Goh Chok Tong v Tang Liang Hong

CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
JudgeLai Kew Chai J
Judgment Date22 April 1997
Neutral Citation[1997] SGHC 104
Citation[1997] SGHC 104
Defendant CounselPeter Cuthbert Low (Peter Low Tang & Partners)
Plaintiff CounselK Shanmugam and Ashok Kumar (Allen & Gledhill)
Published date19 September 2003
Docket NumberSuit No 244 of 1997 (SIC No 1669
Date22 April 1997
Subject MatterWhether the offending words were defamatory,Striking out,Choice of law,Whether double actionability rule applies,Conflict of Laws,Tort,Defamatory statements,Whether the defence should be struck out entirely,Necessity to plead double actionability,Whether the plaintiffs' action an abuse of the process of the court,Claim founded on tort committed in a foreign country,Civil Procedure,Pleadings,Defamation,Whether politicians and persons holding public office are entitled to protect their reputations,Double actionability rule,Determination of the natural and ordinary meaning of words uttered,Whether double actionability rule must be pleaded

The plaintiff is the Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore. He has been Prime Minister of Singapore since November 1990. He is the Secretary-General of the People`s Action Party (PAP) and has been Secretary-General since December 1992. He has also been a member of Parliament since 1976. The defendant is an advocate and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Singapore. He is a member of the Worker`s Party and was one of the candidates for election in the parliamentary constituency of Cheng San GRC for the Parliamentary General Elections held on 2 January 1997.

The plaintiff`s claims is for damages (including aggravated damages) for the slander uttered on 10 January 1997 by the defendant of the plaintiff in the course of the defendant`s telephone conversation in Malaysia with one Mr Brendan Pereira, a journalist with The Straits Times .
The plaintiff further claims damages (including aggravated damages) for the libel committed by the defendant and contained in an article entitled `I fled as I feared being arrested: Tang` which was published in the 11 January 1997 issue of The Straits Times and any re-publication thereof. The plaintiff filed the writ of summons on 31 January 1997. On 5 February 1997 the defendant`s solicitors, Messrs Tang & Co, entered appearance for him.

On 19 February 1997 the plaintiff filed his statement of claim.
On 4 March 1997 the defendant filed his defence. I will have to revert to both documents in great depth later in the course of this judgment.

For the moment, it should be noted that the defendant by his defence admitted having uttered the words and accepted responsibility for the publication of the words in The Straits Times which the plaintiff complained constituted respectively the serious torts of slander and libel of him.
In other words, the accuracy of the words spoken by the defendant to the reporter and its reporting in The Straits Times on 11 January 1997 has been and is accepted unreservedly by the defendant.

However, the defendant in his defence asserted three defences and made one allegation.
I will in this introductory part of the judgment, first of all, set out briefly the allegation and the three defences. I will deal with them at length later in my judgment.

By para 1 and at the forefront of his defence, the defendant `contends` that this suit, along with Suit Nos 2523/96, 2524/96 and 2525/96 and Suit Nos 70/97, 76/97, 82/97, 172/97, 181/97, 182/97, 187/97 and 188/97, is an abuse of the process of court and should be struck out or stayed.
The defendant alleges that the plaintiff and the plaintiffs in the other suits mentioned were invoking the law of defamation for `the ulterior and improper motive of achieving political advantage and for the collateral purpose of driving the defendant from the political arena for fear of the huge potential awards of damages and costs`.

I now refer briefly to the three defences.
First, by para 3 of his defence he says `the words complained of do not refer to the plaintiff.` This means that I have to refer to and consider the factual matrix as set out in the statement of claim and the admissions expressly made by the defendant in his defence. Under the Rules of Court, this court is not to take into account any affidavit evidence. Of course, the court may draw reasonable inferences from the admissions made by the defendant. On that basis, and that basis alone, I will have to decide if the defendant`s words refer to the plaintiff.

Secondly, the defendant says that his words were not defamatory and did not bear the defamatory meaning as alleged by the plaintiff.
This defence entails the determination of the natural and ordinary meaning of the words as uttered and as published. That is always a question of fact which has to be determined by a judge. I will, later in this judgment, set out the relevant law. Suffice it to note for the moment that extrinsic evidence is not admissible in construing the words. For that matter, what the defendant intended to mean in that conversation and the subsequent publication in The Straits Times or the sense in which Mr Brendan Pereira or the plaintiff respectively understood the conversation and the publication is irrelevant and inadmissible in evidence. It is a basic principle of the law of defamation that the meaning must be gathered from the words used by the defendant and none other, and in the context of the entire conversation made by the defendant. A judge as a finder of fact has to ascertain the single and the right meaning of the words or publication complained of.

