Chiam See Tong v Ling How Doong and Others

CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
JudgeT S Sinnathuray J
Judgment Date26 December 1996
Neutral Citation[1996] SGHC 293
Citation[1996] SGHC 293
Plaintiff CounselHarry Elias, Tan Chee Meng and Doris Chia (Harry Elias & Partners)
Subject MatterWhether first, fourth and eleventh defendants vicariously liable for other defendants' defamation,Whether words statements of fact or comment -Whether sufficient substratum of facts to support comment,Whether defendants actuated by express malice,Damages,Whether libellous,Tort,Defamatory statements,Factors to be considered in assessment of damages,Defamation,Fair comment
Date26 December 1996
Defendant CounselVinod Kumar Dube (Dube & Co)
Published date19 September 2003
Docket NumberSuit No 219 of 1996

This is an action for libel. The plaintiff, Chiam See Tong (Chiam), is an advocate and solicitor of over 20 years standing and was, until Parliament was prorogued ten days ago, a Member of Parliament (MP) for the constituency of Potong Pasir where he was first elected in 1984. Chiam was elected under the banner of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). The SDP is an opposition party.

The defendants are members of the Central Executive Committee (CEC) of the SDP, except that the 11th defendant`s defence was that he had resigned from the CEC on 30 October 1995. The first defendant, Ling How Doong (Ling), is the chairman of the SDP and was the MP for Bukit Gombak in the last Parliament. He is also an advocate and solicitor. The second defendant, Wong Hong Toy (Wong), is the vice-chairman and the third defendant, Chee Soon Juan (Chee), is the secretary-general. The seventh defendant, Cheo Chai Chen (Cheo), was the MP for Nee Soon Central. Chiam, Ling and Cheo together held three out of four opposition seats in the last Parliament.

On 6 November 1995, a press statement was issued by the CEC. It was signed by Wong for the CEC. There was no dispute that this press statement was extensively republished by the mass media in Singapore. It was broadcast by the Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS) on its news broadcast and its InTV teletext service on the same day. On the next day, it was republished by the Straits Times which is the main English newspaper, the Lianhe Zaobao which is the main Chinese newspaper and the Berita Harian which is the only Malay newspaper in Singapore.

The text of the 6 November press statement is as follows:

The SDP has asked Mr Chiam See Tong to resign from the Party. Mr Chiam has said that he would do so under one condition: that Dr Chee Soon Juan stands against him in a by-election in Potong Pasir. Dr Chee accepts the challenge under one condition: that Mr Chiam joins the PAP and stands as a PAP candidate. Of late, Mr Chiam has been highly praised by the PAP and he has also been very supportive of the ruling party in attacking the SDP. That being the case, he should join the PAP.

The SDP has shown tolerance and restraint in the face of Mr Chiam`s repeated attacks against the party. But Mr Chiam has mistaken kindness for weakness. As a matter of principle and honour, Mr Chiam must leave the party he disagrees with so much.

Mr Chiam almost killed the SDP when he abruptly and irresponsibly resigned as secretary-general. The CEC will not allow him to destroy the party again. Mr Chiam predicted that the collective leadership would not last. Today not only has this collective leadership lasted, but we have become stronger and has a firm sense of direction. Mr Chiam is now showing his spite and jealousy that the SDP has been able to progress without him.

The SDP is not about Chiam See Tong, Chee Soon Juan or any one individual; it is about a democratic party whose main interest is to serve the people of Singapore in the most effective manner. The SDP has made plain our manifesto and has worked extremely hard in the last two years to win the hearts and minds of Singaporeans. Our track record is a matter of public record and we are willing to let Singaporeans judge us for what we are and what we have done.

If Mr Chiam wishes to lead the SDP again, he is welcome to do so. But first he must set out his vision and programme for the party and let the party members decide if they want him as their leader. Up until now, all he has shown is a craze for personal political power. This is not what we, as a collective leadership, want for the SDP or for Singapore. We will remain disciplined and concentrate on fighting for the people`s rights and interests.

Once more, we call on Mr Chiam to join the PAP and to stand as a PAP candidate and we will contest him in Potong Pasir in a by-election.


The Central Executive Committee

Dated 6 November 1995

The letters `PAP` in the press statement refer to the People`s Action Party, the ruling party in Singapore.

Chiam alleged that the 6 November press statement is defamatory of him. The defence of the second, third, fifth to tenth and twelfth defendants was that the statement is not defamatory and in any event, they relied on fair comment. The first, fourth and eleventh defendants denied having anything to do with the 6 November press statement in their pleaded defences.

