the 25 Tamil organisations. He construed this passage to mean that the respondents were `stooges` appointed by the 25 Tamil organisations to organise the Tamil Language Week to please the government.

12.As for the passage in para 2 (`second offending passage`) the learned judge held that that passage identified the government as the party for whose approbation the Tamil Language Week was organised and staged.

13.In respect of the passage in para 4 (`third offending passage`) the learned judge was of the view that the passage accused the 25 Tamil organisations of failing to champion the setting up of a Tamil studies department at...

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