The third defence appeared in an unexpected part of the defence.
Paragraph 17 of the defence denied that the plaintiff was entitled to aggravated damages by reason of the multitude of particulars set out in para 41 of the statement of claim, which is itself sub-divided into ten sub-paragraphs and has taken 17 pages of the pleadings to set out. There then followed the last sentence of para 17 of the defence in these terms: `It is averred that the plaintiff`s failure to plead that the action for slander is actionable under the law of Malaysia results in the statement of claim disclosing no cause of action.` I did not have the benefit of submissions from counsel of both parties on this point. I therefore invited them to tender submissions on the issues raised by this sentence. Both counsel have done so. I will deal with the matters raised in the last part of this judgment.

On 7 March 1997 the plaintiff applied by Summons in Chambers No 1669/97 under O 18 r 19(1)(a) of the Rules of Court for an order that the defence be struck out and that the plaintiff be at liberty to enter judgment against the defendant for damages to be assessed and costs.
The application came up for hearing on 11 March 1997. Mr JB Jeyaretnam, who was acting for the defendant in several other actions, was in court. But he told the court that he had no instructions to appear to oppose the application. Counsel for the plaintiff made his submissions. As I wanted time to consider the application, I directed counsel for the plaintiff to file his written submissions by Friday, 14 March 1997 which counsel did. I directed counsel to submit what the plaintiff would contend was the single and the right meaning conveyed to the reasonable listener and the reasonable reader in respect of the slander and libel. The plaintiff`s written submissions were duly filed.

However, on 4 April 1996 Messrs Peter Low, Tang & Partners wrote to the Registrar of the Supreme Court and stated that the firm had just taken over the matter.
It appeared to them that at the hearing on 11 March 1997 Mr JB Jeyaretnam had told the court that he had not been instructed to appear. Noting that the plaintiff`s solicitors had tendered written submissions, they asked whether I was prepared to allow them to tender written submissions in opposition to the plaintiff`s application within seven days. I immediately acceded to their request. The defendant`s solicitors tendered the written submissions on 11 April 1997.

The law and practice of striking out

The plaintiff`s application to strike out the whole of the defence is made under O 18 r 19 and the relevant portion reads as follows:

(1) The court may at any stage of the proceedings order to be struck out or amended any pleading or the endorsement of any writ in the action, or anything in any pleading or in the endorsement, on the ground that -

(a) it discloses no reasonable cause of action or defence, as the case may be;

and may order the action to be stayed or dismissed or judgment to be entered accordingly, as the case may be.

(2) No evidence shall be admissible on an application under para (1)(a).

The consequence of striking out a defence on the ground that it discloses no reasonable defence is that judgment will be entered against the defendant without a trial.
Similarly, a claim which discloses no reasonable cause of action will be dismissed without a trial of the claim. It is therefore a summary power. In the appropriate case, the decision to strike out a claim or a defence has the salutary effect of obviating what would be an unnecessary and wasteful trial. But the summary power can only be exercised according to established principles. It has long been established that striking out the whole of a defence is only allowed in a plain and obvious case : see Drummond-Jackson v British Medical Association & Ors [1970] 1 WLR 688 followed in Singapore in Bank of China v Asiaweek Ltd [1991] 2 MLJ 505; [1991] SLR 486.

In the case of Bank of China (supra), the defendant published a statement in its 18 June 1989 edition which the plaintiff asserted was libellous; the plaintiff set out six different meanings in para 5 of their statement of claim.
By paras 2 and 4 of their defence, the defendant denied that the words were libellous or that they bore or were understood to bear any meaning defamatory of the plaintiff. The plaintiff applied to strike out the defence. This was described as `a bold step` by LP Thean J (as he then was). Nonetheless the learned judge proceeded to consider the pleadings, and only the pleadings, and came to the `irresistible` conclusion that the published statement in effect, as found by the learned judge, was libellous of the plaintiff. The learned judge stated at p 508: `The plaintiff in para 5 of the statement of claim ascribed to the words no less than six meanings cumulatively I do not think that to ordinary reasonable persons the words would convey such a comprehensive range of meanings. In my judgment, they would convey some of the meanings ascribed to them by the plaintiff. In particular, they would convey the meaning that the plaintiff`s branch in Singapore after a total withdrawal of US$75m by its depositors had no funds or financial resources to meet further withdrawal by its depositors and had become temporarily insolvent.` One`rsquo;s reading of this passage in the light of the entire judgment...

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