Jeyaretnam JB v Lee Kuan Yew

Docket NumberSuit No 218 of 1977
CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
Lee Kuan Yew
Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin

[1979] SGHC 35

F A Chua J

Suit No 218 of 1977

High Court

Tort–Defamation–Defamatory statements–Whether words were defamatory–Whether defence of qualified privilege applied–Whether defence of fair comment applied

The plaintiff brought a defamation action against the defendant, and contended that words spoken by the defendant during an election rally defamed the plaintiff, in that the words meant that the plaintiff had procured preferential treatment for his brother and his wife, abused his office and was unfit to hold his office. The defendant argued that the words alleged no illegality or want of honesty. The defendant contended that qualified privilege applied, as the publication was made in response to an attack on the defendant by the plaintiff during elections. Additionally, it was also argued by the defendant that his remarks were fair comment.

Held, allowing the plaintiff's claim:

(1) The test of whether words used had a defamatory meaning was objective, and the court would consider what the words meant to an ordinary man. On the facts, the words meant that the plaintiff was guilty of nepotism and corruption, and rendered the plaintiff unfit to hold his office: at [36], [44] and [45].

(2) The defence of qualified privilege did not apply. The fact that the defamation was published during an election did not give rise to a privilege. Nor was the defamation privileged by any attack made by the plaintiff, since the statement in question was not connected to the accusations made against the defendant by the plaintiff, and they were not published bona fide: at [48], [52] to [54].

(3) Fair comment was not made out as the defendant had made his remarks recklessly: at [60] and [61].

Bernstein v The Observer The Times (5 May 1976) (folld)

Capital & Counties Bank v Henty (1882) 7 AppCas 741 (folld)

Cassel & Co v Broome [1972] AC 1027 (folld)

E Hulton & Co v Jones [1910] AC 20 (folld)

Grubb v Bristol United Press Ltd [1963] 1 QB 309 (folld)

Horrocks v Lowe [1975] AC 135 (folld)

Jones v Skelton [1963] 1 WLR 1362; [1963] 3 All ER 952 (folld)

Lewis v Daily Telegraph Ltd [1964] AC 234 (refd)

McCarey v Associated Newspapers [1964] 3 All ER 947 (refd)

Plummer v Charman [1962] 1 WLR 1469 (folld)

R v Flowers (1880) 44 JP 377 (folld)

Turner v MGM Pictures Ltd [1950] 1 All ER 449 (folld)

Defamation Act (Cap 32, 1970 Rev Ed) ss 9, 14

Robert Alexander QC and J Grimberg (Drew & Napier) for the plaintiff

John Mortimer QC and K E Hilborne (Hilborne & Co) for the defendant.

Judgment reserved.

F A Chua J

1 This is a defamation action brought by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singapore, against Mr Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, the Secretary-General of the Workers' Party, arising out of a speech made by Mr Jeyaretnam at a rally held in Fullerton Square during the course of the last General Election in December 1976.

2 The plaintiff, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, qualified as an advocate and solicitor, and was admitted to practise in August 1951. Besides practising law, he was active in politics and was appointed Secretary-General of the People's Action Party (“PAP”) when it was founded in November 1954. In March 1955, the plaintiff was returned as a member of the Legislative Assembly. In September 1955, he established the firm of Lee & Lee in partnership with his wife and his brother, Mr Lee Kim Yew. He continued both to practise law and engage in politics though he increasingly devoted more time to politics. This went on till the General Election of 1959.

3 In May 1959, the PAP won the majority of seats in Parliament and the plaintiff formed a government. Since then, the PAP has been successfully re-elected to power at general elections and remains the party of government to this day.

4 Upon assuming office for the first time as Prime Minister in June 1959, the plaintiff ceased to be a partner in the firm of Lee & Lee and his name was scratched off the firm's letterhead and since then he has no association with the professional activities of that firm. His wife and brother continued and still continue to practise law under the style of Lee & Lee.

