Jeyaretnam JB v Lee Kuan Yew

CourtPrivy Council
JudgeSir George Baker
Judgment Date24 February 1982
Neutral Citation[1982] SGPC 1
Citation[1982] SGPC 1
Defendant CounselRobert Alexander QC, John Previte and J Grimberg (Herbert Smith & Co)
Plaintiff CounselRichard Hartley QC and David Eady (Ward Bowie)
Published date19 September 2003
Docket NumberPrivy Council Appeal No 4 of 1980
Date24 February 1982
Subject MatterCourt not to disturb findings of local courts on assessment of damages,Statements made in defence to criticisms levelled against defendant,Appeals,Damages for defamation,Court not to interfere with concurrent findings of fact of lower courts,Scope of such defence -Whether defendant's statements exceeded his right to reply in terms reasonably proportionate to criticism against him,Whether words capable of conveying a defamatory meaning,Defamation,Privy Council,Qualified privilege,Election speech,Tort,Courts and Jurisdiction

The defendant appeals with leave from a decision of the Court of Appeal in Singapore dismissing his appeal against the decision of FA Chua J who awarded the plaintiff $130,000 (the equivalent of £29,600 sterling) as damages for slander.

At all material times the plaintiff (an advocate by profession) was Prime Minister of Singapore and Secretary-General of the People`s Action Party, the party in government.
The defendant is also an advocate and solicitor of wide experience and at all material times he was the Secretary-General of the Workers` Party, a political party which contested the Parliamentary General Election held in Singapore on 23 December 1976. Both plaintiff and defendant were candidates at that election.

In 1955 the plaintiff had formed the law partnership of `Lee & Lee` with his wife and his brother, Mr Lee Kim Yew, and he continued in that partnership until he became Prime Minister for the first time in 1959.
He then ceased to be a partner, his name was removed from the firm`s notepaper and thereafter he had no association with its activities, though his wife and his brother continued in practice under the style of `Lee & Lee`. The defendant and his wife were members of a firm of lawyers practising under the name of `JB Jeyaretnam and Co`.

At a press conference held on nomination day (13 December 1976) the plaintiff criticized the defendant and other members of his party for the policies they were advocating, and in particular said of them `... none of those who proposed to give things away, either by their management of their own parties or even of their own personal fortunes, had shown they could accumulate anything.
` The defendant said in evidence that these words insulted him and made him very angry.

At an election rally held on 18 December at which some 1,500 people were present, the defendant delivered a speech in the course of which he said:

I`m not very good in the management of my own personal fortune but Mr Lee Kuan Yew has managed his personal fortunes very well. He is the Prime Minister of Singapore. His wife is the senior partner of Lee and Lee and his brother is the director of several companies, including Tat Lee Bank in Market Street; the bank which was given a permit with alacrity, a banking permit licence when other banks were having difficulty getting their licence. So Mr Lee Kuan Yew is very adept at managing his own personal fortunes but I am not. I am a fool for your sake. And I tell you this, my dear friends, that if I should become Prime Minister of Singapore, I`m not saying I will, Mr Lee Kuan Yew keeps talking as though he is going to remain for the next twenty years. I know it`s left to the people; the people decide who will form the government and then the people in Parliament decide who will be the Prime Minister. All I`m saying is, if I become Prime Minister there will be no firm of JB Jeyaretnam and Co in Singapore because I wouldn`t know how to manage my own personal fortunes.

In the General Election held on 23 December the People`s Action Party won all 69 seats and the number of electors voting for them was higher than at the preceding election held four years earlier.

On 8 January 1977 the plaintiff`s solicitors wrote to the defendant, complaining that the aforesaid words used by him on 18 December were understood to mean that the plaintiff was wanting in honesty and integrity as a Prime Minister.
In the reply thereto it was denied that the defendant`s words had the defamatory meaning alleged, and the defendant indicated his willingness to acknowledge that he had intended to convey no such meaning.

An action for slander was instituted a few days later, the statement of claim alleging of the aforementioned words that `in their natural and ordinary meaning [they] meant and were understood to mean that the plaintiff had procured preferential treatment for his brother and/or wife to his own and/or their personal financial advantage, had thereby abused and would continue to abuse the office of Prime Minister of Singapore, is wanting in honesty and integrity, and is unfit to hold the said office.
The said words were calculated to disparage the plaintiff in his aforesaid office. In the premises, the plaintiff has been injured in his character, credit and reputation as Prime Minister.`

By his amended defence, the defendant denied that his words were capable of bearing such a meaning or any defamatory meaning.
He further alleged that when he made his speech on 18 December the occasion was one of qualified privilege, he was then merely replying to an attack on his financial capacity and reputation made by the plaintiff at the press conference on 13 December. It was further pleaded that the defendant had been `... under a public, moral or social duty as a candidate in the 1976 Parliamentary Elections to communicate the said words to the electors who had an interest to receive the said communication,` but this alternative ground was never pursued and was later expressly disclaimed.

In the further alternative, the defendant pleaded that the words

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2 cases
  • Re Rogers, Heather QC
    • Singapore
    • High Court (Singapore)
    • July 8, 2015 play is a fact-sensitive exercise that is, in the words of the Privy Council in Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin v Lee Kuan Yew [1981-1982] SLR(R) 353 at [26], “peculiarly dependent on local conditions and local tariffs” (ie, the socio-political climate and conditions unique to each political ......
  • Re Rogers, Heather QC
    • Singapore
    • High Court (Singapore)
    • July 8, 2015 play is a fact-sensitive exercise that is, in the words of the Privy Council in Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin v Lee Kuan Yew [1981-1982] SLR(R) 353 at [26], “peculiarly dependent on local conditions and local tariffs” (ie, the socio-political climate and conditions unique to each political ......

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