Goh Chok Tong v Chee Soon Juan

JurisdictionSingapore
Judgment Date04 April 2003
Date04 April 2003
Docket NumberSuit No 1460 of 2001
CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
Goh Chok Tong
Plaintiff
and
Chee Soon Juan
Defendant

MPH Rubin J

Suit No 1460 of 2001

High Court

Civil Procedure–Pleadings–Defence–Particulars of defence of duress not pleaded–Effect on defendant's case–Civil Procedure–Summary judgment–Whether to set aside summary judgment and grant defendant leave to defend claim–Whether defendant had real or bona fide defence–Contract–Discharge–Breach–Whether intimidation a defence to breach of contract of compromise–Contract–Duress–Illegitimate pressure–Whether threat to enforce one's legal rights could amount to duress–Tort–Defamation–Defamatory statements–Republication–Words republished by mass media–Whether defendant liable for republication–Tort–Defamation–Defamatory statements–Whether defamatory in natural and ordinary meaning or by way of innuendo

In the course of campaigning for the 2001 General Elections, Dr Chee Soon Juan reportedly spoke and published certain words which Mr Goh Chok Tong alleged to be defamatory of him. Pursuant to a letter of demand by Mr Goh's solicitors, Dr Chee apologised and agreed to compensate Mr Goh with damages and indemnify him for all the costs and expenses incurred.

Mr Goh's position was that Dr Chee's agreement to apologise gave rise to a valid contract of compromise which he was entitled to enforce by way of interlocutory judgment. In the alternative, it was argued that Dr Chee had no real or bona fide defence to a claim in defamation.

In resisting the application for interlocutory judgment, Dr Chee denied that he had uttered the impugned words, denied that they referred to Mr Goh, denied that the words even if spoken were defamatory, denied that he was liable for the republication of the words and pleaded the defences of justification, qualified privilege and fair comment. Dr Chee also argued that in any event, any apology or compromise achieved by Mr Goh was null and void, as it was the product of duress and intimidation exerted by Mr Goh and/or Senior Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

The senior assistant registrar granted interlocutory judgment with damages (including aggravated damages) to be assessed. Dr Chee appealed. More than two weeks after the conclusion of the appeal hearing, Dr Chee admitted to speaking the impugned words.

Held, dismissing the appeal:

(1) The courts would scrutinise with care any attempt by a disputant to renege on a contract of compromise. In an application for summary judgment, the defendant would not be given leave to defend based on mere assertions alone. The court had to be convinced that there was a reasonable probability that the defendant had a real or bona fide defence in relation to the issues: at [25] to [26].

(2) The defence of duress has to be particularised regardless of whether counsel for Mr Goh made a demand for further particulars. Dr Chee had failed to do so: at [29].

(3) The manner in which Dr Chee conducted his case revealed that his story of duress was contrived for the sake of creating some sort of a triable issue. The apology was issued by Dr Chee upon the request and persuasion of his party colleagues and not by any improper pressure brought to bear upon him by Mr Goh and/or Mr Lee: at [33] to [41].

(4) Even if it were true that Mr Goh and/or Mr Lee had “threatened” to initiate legal proceedings against Dr Chee's party colleagues if Dr Chee did not apologise, a threat to enforce one's legal rights did not amount to duress, where the threat was made bona fide,and was not manifestly frivolous or vexatious. Dr Chee raised the allegation that Mr Goh and/or Mr Lee had acted in bad faith more than a year after Mr Goh had initiated the action and only after the conclusion of the appeal hearing, and with the allegation lacking in particulars. Such belated allegation was not worthy of serious consideration: at [43] to [45].

(5) Dr Chee's allegation of intimidation was not a valid defence because it was not a vitiating factor but a tort in its own right. A “threat” to do what one had a legal right to do could not amount to intimidation: at [49] to [50].

(6) On Mr Goh's alternative claim in defamation, the court could enter summary judgment if it was convinced that Dr Chee had no real or bona fide defence: at [52].

(7) The impugned words were defamatory of Mr Goh either in their natural and ordinary meaning or by way of innuendo. Dr Chee was liable for the republication of the words because he intended and in fact demanded that the journalists republish the words. The three defences of justification, qualified privilege and fair comment were bare allegations. The court would not grant leave to defend based on mere assertions alone: at [56] to [57].