5 The defendant, Mr J B Jeyaretnam, is also an advocate and solicitor, and was in the Singapore Legal Service and had held various posts including those of Registrar of the Supreme Court and District Judge & First Magistrate, before deciding in 1965 to engage in private practice. He joined Mr David Marshall as a partner and after a year, he joined the firm of Donaldson & Burkinshaw and in March 1968, he set up his own law practice with his wife, who is a solicitor, as a partner under the style of J B Jeyaretnam & Co and they still carry on that practice.

6 After the failure of certain constitutional talks in London in 1956, Mr David Marshall, the Chief Minister of Singapore, resigned from the Labour Front and later founded the Workers' Party. Mr Marshall resigned from the party in 1962 following the arrest of certain party members. In 1971, the defendant became the Secretary-General of the Workers' Party. He has also been active in politics and has stood for Parliament on three occasions, in 1972, 1976 and a by-election in 1977.

7 In December 1976, the Government called a general election. Polling day was to be on 23 December. Both Government and opposition parties opened their campaigns with speeches which were critical of each other.

8 On 13 December, the plaintiff held a press conference and it was reported in The Straits Times of 14 December (AB7). The following passages appear in the report:

The People's Action Party would welcome an opposition in Parliament, but, unfortunately, the leaders of the present opposition parties are inconsequential men with a common denominator – they liked to be elected into office but they did not know what they wanted to get into Parliament for …

The Prime Minister said most of them wanted to give everything away – lower taxes, lower rents and lower public utilities rates …

He did not believe that the public would go in for the give-aways proposed by the opposition. As an example he said that 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.

In contrast, he referred to what the PAP had built up in the government – over $8,000m …

In reply to another question on an opposition to PAP, Mr Lee said that the pity of it was that nobody in the present opposition had it in him to oppose:

They want to do what they think are popular things, or what the followers of the Malayan Communist Party believe are popular things.

9 In his speech at a Workers' Party rally at Fullerton Square on 14 December, the defendant accused the Government of blatant dishonesty on two matters, namely the re-settlement of farmers in Jalan Kayu and the sterilisation of mothers with more than two children. He also accused the Prime Minister of being dishonest in not giving a truthful answer in Australia when interviewed over TV when the Prime Minister said he had never appointed any judges to the High Court since he came into power when in fact, two judges were appointed by him for a two-year term.

10 On Saturday, 18 December, five days before polling day, the Workers' Party held a lunch time rally at Fullerton Square. It was an important meeting attended by 1,500 people who appeared to be mostly office workers, executives and managers from banks and other businesses in the area. The defendant was the main speaker and he spoke in English. In the course of his speech, the defendant made references to the Prime Minister and his family, and the plaintiff says that the speech is defamatory. The words the defendant used are these and the words complained of by the plaintiff are italicised:

Now I want, this afternoon to spend some time my dear friends in reply to some of the statements that have been made by the PAP leaders and the leaders of government against the oppositions and in particular, the Workers' Party. I will begin with the Secretary-General of the People's Action Party, oh sorry, Pay and Pay Party and the Prime Minister now of Singapore, that practise the government and holding the reign of power. I don't know whether the Secretary-General, Prime Minister of Singapore realised what he was saying. Very unfortunate. I'll tell you what he said. On nomination day when he was filing his papers, he says, 'What can you expect from the opposition leaders. They haven't shown in the management of their own personal fortune that they could accumulate anything'. This is, I've taken this from the Straits Times that the opposition leaders have not shown in the management of their own personal fortune that they could accumulate anything. Well, my dear friends, I feel guilty for that. I'm not very good in the management of my own personal fortunes 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 & 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, banking permit licence when other banks were having difficulty getting their licence. So Mr Lee Kuan Yew is very adept in 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 20 years. I know it's left to the people; the people decide who will form the government and then the people in Parliament will 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 & Co in Singapore because I wouldn't know how to manage my own personal fortunes. [emphasis added]


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