Jeyaretnam JB v Lee Kuan Yew

CourtCourt of Three Judges (Singapore)
Judgment Date05 September 1979
Date05 September 1979
Docket NumberCivil Appeal No 26 of 1979

[1979] SGCA 13

Court of Appeal

Wee Chong Jin CJ


T Kulasekaram J


D C D'Cotta J

Civil Appeal No 26 of 1979

Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin
Lee Kuan Yew

K E Hilborne (Hilborne & Co) for the appellant

J Grimberg (Drew & Napier) for the respondent.

Broome v Cassell & Co [1972] AC 1027 (refd)

Jones v Skelton [1963] 1 WLR 1362 (folld)

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

McCarey v Associated Newspapers [1965] 2 QB 86; [1964] 3 All ER 947 (refd)

Defamation Act (Cap 32, 1970 Rev Ed) s 16 (consd)

Defamation Act 1952 (c 66) (UK) s 12

Tort–Defamation–Damages–Aggravating factors–Whether damages awarded manifestly excessive–Whether Prime Minister obtaining judgment for slander to the same effect by others relevant in mitigating damages–Section 16 Defamation Act (Cap 32, 1970 Rev Ed)–Tort–Defamation–Slander–Prime Minister of Singapore criticising competence of opposition leaders during election campaign–Leader of opposition party reacting to Prime Minister's criticism by making statements at election rally regarding personal fortune of Prime Minister and some of his family members–Whether opposition leader's statements defamatory–Whether statements exceeded legitimate bounds of reply in answer to Prime Minister's criticism

The respondent, Lee Kuan Yew (“LKY”), was incumbent Prime Minister at the time of the trial. LKY sued the appellant, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (“JBJ”), for defamation arising out of remarks made by the latter during an election rally. According to LKY, JBJ's statements implied that the former had procured preferential treatment for his brother and/or his wife to his own and/or their personal financial advantage, and had thereby abused the office of Prime Minister of Singapore.

The trial judge held that the statements complained of were defamatory. The trial judge also rejected JBJ's pleas of fair comment and qualified privilege and awarded damages of $130,000.

JBJ appealed, contending that: (a) his statements were not capable of bearing a defamatory meaning as they related to LKY's accumulation of wealth by legitimate means, which were nevertheless deprecated by JBJ and the statements complained of were therefore not capable of conveying a defamatory meaning; (b) the trial judge had erred in rejecting the defence of qualified privilege and in holding that in publishing the words Mr Jeyaretnam was actuated by malice; and (c) the trial judge's award of damages was manifestly excessive.

Held, dismissing the appeal:

(1) A reasonable person was likely to understand JBJ's statements to mean that LKY had managed his fortune well by using his position as Prime Minister to procure preferential treatment for his wife and brother to his own and their personal advantage. This amounted to libel. The alternative interpretation proffered by JBJ was an unreasonable one: at [10].

(2) The trial judge was correct in rejecting the defence of qualified privilege. Although JBJ was entitled in law to defend himself against written or verbal attacks, in answering to the charge by LKY during the latter's press conference, JBJ's statements had exceeded the legitimate bounds of defence. JBJ's statements had been published without an honest belief in the truth, and had been actuated by malice. Additionally, the defence of fair comment was not supported by arguments on appeal and therefore failed in light of the trial judge's findings: at [11] and [12].

(3) The trial judge did not misdirect himself in arriving at the award of $130,000 as damages. The award was not excessive having regard to all the circumstances of the case, including the fact that: (a) the words amounted to a very grave slander which struck at the heart of the Prime Minister's political reputation; (b) JBJ had never retracted or apologised for his words; and (c) JBJ's plea of fair comment was not an honest one and was thus an aggravating factor: at [14], [15], [16] and [20].

(4) No evidence was given at the trial in mitigation of damages as required by s 16 of the Defamation Act (Cap 32, 1970 Rev Ed) and as such, the ground of appeal based on that section failed: at [23] and [24].

Judgment reserved.

Wee Chong Jin CJ

(delivering the judgment of the court):

1 In December 1976 the Government called a general election and fixed 23 December as polling day. Mr Lee Kuan Yew the Prime Minister, opened the election campaign of the People's Action Party (“PAP”), the party in power, at a press conference on 13 December during which he questioned the competence of opposition leaders. He said that the pity of it was that nobody in the present opposition had it in him to oppose. He said “the public are entitled to something better, but unfortunately we are faced with an opposition whose leaders were inconsequential men unable to propound a credible alterative on how to make Singapore more viable and secure or how to give the people a better standard of living”. He said most of them wanted to give everything away - lower taxes, lower rents and lower public utilities rates. He said he did not believe the public would go in for the giveaways 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 and that “if we start giving things away we would end up as paupers”.

2 Criticising and questioning the credibility and competence to govern of each other by the leaders of political parties during election time is common currency in all democracies. Ripostes to such criticisms are also common currency. Mr Jeyaretnam was then and still is the leader of an opposition party, the Workers' Party. He was thus one of those whom the Prime Minister so criticised. How did he react? At the final election rally of his party on 18 December he made a speech at Fullerton Square before an audience of 1,500 people who appeared to be mostly office workers, executives and managers from banks and other businesses in the area. In his speech, Mr Jeyaretnam said:

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...

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5 cases
  • Lee Kuan Yew v Tang Liang Hong and Another
    • Singapore
    • Court of Three Judges (Singapore)
    • 12 November 1997
    ...SEA (Pte) Ltd v Tomongo Shipping Co Ltd [1997] 2 SLR (R) 669; [1997] 3 SLR 547 (refd) Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin v Lee Kuan Yew [1979-1980] SLR (R) 255; [1978-1979] SLR 197 (folld) Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin v Lee Kuan Yew [1992] 1 SLR (R) 791; [1992] 2 SLR 310 (folld) John Fairfax & Sons L......
  • Lee Kuan Yew v Tang Liang Hong and Another and Other Actions
    • Singapore
    • High Court (Singapore)
    • 29 May 1997 Suit 525/1996 and Suit 188/1997. Cassell & Co Ltd v Broome [1972] AC 1027 (folld) Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin v Lee Kuan Yew [1979-1980] SLR (R) 255; [1978-1979] SLR 197 (refd) Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin v Lee Kuan Yew [1981-1982] SLR (R) 353; [1982-1983] SLR 1 (folld) Jeyaretnam Joshua B......
  • Lee Kuan Yew v Davies and Others
    • Singapore
    • High Court (Singapore)
    • 30 November 1989
    ...Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin v Goh Chok Tong [1989] 2 SLR (R) 130; [1989] SLR 4 (folld) Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin v Lee Kuan Yew [1979-1980] SLR (R) 255; [1978-1979] SLR 197 (refd) Jones v Skelton [1963] 3 All ER 952 (folld) Joynt v Cycle Trade Publishing Co [1904] 2 KB 292 (refd) Kemsley v ......
  • Jeyaretnam JB v Lee Kuan Yew
    • Singapore
    • Privy Council
    • 24 February 1982
    ...clear defamatory import of the defendant's words was upheld in the Court of Appeal (see Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin v Lee Kuan Yew [1979-1980] SLR (R) 255 at [8]- [10]), whose unanimous judgment put the matter in the following way: [Counsel for the defendant] contends that … the natural and ......
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