Goh Chok Tong v Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin

JurisdictionSingapore
CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
JudgeS Rajendran J
Judgment Date29 September 1997
Neutral Citation[1997] SGHC 243
Citation[1997] SGHC 243
Defendant CounselGeorge Alfred Carman QC and G Krishnan (G Krishnan & Co)
Date29 September 1997
Plaintiff CounselThomas Shields QC, K Shanmugam, Ashok Kumar and Daren Shiau (Allen & Gledhill)
Docket NumberSuit No 225 of 1997,Suit No 225 of 1997 (Registrar's
Published date19 September 2003
Judgment:

1.S RAJENDRAN J

The facts

Cur Adv Vult

This is an action for damages in respect of allegedly defamatory words spoken by the defendant, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (`defendant`), concerning the plaintiff, Goh Chok Tong. In December 1996, Parliament was dissolved and a General Election was called in Singapore. Polling Day was to be 2 January 1997. The words which form the subject matter of this litigation were spoken by the defendant towards the close of an election rally held at the Yio Chu Kang Stadium on 1 January 1997, the eve of polling day. The words were:

And finally, Mr Tang Liang Hong has just placed before me two reports he has made to the police against, you know, Mr Goh Chok Tong and his people.

2.The protagonists are no strangers to the public. The defendant is the Secretary-General of the opposition Workers` Party (`WP`) and has held that position since 1971. A lawyer by profession and former Member of Parliament, he contested, together with four other WP members, a block of five seats in the Cheng San Group Representative Constituency (`GRC`) in the said General Elections. His opponents were members of the incumbent People`s Action Party (`PAP`). The PAP won the majority of the seats at the Elections, including Cheng San GRC.

3.The plaintiff is the Secretary-General of the PAP. The plaintiff did not contest the Cheng San GRC, but naturally took an interest in it. He has been a Member of Parliament since 1976 and is currently the Member for the Marine Parade GRC. He has been the Prime Minister of Singapore since November 1990. At the time of the making of the allegedly defamatory statement, the plaintiff had already been returned to his seat in the Marine Parade GRC by virtue of a walkover in that ward. He was thus a Member of Parliament (`MP`) and Prime Minister-elect.

4.The defendant`s running mate (along with three others) for the Cheng San GRC was one Tang Liang Hong. He was a lawyer by profession. Mr Tang had never run for election before, but in 1992 applied, unsuccessfully, to enter Parliament as a Nominated MP.

5.The plaintiff considered Mr Tang to be unsuitable for the office of MP as he was, in his view, anti-Christian and a Chinese chauvinist who held radical views on the Chinese language and Chinese culture. He made his opinion public in press interviews on 25 and 26 December 1996 and at a PAP rally held at Hougang stadium on 26 December 1996. The plaintiff held the view that because of his anti-Christian and Chinese chauvinist views Mr Tang was `a dangerous man` and should not be in Parliament. These interviews received publicity in the English and Chinese newspapers on 26 and 27 December 1996. It was during that period revealed that the plaintiff premised his views on the following facts: (a). Rear Admiral Teo Chee Hean had told the plaintiff that on 7 August 1994, at a dinner hosted by the Zheng Yi Association at Joo Chiat, Mr Tang had spoken in Chinese and said that there were many English-educated Christian Cabinet members and senior civil servants, implying thereby that the non-Christian Chinese educated were governed by them.

(b). In August 1996, Mr Tang had given a talk at the Substation during a Mandarin Seminar at which he stated that there was no need for the Chinese-educated in Singapore to feel inferior. On behalf of the Chinese-educated he asked: `Why then are we the ones carrying the sedan-chair for others? We should be sitting on the sedan-chair?` This was reported in the Straits Times on 10 August 1996.

(c). When Mr Tang applied to be a Nominated MP in 1992, the Speaker of Parliament received letters from a number of Cabinet members and PAP MPs stating that, in their opinion, Mr Tang was not suitable for appointment. These letters had come to the plaintiff`s attention and included the following statements:

(i). Letter from late Minister Dr Tay Eng Soon dated 30 July 1992:

I know Tang Liang Hong. He tends to be chauvinistic about Chinese culture. He will probably be a spokesman for the Chinese intellectual lobby.

(ii). Letter from MP Ker Sin Tze dated 6 August 1992:

Mr Tang holds radical views on the promotion of Chinese language and culture if Mr Tang is selected, he will probably reiterate these views in Parliament. While all views are entitled to be held in a democracy, the Committee should nevertheless consider whether appointing Mr Tang may indirectly lend legitimacy to his radical viewpoint on what remains a sensitive issue in our multi-racial society.