The background

It is the case for Chiam that because the CEC had in the 6 November press statement referred to events that occurred in the SDP going back to 1993 he had to give evidence of the history of the SDP. The SDP was founded in 1980 and Chiam was one of its founding members. He was its secretary-general from 13 September 1980 till 17 May 1993, for over 12 years. In his evidence, Chiam said that he drafted the party`s constitution and its manifesto. Chee did not deny that Chiam had a hand in the drafting of the SDP`s constitution and its manifesto but said that he did not know whether other persons had helped Chiam.

Sometime in 1988, Wong, who had just resigned from the Workers` Party of which he was chairman, joined the SDP. According to Wong, he was approached by Chiam to do so. Chiam sought to deny that he brought Wong into the SDP, but admitted that he met with Wong to negotiate the terms under which the latter would join the SDP. At that time, Chiam already knew about Wong`s previous convictions.

In the early part of 1993, Chee`s employment with the National University of Singapore was terminated on account of his alleged misapplication of $200 of research funds. At that time Chee was already a CEC member and was the assistant secretary-general of the SDP. There was an occasion when Chiam defended Chee in Parliament.

In April of that year Chee went on a hunger strike. Chee`s evidence was that he took full responsibility for the hunger strike. Chiam in a press statement on 5 April said that he and the SDP had `full confidence` in Chee`s action and that `The SDP sympathises and respects the deep conviction and belief of Dr Chee in his present course of action`. Chiam`s evidence was that he tried to dissuade Chee from it. He, however, did not deny that he had suggested to Chee that if he were to go on a hunger strike, he should do so in a public place, namely at a block of flats in Potong Pasir.

Chiam then became concerned as to what the hunger strike would do to the image of SDP. On 17 May, Chiam attempted to table a motion in the CEC to censure Chee for the hunger strike. He was unanimously outvoted by the CEC and the motion was not allowed to be put. Chiam took this as a vote of no confidence against him. There and then he wrote out his resignation as the secretary-general of the SDP, stating that it was to be `forthwith` and walked out of the meeting.

Chee in his evidence said that he, together with some other members of the CEC went after Chiam to persuade him to return. Chiam`s testimony was that he did not remember this. However, it was not disputed that the CEC did subsequently send delegations to make overtures to Chiam to persuade him to remain as the party`s secretary-general, but the number of such meetings and the composition of the delegations, in particular whether Chee was one of the members, was in dispute.

In any event, Chiam laid down certain conditions for him to withdraw his resignation, in particular that Wong must resign from the CEC. This condition was not acceptable to the CEC because they felt that it was not for any individual to dictate who should or should not be in the CEC which is an elected body. In the meantime neither side announced Chiam`s resignation and the parties appeared to have carried on negotiations.

In June Chee met Chiam in the latter`s office. Chiam said that he had told Chee that the permit for the party`s newspaper, the Demokrat, had to be renewed, and that he could not sign the relevant forms as the SDP`s secretary-general as he had resigned on 17 May. Chiam said that he gave Chee till the end of June to reply. Chee did not dispute that there was a discussion about the permit. He, however, maintained that he went to see Chiam not on that subject but to persuade him to withdraw his resignation.

On 18 June, the CEC made a press release announcing that Chiam had `stepped down` as secretary-general of the SDP. Apparently, the CEC had given Chiam until 4pm that day to retract his resignation. Chiam claimed that Chee, who had been delegated the task of informing him of the deadline, had failed to do so and had subsequently admitted to the omission. Chee denied this, but could give no clear evidence on this point.

Chiam also said that he was not shown a copy of the press statement before it was released to the press and that he had to read it under the lights of a street lamp when shown a copy by a reporter. Wong`s evidence was that he and Ashleigh Seow, who was at that time a member of the CEC, had faxed a copy of the press statement to Chiam`s office.

Regardless of what had really happened, Chiam formed the impression that the press statement read like his political `epitaph`. He also took the view, though it was he who had tendered his resignation, that the press statement was a `fait accompli`. Chiam told the reporters, and this was published the next day, that he had not `stepped down` but had resigned over differences with the CEC. Later, in early July, Chiam said to the media that Chee had `usurped` his position as secretary-general of the SDP. Chee claimed that, as the assistant secretary-general, he had only stepped into Chiam`s shoes under the provisions of the SDP constitution.

On 16 July, Chiam gave a talk to the Singapore Press Club, which was followed by a question and answer session. Chiam was reported to have said, and he admitted saying, that `the opposition needed members who were credible, clean and trustworthy`, that Wong `had a criminal past` and Chee was...

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