Jeyaretnam v Goh Chok Tong

JurisdictionSingapore
Judgment Date19 August 1986
Date19 August 1986
Docket NumberCivil Appeal No 90 of 1984
CourtCourt of Appeal (Singapore)
Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin
Plaintiff
and
Goh Chok Tong
Defendant

[1986] SGCA 14

Wee Chong Jin CJ

,

Lai Kew Chai J

and

F A Chua J

Civil Appeal No 90 of 1984

Court of Appeal

Civil Procedure–Appeals–Findings of fact–Appellate court to accord to findings of fact of trial judge greatest respect–Evidence–Proof of evidence–Standard of proof–Defamation–Office of honour–Proof of special damage–Tort–Defamation–Fair comment–Whether defence established–Whether respondent actuated by express malice–Tort–Defamation–Slander–Press conference–Words uttered at appellant and his office–Whether slander actionable–Office of honour–Proof of special damage–Section 5 Defamation Act (Cap 32, 1970 Rev Ed)–Words and Phrases–“With”–Context in which word used–Popular usage of word as spoken in Singapore

In the course of directing his party's political campaign to retain the Anson seat in a parliamentary by-election, the respondent held a conference with the media at which he said, inter alia, that he was “inclined to believe” that the appellant, an opposition candidate in the by-election, had engineered an exodus of some two-thirds of the audience who had attended the inauguration of the Singapore Democratic Party (“SDP”) which had invited the appellant as its guest speaker. The appellant claimed for damages and an injunction arising out of the slander.

The trial judge dismissed the appellant's claims. The appellant appealed. The respondent did not file a cross-appeal. Accordingly, the issues whether the words spoken were defamatory and whether they were spoken on an occasion of qualified privilege were no longer in contention. The first issue was whether the trial judge had erred in law in holding that the words complained of were not calculated to disparage the appellant in the office as secretary-general of the Workers' Party (“WP”). The respondent filed a notice which stated that if the trial judge had erred in holding that the words complained of were not calculated to disparage the appellant in his office as secretary-general of the WP the respondent will contend that the trial judge had correctly dismissed the appellant's claim for damages for slander because the appellant's said office was an office of honour or credit and not an office of profit and the particular words complained of by the appellant were not actionable without proof of special damage, and there was no such proof in this case. The second issue was whether the respondent succeeded in establishing his defence of fair comment.

Held, dismissing the appeal:

(1) The trial judge was correct in concluding that this action could have been dismissed on the sole ground that the plaintiff/appellant, not having alleged or proved special damage as regards his office of honour, namely, that of the secretary-general of the WP, had failed to establish that the words complained of were actionable without proof of special damage. The words were not actionable because they did not impute to the appellant the kind or quality of misconduct which could, or even might, have resulted in the appellant being deprived of his office and would have rendered the words actionable without proof of special damage. The court doubted that straight-thinking members of the WP would in all the circumstances have removed the appellant as secretary-general for having exploited the SDP inauguration to his and to the WP's political advantage: at [27].

(2) The respondent succeeded in establishing his defence of fair comment which was based on four elements: (a) the words complained of were comment, though it might consist of or include inference of facts; (b) the comment was on a matter of public interest; (c) the comment was based on facts; and (d) the comment was one which a fair-minded person could honestly make on the facts proved: at [28].

(3) The appellant failed to discharge the burden of proving that the respondent was actuated by express malice. There was no ground for disbelieving the respondent that the belief the respondent entertained was a genuine and honest one: at [35].

(4) An appellate court had to accord to findings of facts of a trial judge the greatest respect and ought not to disturb them unless the court was satisfied that the trial judge had reached a wrong decision. In the context of this case any advantage enjoyed by the trial judge by reason of having seen and heard the witnesses could not be sufficient to explain or justify the trial judge's conclusions: at [36].

Alexander v Jenkins [1892] 1 QB 797 (folld)

Chow Yee Wah v Choo Ah Pat [1978] 2 MLJ 41 (refd)

Horrocks v Lowe [1975] AC 135 (folld)

Khoo Sit Hoh v Lim Thean Tong [1912] AC 323; 2 BLSS 331 (refd)

Merivale v Carson (1888) 20 QBD 275 (folld)

Muthusamy v Ang Nam Cheow [1979-1980] SLR (R) 188; [1978-1979] SLR 25 (refd)

Onslow v Horne (1746) 2 Bl W 750; 96 ER 439 (refd)

Robinson v Ward (1958) 108 LJ 491 (folld)

Silkin v Beaverbrook Newspapers Ltd [1958] 1 WLR 743; [1958] 2 All ER 516 (folld)

Watt (Thomas) v Thomas [1947] AC 484; [1947] SC (HL) 45 (folld)

Defamation Act (Cap 32,1970Rev Ed)s 5 (consd)

Defamation Act 1952 (c 66) (UK)s 2

Appellant in person

Joe Grimberg (Drew & Napier) for the respondent.

Lai Kew Chai J

(delivering the judgment of the court):

1 In the course of directing his party's political campaign to retain the Anson seat in a parliamentary by-election, the defendant held a conference with the media at which he said, inter alia, that he was “inclined to believe” that the plaintiff, an opposition candidate in the by-election, had engineered an exodus of some two-thirds of the audience who had attended the inauguration of the Singapore Democratic Party (“SDP”), a political party which was friendly to the plaintiff and which had invited the plaintiff as its guest speaker.

2 In a claim in the High Court for damages and an injunction arising out of the slander, the plaintiff's claims were dismissed with costs. L P Thean J held that although the words spoken were defamatory of the plaintiff the slander was not actionable because the defamatory words were not calculated to disparage the plaintiff in the discharge of his office as secretary-general of the Workers' Party (“WP”). That finding was sufficient to dispose of the plaintiff's claims. The learned trial judge, however, went on to hold that at any rate the defendant had successfully established the defence of fair comment and further that the plaintiff had failed to prove that the defendant in uttering the slander was actuated by express malice, which, if established, would have disentitled the defendant the defence of fair comment. The learned trial judge, however, rejected the defendant's plea that the slander was uttered on an occasion of qualified privilege.

3 Being dissatisfied with the decisions of the learned trial judge, the plaintiff brought this appeal challenging the validity of all three conclusions as recited earlier of the learned trial judge. No cross-appeal was filed by the defendant. Accordingly, the issues whether the words spoken were defamatory and whether they were spoken on an occasion of qualified privilege are no longer in contention. However, the defendant has filed a respondent's notice in which it is stated that if, as contended by the plaintiff, the learned trial judge had erred in holding that the words complained of were not calculated to disparage the plaintiff in his office as secretary-general of the WP the defendant will contend in any case that the learned trial judge had correctly dismissed the plaintiff's claim for damages for slander because the plaintiff's said office was an office of honour or credit and not an office of profit and the particular words complained of by the plaintiff were not actionable without proof of special damage, and there...

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