Goh Chok Tong v Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin and another action

JudgeKarthigesu JA
Judgment Date17 July 1998
Neutral Citation[1998] SGCA 42
Citation[1998] SGCA 42
Defendant CounselCharles Gray QC and G Krishnan (G Krishnan & Co)
Published date19 September 2003
Plaintiff CounselDavinder Singh SC (Drew & Napier), K Shanmugam SC and Ashok Kumar (Allen & Gledhill)
Date17 July 1998
Docket NumberCivil Appeals Nos 205 and 218 of 1997
CourtCourt of Appeal (Singapore)
Subject MatterCivil Procedure,Whether single lump sum to be awarded or separation of awards for general compensatory and aggravated damages,Costs,Whether award of damages disconsonant with precedent cases,Tort,Defamation,Whether justified in awarding only 60% costs to successful party,Principles applicable in exercising discretion to award costs,Pleadings,Damages,Whether trial judge considered all relevant factors in assessment of damages,Whether court could find lesser defamatory meaning than that pleaded by plaintiff


Cur Adv Vult

(delivering the judgment of the court): This is an appeal against the decision of S Rajendran J in the High Court awarding $20,000 in damages to Goh Chok Tong, the Prime Minister of Singapore and Secretary-General of the People`s Action Party (PAP), against Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament and Secretary-General of the Workers` Party (WP), in respect of certain words spoken by the latter concerning the former in the course of the 1996 General Elections. His decision is now reported at [1998] 1 SLR 547. Both Mr Goh and Mr Jeyaretnam now appeal against the findings of the learned judge.

2. The facts

The facts, which are set out at length in the judgment of the court below, may be summarised as follows. Parliament was dissolved in December 1996, and polling day fixed for 2 January 1997. Mr Jeyaretnam, together with one Tang Liang Hong and three others, elected to contest the Group Representative Constituency (GRC) in Cheng San against incumbent PAP MPs. Mr Goh defended his seat in the Marine Parade GRC.

3.Leaders of the PAP, including Mr Goh, took the view that the election of Mr Tang to a seat in Cheng San was undesirable. They had received information that Mr Tang was an anti-Christian and anti-English-educated Chinese chauvinist, whose defence of Chinese culture, language and education in the past had been so vigorous that his introduction to Parliament might destabilise race-free politics in Singapore. They therefore undertook to advertise on numerous occasions, through press interviews and at campaign rallies, why they felt Mr Tang was an unsuitable candidate for a seat in the legislature.

4.By a letter to Mr Goh dated 28 December 1996, Mr Tang, through his solicitors, denied the accusations, and, taking the view that Mr Goh`s statements were defamatory of his character, demanded a retraction and apology. He threatened that otherwise, he would seek legal recourse. Mr Goh`s solicitors replied by a letter dated 29 December 1996, refusing to give a retraction and inviting legal proceedings.

5.Various PAP leaders and election candidates continued to repeat the accusations against Mr Tang over the course of the next few days. In an interview published in the Straits Times on 31 December 1996, Mr Tang indicated that he intended to lodge a police report against the various PAP members who had spoken against him as he was of the view that they had, in speaking what were allegedly falsehoods about him, committed a criminal offence. He said:

Of course I am going to sue them. Not only that, I am going to lodge a police report against them for criminal offence. They are telling lies. They are defaming, assassinating my character. They concocted lies and go on television and spread the lies

6.Mr Tang also publicly protested his innocence of the accusations at election rallies on 28 and 31 December 1996, adding that they had been fabricated to spoil his chances of success. On 31 December 1996, Mr Goh`s solicitors wrote to Mr Tang asking for a complete withdrawal of those allegations, an apology in prescribed terms, and an undertaking not to repeat his allegations. He was given an ultimatum - 6pm on 1 January 1997 to comply.

7.Mr Tang`s response was to file two police reports against Mr Goh and other PAP leaders. He did not concede to any of the demands made by Mr Goh through his solicitors. Subsequent to the elections, in which Mr Tang and Mr Jeyaretnam were defeated in the Cheng San GRC, Mr Goh and other PAP members filed actions in defamation against Mr Tang in respect of the various statements he had made at rallies and to the press, and the police reports. Mr Tang failed to defend the claim and judgment was awarded against him with total damages assessed at $1,400,000 in respect of defamatory statements made by him concerning Mr Goh: see Lee Kuan Yew v Tang Liang Hong and other actions [1997] 3 SLR 91 . On appeal to this court, that sum was revised downwards to $700,000. Our decision was delivered on 12 November 1997 and is now reported at Tang Liang Hong v Lee Kuan Yew & Anor [1998] 1 SLR 97 (the Tang appeal).