(iii). Letter from MP Ch`ng Jit Koon dated 6 August 1992:

Based on my experiences and observations in coming into contact with Mr Tang, I find his views and opinions on ethnic and cultural issues rather extreme and insensitive. He is inclined to speak like a `Chinese chauvinist` to the discomfort of other races.`

(iv). Letter from MP Ow Chin Hock dated 11 August 1992:

There are two reservations about [Tang] (i) he has taken extreme positions on some issues such as Chinese language, culture and civilisation and (ii) he is emotional and temperamental.

(v). Letter from MP Chin Harn Tong dated 8 August 1992:

My impression was that he liked to play to the gallery on a popular issue like the Chinese education issue prevailing then.

6.Extracts from the letters written by the PAP MPs in 1992 were released by the plaintiff to the press and published in the Straits Times on 29 December 1996. Mr Tang was eventually not appointed as a Nominated MP and was reported in Yazhou Zhoukan on 20 September 1992 as having stated in response to his rejection as a candidate that the non-English-speaking did not `even have a chance to be spectators` in Parliament.

7.At the Hougang rally on 26 December 1996, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew also asserted that Mr Tang was `anti-English-educated and anti-Christian` . This was reported in the Straits Times the following day. At the same rally, Rear Admiral Teo Chee Hean narrated the events concerning the speech made by Mr Tang at the Zheng Yi Association dinner in 1994 and said Mr Tang had used his oratorical skills at the dinner to work people up over language and religion. He said he concluded thereafter that Mr Tang was an extremist.

8.Mr Tang responded to the plaintiff`s accusations by a letter dated 28 December 1996. He denied the plaintiff`s accusations, stated that he viewed them as defamatory and demanded a full retraction and an apology, failing which he would commence legal action. The plaintiff replied through his solicitors by a letter dated 29 December 1996. He refused to retract his statement and invited Mr Tang to commence legal proceedings. Mr Tang sent a similar letter to the Senior Minister and received a similar response.

9.At a press conference held on 28 December 1996, PAP MP Ow Chin Hock stated that Mr Tang had become more and more radical, one whose extreme views had to be exposed since he was standing for election as those views could destroy the stability of society and politics in Singapore. He said that at the Feedback Unit Dialogue held in 1995, Mr Tang had made remarks that political power was concentrated in the English-educated elite while the Chinese-educated were left out of the mainstream, and so government policies might not be in the interest of the Chinese-educated majority. This was reported in the Lianhe Zhaobao on 29 December 1996.

10.At a PAP rally at Yio Chu Kang Stadium on 30 December 1996, Deputy Prime Ministers BG Lee Hsien Loong and Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam stated they would support the Prime Minister and shared his views. This was reported in the Shin Min Daily News on 31 December 1996.

11.At a PAP rally at UOB Plaza on 30 December 1996, PAP MP elect Seng Han Thong stated that Mr Tang had told him that more Chinese educated people were needed in Parliament and that there were too many Christians in the Cabinet. This was reported in the Straits Times on 31 December 1996.

12.Mr Tang did not respond to the barrage of attacks against him by commencing legal proceedings. However, in an interview given to a journalist, Ahmad Osman of the Straits Times , he stated that he still intended to sue the plaintiff and other PAP leaders and MPs who spoke up against him. He further stated that he would `lodge a police report against them for criminal offence`. He continued:

They are telling lies. They are defaming, assassinating my character. They concocted lies and go on television and spread the lies

The text of the interview was published in the Straits Times and Business Times on 31 December 1996. The plaintiff considered these words defamatory.

13.At rallies held on 28 and 31 December 1996, Mr Tang repeated his position that he was innocent of the plaintiff`s accusations which were, he said, fabricated to frustrate his election campaign. The plaintiff also considered these statements, which received publicity, defamatory. On 31 December 1996, the plaintiff`s solicitors wrote to Mr Tang asking for a complete withdrawal of his defamatory allegations, an apology in terms and an undertaking against repetition by 6pm on 1 January 1997 with the apology and withdrawal to be read out at a rally not later than 9pm on the same day. Mr Tang did not respond to the letter. Instead, he filed two police reports on the evening of 1 January 1997 against the plaintiff and other senior politicians who had made negative comments concerning him. The time at which he filed the reports is stated on the report as 1816 hours and also as 1930 hours.

14.In the course of the election campaign, the defendant did not adopt his running mate`s rhetoric, nor did he overtly assert that the plaintiff was lying or conspiring to keep Mr Tang out of Parliament. He did, however, state publicly his view that Mr Tang was neither anti-Christian nor a Chinese chauvinist. He shared the plaintiff`s view that a person who propagates anti-Christian and Chinese chauvinist views should be kept out of Parliament. This is apparent from what the defendant stated at the same rally...

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