Bank of China v Asiaweek Ltd [1991] 1 SLR (R) 230; [1991] SLR 486 (folld)

Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas (Suisse) SA v Costa de Naray and Christopher John Walters [1984] 1 Lloyd's Rep 21 (folld)

CTN Cash and Carry Ltd v Gallaher Ltd [1994] 4 All ER 714 (refd)

DSND Subsea Limited v Petroleum Geo-Services ASA [2000] BLR 530 (refd)

Huyton SA v Peter Cremer GmbH & Co [1999] 1 Lloyd's Rep 620 (refd)

Microsoft Corporation v Electro-Wide Limited [1997] FSR 580 (folld)

Morgan v Fry [1968] 2 QB 710 (folld)

Rookes v Barnard [1964] AC 1129 (folld)

Sharon Global Solutions Pte Ltd v LG International (Singapore) Pte Ltd [2001] 2 SLR (R) 233; [2001] 3 SLR 368 (refd)

Shunmugam Jayakumar v Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin [1996] 2 SLR (R) 658; [1997] 2 SLR 172 (refd)

Third World Development Ltd v Atang Latief [1990] 1 SLR (R) 96; [1990] SLR 20 (folld)

Wellcherry Limited v Gentleteem Limited 1999 HKCU Lexis 1302; [1999] 1529 HKCU 1 (folld)

Rules of Court (Cap 322, R 5, 1997 Rev Ed) O 18 r 8

Davinder Singh SC, Hri Kumar and Nicholas Tang (Drew & Napier LLC) for the plaintiff/respondent

Defendant/appellant in person.

Judgment reserved.

MPH Rubin J

Introduction

The application

1 This was an appeal by Dr Chee Soon Juan to judge in chambers from the decision of Senior Assistant Registrar Mr Toh Han Li (“the SAR”) granting interlocutory judgment with damages (including aggravated damages) to be assessed in a defamation action brought by the respondent, Mr Goh Chok Tong. Mr Goh is, and was at all material times, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore. On 25 October 2001, Mr Goh, as a candidate of the People's Action Party (“PAP”), was returned unopposed as a Member of Parliament for Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency (“GRC”) in the 2001 General Elections. Dr Chee is, and was at all material times, the Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party (“SDP”). Dr Chee was a candidate, along with four others, for Jurong GRC in the 2001 General Elections.

2 On 28 October 2001, in the course of campaigning for the 2001 General Elections, Dr Chee reportedly spoke and published certain words at Hong Kah West hawker centre (“the Hong Kah Words”) and later that evening at an election rally at Nee Soon Central (“the Nee Soon Words”), both in public and in the presence of, inter alia, various members of the print and broadcast media, which Mr Goh alleged to be defamatory of him.

3 On 19 November 2001, the present suit was commenced by Mr Goh against Dr Chee. On 8 December 2001, Mr Goh filed an amended Statement of Claim seeking to enforce a contract of compromise arising from the publication of an apology by Dr Chee or alternatively, claiming against him for defamation. In Suit 1459/2001, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the Senior Minister of the Republic of Singapore, commenced a similar suit against Dr Chee for allegedly defamatory words spoken by him at the election rally at Nee Soon on 28 October 2001.

4 In both cases, Mr Goh and Mr Lee took out a summons-in-chambers application praying for interlocutory judgment with damages (including aggravated damages) to be assessed; and costs of the action, including the assessment of damages, to be taxed on an indemnity basis. Both applications were heard at the same time by the SAR, who granted the applications for interlocutory judgment.

The facts

The Hong Kah Words

5 On 28 October 2001, in the course of campaigning for the 2001 General Elections at the Hong Kah West hawker centre, Dr Chee spoke the following words in the presence of, inter alia,various members of the print and broadcast media:

  1. (a) during an interview with the print and broadcast media, the defendant said:

[W]e kept saying Suharto, Suharto, Suharto find me one word, just that one word in Suharto in today's Straits Times did anybody say it? But that's the most important thing in our campaign right now, alright? It's a fact that this Government will not help our workers and they take all the money overseas, either investments in loans, they are not getting it back, and then they try to get it from people through taxes again …

  1. (b) upon seeing Mr Goh a short distance away, Dr Chee shouted:

Mr Goh! Mr Goh! Come here Mr Goh! I want to talk with you, come here! Where is our money Mr Goh! You can run, but you cannot hide.

  1. (c) Dr Chee then approached Mr Harun Abdul Ghani, a former PAP Member of Parliament, and said:

He took $17 billion, 1998 you cannot run away! $17 billion you lent it to Suharto. Number one, you were a Member of Parliament, did he tell you? You represent the people! Why didn't you say anything? You were wrong, that is very wrong.

6 The Hong Kah Words and/or their gist were prominently republished by the print and broadcast media.

The Nee Soon Words

7 At an election rally held at Nee Soon Central on the evening of 28 October 2001, Dr Chee spoke the following words in the presence of members of the public and the print and broadcast media:

So when we met … when we met Goh Chok Tong this morning during our walkabout, he was there just about 3 or 4 feet away, I asked him, “Mr Goh, what happened to our money? What happened to this $17 billion?” He wouldn't answer. He just waved us on. I am very serious about this...

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