8.The present action arose out of events at a WP election rally held on the night of 1 January 1997, the eve of Polling Day. At this rally, Mr Jeyaretnam spoke after Mr Tang had spoken and, while Mr Jeyaretnam was speaking, Mr Tang was seen walking up to him, handing him certain documents and whispering to him. Shortly thereafter, as Mr Jeyaretnam was ending his speech, he said inter alia the following:

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.

Mr Goh subsequently, through his solicitors, wrote a letter of demand to Mr Jeyaretnam, demanding an apology in terms and damages. Mr Jeyaretnam, through his solicitors, denied the charges and offered to apologise on different terms. Mr Goh refused the apology, considering it inadequate, and instructed his solicitors to initiate this suit against Mr Jeyaretnam, pleading that the announcement amounted to an assertion that Mr Goh had committed the offence of criminal defamation.

9. The judgment of the court below

In a lengthy judgment, S Rajendran J found that the words complained of did not bear the pleaded meaning, whether in the ordinary meaning of the words or in the innuendo meaning. He made his own findings on the ordinary meaning and the innuendo meaning of the words and on those meanings he held that the words were defamatory of Mr Goh. Both these meanings were less defamatory than the pleaded meaning. On the question of damages, he awarded Mr Goh a sum of $10,000 as general compensatory damages and another sum of $10,000 as aggravated damages, making a total of $20,000. Finally, he ordered Mr Jeyaretnam to pay Mr Goh only 60% of the costs.

10. The appeals

Against this decision both Mr Goh and Mr Jeyaretnam appeal. Mr Goh`s appeal is against those parts of the trial judge`s decision as concerned (i) the quantum of damages awarded, and (ii) the proportion of costs disallowed. One of the grounds in the appeal against the award of damages is that the words complained of in their natural and ordinary sense and/or by innuendo bore substantially meanings that are more defamatory of him than the meanings found by the trial judge. In that sense Mr Goh is also challenging the meanings of the words as found by the trial judge. Mr Jeyaretnam`s appeal is against liability and is mainly directed at the defamatory meanings found by the trial judge. It is the case of Mr Jeyaretnam that the words did not bear the defamatory meaning as pleaded by Mr Goh or the meanings as found by the trial judge or any other defamatory meaning, and further, if at all they were defamatory, in all the circumstances Mr Goh is only entitled to no more than nominal damages. Mr Jeyaretnam also contends that irrespective of the outcome of his appeal the question of costs below should be considered by this court. The two appeals therefore focus on the following main issues: (a). what, if any, defamatory meaning the words complained of bore in the ordinary sense of the word, and what, if any, other meaning they bore taking into account extrinsic facts known to the ordinary man;

(b). what is the appropriate quantum of damages in this case; and

(c). whether in the circumstances of the case Mr Goh should be deprived of any proportion of the costs.

11. The meaning of the words

We start with the meaning of the words as pleaded in the statement of claim. Only one defamatory meaning was pleaded, and that is in [para ] 32 of the statement of claim which is as follows:

The offending words, and the words complained of in para 29, in their natural and ordinary meaning and/or by way of innuendo, meant and/or were understood to mean that the plaintiff had, inter alia, committed and was guilty of the offence of criminal defamation (which is punishable under s 500 of the Penal Code (Cap 224), with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with a fine or with both); and the offence of criminal conspiracy (which is punishable under s 120B(1) of the Penal Code with imprisonment).

Below this paragraph were set out various particulars relied upon. This was claimed be the natural and ordinary meaning of the words and/or the innuendo meaning. In other words, Mr Goh ascribed only one meaning to the words, whether such meaning be the natural and ordinary meaning or the innuendo meaning or both. This was appreciated by the learned judge who said in [para ] 59 of his judgment:

In this case I interpreted the pleading set out to mean that the defendant`s words had only one alleged meaning, which was based on the words either on their plain and ordinary meaning, reasonable implication arising out of those words or innuendo.

12.The trial judge then proceeded to determine the natural and ordinary meaning of the words. In approaching this issue he considered in some detail the decision of the House of Lords in Rubber Improvement Ltd v Daily Telegraph Ltd [1964] AC 234 (the Lewis case), and also the recent decision of the Court of Appeal in England in Mapp v News Group Newspapers Ltd [1998] 2 WLR 260. He rejected the argument advanced on behalf of Mr Goh that the words implied that Mr Goh was guilty of criminal defamation and criminal conspiracy or a serious criminal offence and held that the words on their plain and ordinary meaning could not impute guilt. However, he held that the ordinary man on hearing that Mr Tang had lodged police reports against Mr Goh and his people `would consider that a police investigation into the affairs of [Mr Goh] might take place` and that was defamatory of him. The trial judge said at [para ] 90-92:

90 I have no difficulty in concluding that such an event would give the ordinary person in Singapore reason to pause and think. The ordinary person would consider that a police...

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