Jeyaretnam JB v Goh Chok Tong

JudgeLord Ackner
Judgment Date25 July 1989
Neutral Citation[1989] SGPC 2
Docket NumberPrivy Council Appeal No 27 of
Date25 July 1989
Published date19 September 2003
Plaintiff CounselLord Hooson QC and Robert Britton (Penningtons Ward Bowie)
Citation[1989] SGPC 2
Defendant CounselLord Alexander of Weedon QC, John Previte QC and G Pannirselvam (Linklates & Paines)
CourtPrivy Council
Subject MatterMalice,Appeals,Fair comment,Appeal judge's findings,Whether trial judge justified in conclusions,Defence of fair comment,Whether trial judge justified in his conclusions,Whether words calculated to disparage person in his office,Whether words defamatory,ss 5 & 9 Defamation Act (Cap 32),Defamation,Test of the fair-minded man,Tort,Facts on which comment based,Civil Procedure

Cur Adv Vult

This appeal is from a judgment of the Court of Appeal of Singapore (Wee Chong Jin CJ, Lai Kew Chai and Chua JJ) dated 19 August 1986 reported at [1987] 1 MLJ 176 dismissing an appeal from a judgment of LP Thean J which dismissed the appellant`s claim against the respondent for damages for slander. That claim arose out of certain events which took place in 1981. At 6.30pm on 21 September 1981 the Singapore Democratic Party (the SDP), a registered political party in Singapore held its inauguration meeting at the Singapore Conference Hall auditorium. At that time the appellant was the secretary-general of the Workers` Party (the WP) which was another registered political party in Singapore. The secretary-general of the SDP, Chiam See Tong, accorded to the appellant, in the words of Thean J, the `unusually high honour` of being invited to this ceremony as the first main speaker and the only guest speaker, taking precedence over the speeches of all the leaders of the SDP. Such an honour was a clear indication that at the material time the relations between these two political parties were friendly.

On receipt of the invitation, the appellant had informed the secretary-general of the SDP that he would have to leave after his speech due to a dinner engagement on the same evening as the inauguration.
This was acceptable to the SDP. From the reports of the meeting and according to the evidence of representatives of the press, who were present, the appellant was the most popular man that evening, receiving rounds of applause even before he spoke, as well as during his speech After his speech he left the meeting, as did a large proportion of the 300-strong audience.

The respondent, who was the defendant in the action, was at all material times Minister for Defence and Second Minister for Health in the government of Singapore and organizing secretary of the People`s Action Party, the party in government in Singapore.
On 26 October 1981, the respondent held a press conference at Blair Plain at which representatives of the media were present. At that conference he said, inter alia:

SDP had their inaugural earlier this month. Mr Jeyaretnam attended. After Mr Jeyaretnam had spoken, he left the hall, and when he left the hall, 200 participants left with him. I believe the exodus was engineered. I don`t think it was a spontaneous exodus. If it were, it did not speak well for the SDP. It shows that the crowd, the limited crowd still looks towards Mr jeyaretnam, for the time being, as a leader of the opposition. But I am inclined to believe that the exodus was contrived by the leader of the Workers` Party to show who is boss at this stage. And surely Mr Chiam cannot take that trick lightly.

On 23 November 1981 the appellant issued his writ claiming damages for slander and in his statement of claim delivered on 10 February 1982 he alleged that the words set out above were both defamatory and calculated to injure him in his office as leader of a political party.
In his defence the respondent denied that the words which he had used were defamatory of the appellant and he denied that they were calculated to disparage the appellant in his office as the secretary-general of the WP. He raised two further defences, namely, that the words were fair comment spoken without malice upon a matter of public interest, namely, the conduct of leaders of the opposition parties including the appellant, and further or alternatively that the occasion on which the words were uttered was one of qualified privilege.

The decision of the trial judge

The judge held that the words complained of in their natural and ordinary meaning were defamatory of the appellant. He said this:

The crucial point in this issue is this: did the words complained of in their natural and ordinary meaning impute to the plaintiff any dishonourable or discreditable conduct or motives or lack of integrity on his part? If they did, then inescapably they were defamatory of the plaintiff. It seems to me that in considering this issue, one must bear in mind the following salient facts. First, the event to which the words made reference was the inauguration of the SDP - undoubtedly a great and important event to the SDP. Secondly, at the inauguration the plaintiff in his position as the secretary-general of the WP was accorded an unusually high honour in being invited to speak. He was the only guest speaker and the first main speaker taking precedence over the speeches of all the leaders of the SDP. From the reports and according to representatives of the press media, who were present at the meeting, the plaintiff was the most popular man that evening, receiving rounds and rounds of applause even before he spoke and during his speech. Lastly, though much has been sought to be made out by the defendant and his counsel that the WP and SDP were rival political parties, which was not borne out by evidence, at the material time at any rate the relations between the two political parties were friendly. In those circumstances the words, in my opinion, were capable of a defamatory meaning and were defamatory of the plaintiff. The sting lay in the suggestion or implication that the plaintiff took advantage of a gesture of goodwill from the SDP - a party with which the WP had good relations - on the occasion of the SDP`s inauguration for a purely selfish and self-serving purpose and engineered or contrived an exodus of a large section of the audience at the

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