Chen Cheng and Another v Central Christian Church and other appeals

CourtCourt of Appeal (Singapore)
JudgeKarthigesu JA
Judgment Date28 August 1998
Neutral Citation[1998] SGCA 51
Citation[1998] SGCA 51
Defendant CounselDaniel John and Robin Lim (Lim Ang & Partners),Cheong Yuen Hee and Sim Lin Piah (Toh Tan & Partners)
Plaintiff CounselHarry Elias SC, Tan Chee Meng and Doris Chia (Harry Elias & Partners)
Published date19 September 2003
Docket NumberCivil Appeal Nos 247-252 of 1997
Date28 August 1998
Subject MatterWords and Phrases,Whether ordinary duty of newspapers to report matters of public interest sufficient to establish qualified privilege,Elements to establish defences,Defamation,Meaning of 'cult',Justification,Qualified privilege,Tort,'Cult',Fair comment


Cur Adv Vult

(delivering the judgment of the court): Before Warren LH Khoo J there were five actions for libel. Three of these were brought by the Central Christian Church (`CCC`) against the following persons respectively: (i) the editor, publisher and printer of the Impact magazine in respect of the publication of an article in the issue of the magazine for October/November 1991; (ii) the editor and publisher of The New Paper in respect of the publication of an article in the newspaper on 23 November 1991; and (iii) the editor and publisher of Lianhe Wanbao in respect of the publication of a similar article in the newspaper on 23 November 1991. The other two actions were brought by John Philip Louis (`JL`) against (i) the editor, publisher and printer of the Impact magazine, and (ii) the editor and publisher of TNP respectively, in respect of the same publications. All the five actions were heard together before the learned judge and were dealt with together.

2.Arising from his decision six appeals have been brought. As all the appeals are interrelated, they were heard together and will be dealt with in this judgment. For convenience and easy reference, we shall refer to CCC as the plaintiffs, which expression, where the context so admits, includes JL. We shall refer to the editor, publisher and printer of the Impact collectively as ` Impact `; the editor and publishers of The New Paper as `TNP`; and the editor and publishers of Lianhe Wanbao as Wanbao and, where appropriate, all the defendants in the five actions collectively as the defendants.

3. Impact publication

The Impact magazine is published bi-monthly and is a religious publication associated with the main Protestant body of Christian faith in Singapore. In the Oct/Nov 1991 issue Impact published an article about two religious groups: the Army of God (`AOG`) and CCC. On the front cover of the magazine, there is a picture of a figure in red with a white hood and on the front of the figure are the words `HOLY BIBLE`. The figure is holding a shepherd`s crook with the tip bearing a cross and leading a couple of sheep. Next to it are, among others, the words `AOG & CCC - Are they Cults?`. Inside the magazine are, inter alia, three articles. The first is headed `Satan`s Wily Schemes` with a pair of hooded figures, one holding a lighted candle, appearing below the heading. On the third page of the same article is another hooded figure holding a lighted candle. Two pages on, there appears the second article with the heading in very bold print `AOG & CCC` in a specially shaded box, below which are the words `They`re Not What You Think`. In this article, there is a photograph of two hooded figures facing a young lady, against the background of an MRT station and the young lady is shown to be extending her hand to one of the hooded figures. The contents of this page and the next three pages concern only AOG. Immediately following this part of the article there appears another photograph of the two hooded figures and the young lady, and here the young lady is shown to be receiving something from the same hooded figure. Above the photograph are the three letters `CCC` and the ensuing content of this article concerns CCC. We shall call this part of the article as the `CCC article`. The CCC article covers substantially three pages. On the second page is a box containing a short article headed in bold print `Why People Join Cults`, and on the third page there appears the same pictorial representation as that appearing on the cover but in much reduced size and in black and white. Two pages further on, there appears the third article, headed `Who Cares About Heresies Anyway?` with two hooded figures, each holding a lighted candle appearing at the end of the article.

4.The plaintiffs complained that pictorial representation and the words `AOG & CCC - Are They Cults` appearing on the front cover of the magazine, the heading `AOG & CCC` and `They`re Not What You Think` in the second article and certain words in the CCC article are defamatory of them. We now quote below verbatim only those words in the CCC article which the plaintiffs complained were defamatory of them.

5.The CCC article begins with the statement: `You may meet them at MRT stations, inviting you to their home meetings` and would be told that CCC are part of the Church of Christ and that they, CCC, do everything exactly as the Bible says. In the midst of this paragraph is the photograph of the two hooded figures talking to a young lady who is shown to be receiving something from one of them. The article then goes on to give an account of the history and origins of the CCC, and says:

The Singapore group is led by `evangelist` John Luis [sic]. John was a Malaysian who was studying in London. After his conversion in London, he was trained by the group. Later he was sent to start the work in Singapore.

6.Below these words are the heading `What CCC Believes` and a sub-heading `Their Special Calling` and following that the article lists the various statements of the beliefs, teachings and practices of CCC. Under the heading of `What CCC believes`, it says:


2 Other churches are not true congregations until they are `reconstructed`.

and under the heading of `Their Teachings` the article says:

1 The group teaches baptismal regeneration and practices rebaptism. Only those baptised by the group are truly baptised.

2 The movement has a pyramid-type organisation, and expects total commitment to the leadership. One of their leaders was reported to have said: `Leadership is to be imitated, not evaluated`.

3 Members are to confess their sins to one another. All sins including sinful thoughts are to be confessed.


5 Members are encouraged to leave their homes and live communally. Boyfriend and girlfriend relationships tend to be guided, if not determined by the group and its leaders.

Immediately following is another section of the article under the heading: `Group Characteristics`, which asserts:

4 Control is very tight. The disciple has to report to the discipler exactly how he spent his time and who he was with.

7.Juxtaposed with the CCC article in the middle of the second page is a short article in a box entitled `Why People Join Cults` in which the author attempts to explain the reasons for cult membership. Essentially, the author`s view is that people join cults to satisfy certain `spiritual and psychological vacuums crying to be filled`. These needs, the author argues, are basically that of `Identity, Community and Significance`.

8.The article then recounted the experiences of two former members of the group. Both of them told much the same story. They were both from more mainstream churches. They decided to convert to CCC members, as they were persuaded by the warmth, openness and sincerity of their members. However, they found that they could not reconcile their own beliefs with the group`s teachings, beliefs and doctrines. This was especially so in the area of baptism as well as the group`s assertion that theirs was the only true church. Both also revealed that they had experienced some emotional difficulty in leaving the group. The article ends with the following in a slightly bold print:

Attempts to interview the leaders of both the Army of God and the Central Christian Church were not successful.

9.The plaintiffs further complained that the heading of the second article bearing the words: `AOG & CCC` in bold prints and the words below: `They`re not what you think` and the two photographs with the two hooded figures and the young lady were defamatory of them. Finally, they complained that (i) the first article bearing the title: `Satan`s Wily Schemes` with the two hooded figures and the photograph on the next page with the hooded figure, and (ii) the third article bearing the title: `Who cares about HERESIES ANYWAY?` with the two hooded figures at the end, by reason of their juxtaposition with the CCC article, refer to them and are defamatory of them.

10.The article in the Impact magazine was picked up by TNP and Wanbao and they each published an article concerning AOG and CCC in their respective issues on 23 November 1991. Only the words which the plaintiffs complained of are set out below verbatim.

11. The New Paper publication

On the front page of TNP is the headline in 2-inch bold type `2 CULTS EXPOSED`, above which are the words in a quarter inch bold type `THE ARMY OF GOD` and `THE CENTRAL CHRISTIAN CHURCH` and below the headline appears the following statement:

Christian groups warn of two new cults in Singapore. The Army of God and the Central Christian Church tend to `stretch the truth` and have `exclusive` practices, says one Reverend. One of them is known for practising war cries [aelig ] members are told to shout and not talk softly to the devil/ Page 11.

All these took up more than half the space of the front page.

12.Inside the newspaper at p 11 there appears the article with the title `Concern Over Two Cult Groups`. Next to it is a drawing of a man holding a mask with a book under his arm. He appears to be teaching a group of three persons. The man`s face exhibits a fierce expression while the mask that he holds out in front of him has a benign and kind countenance. The plaintiffs say that this drawing refers to CCC.

13.The article starts with the following paragraphs:

Two new Christian groups described as cult groups have sprung up in Singapore, say a few Christian organisations

The groups in question are the Army of God (AOG) and The Central Christian Church (CCC).

It then goes on to state that TNP`s interviews with pastors from three mainstream churches confirmed the concern expressed in the two magazines, the Impact and Methodist Messages . It quotes one reverend saying that he was concerned because of the AOG`s and CCC`s ideological differences with more established churches and the following:

The AOG and CCC tend

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