Lee Hsien Loong v Singapore Democratic Party

JurisdictionSingapore
CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
JudgeBelinda Ang Saw Ean J
Judgment Date13 October 2008
Neutral Citation[2008] SGHC 173
Citation[2008] SGHC 173
SubjectWhether imprisonment appropriate,Principles governing exercise of summary process for committal,Court’s powers,Damages,Assessment of damages,Court citing defendants for contempt after close of assessment hearing,Principles of quantification,Assessment,Striking out,Whether procedural requirements under O 78 r 7 Rules of Court (Cap 322, R 5, 2006 Rev Ed) satisfied,Whether court should refer contempt proceedings to another judge,Quantification of damages,Principles of assessment,Contempt in face of court,Defendants conducting rancorous cross-examination and persistently asking questions of political nature,Relevant factors for consideration,Civil Procedure,Defamation,Whether court entitled to defer summary process for contempt,Affidavits of evidence in chief,Whether pleadings defective,Whether affidavits contained admissible evidence,Aggravation,Defendants persistently disobeying court orders during assessment of damages hearing and accusing judge of bias,Amount of aggravation,Contempt of Court,Defendants publishing article alleging plaintiffs dishonest and unfit for office,Quantum,Tort,Whether defendants guilty of contempt of court
Publication Date16 October 2008
Defendant CounselSecond and third defendants in person,M Ravi (M Ravi & Co)
Docket NumberSuits Nos 261 and 262 of 2006 (Summonses Nos 1574 and 1575 of 2008; Notices of Appointment
Date13 October 2008
Plaintiff CounselDavinder Singh SC, Adrian Tan, Tan Siu-Lin and Tan IJin (Drew & Napier LLC)

13 October 2008

Judgment reserved.

Belinda Ang Saw Ean J:

Introduction

1 These libel proceedings arose from the publication of two articles, one in English and one in Chinese (collectively, “the Articles”), and a photograph (“the Photograph”) in an issue of the newspaper of the Singapore Democratic Party (“SDP”), The New Democrat, in or around February 2006 (“The New Democrat Issue 1”). Two separate defamation actions were commenced on 26 April 2006 in respect of the publication of the Articles and the Photograph (collectively referred to as “the Libel”), namely, Suit No 261 of 2006 (“Suit 261”) and Suit No 262 of 2006 (“Suit 262”). The plaintiff in Suit 261 is Mr Lee Hsien Loong (“LHL”), the Prime Minister of Singapore. The plaintiff in Suit 262 is Mr Lee Kuan Yew (“LKY”), the Minister Mentor of Singapore. For convenience, LHL and LKY are hereinafter collectively referred to as “the Plaintiffs”, and Suit 261 and Suit 262 are collectively referred to as “the Present Actions”.

2 There are, for practical purposes, three defendants before me in the Present Actions. The first defendant, the SDP, is a political party. The second defendant, Ms Chee Siok Chin (“CSC”), is a member of the Central Executive Committee of the SDP. The third defendant, Dr Chee Soon Juan (“CSJ”), is the secretary-general of the SDP as well as a member of its Central Executive Committee. I shall refer to these three defendants collectively as “the Defendants”. (The Plaintiffs did not eventually pursue their claims against the fourth to the ninth defendants named in the Present Actions as the latter apologised for the Libel and agreed to pay damages and costs.)

3 On 12 September 2006, I allowed the Plaintiffs’ applications for summary judgment against CSC and CSJ (“the Summary Judgment Applications”), with damages to be assessed (see Lee Hsien Loong v Singapore Democratic Party [2007] 1 SLR 675 (“Lee Hsien Loong (HC)”)). As for the SDP, on 7 June 2006, interlocutory judgment in default of defence was entered against it, with damages to be assessed. The present judgment concerns the assessment of the amount of damages to be awarded to the Plaintiffs for the Libel. The hearing of the assessment of damages (“the Assessment Hearing”) commenced on 26 May 2008 and continued over three days. At the conclusion of the Assessment Hearing on 28 May 2008, I reserved judgment on the quantum of damages to be awarded.

4 Initially, the Assessment Hearing was listed for hearing on 12 May 2008 for three days. Also listed for hearing on the morning of 12 May 2008 were two other applications, one for each of the Present Actions, to strike out the affidavits of evidence-in-chief filed by and on behalf of the Defendants (collectively referred to as “the Striking-Out Applications”).[note: 1] The hearing of the Striking-Out Applications was adjourned to 22 May 2008 following the Defendants’ successful oral application for an adjournment. On 26 May 2008, I granted an order in terms of the Striking-Out Applications.

5 Several other oral applications were made on 12, 22–23 and 26–28 May 2008 (referred to collectively as “the May 2008 hearings”) by the Defendants. As will become apparent later on, save for the adjournment application made on 12 May 2008 and the application on 22 May 2008 for the hearing of the Striking-Out Applications to be audio-recorded (“the audio-recording application”), the rest of the Defendants’ oral applications were dismissed as they were patently ill-founded, and readily showed up the many things which a litigant could do to hinder, delay or prolong court proceedings. (The adjournment application and the audio-recording application were allowed for the reasons explained at [234] and [241] below.) Instead of three days, the hearing for the Striking-Out Applications and the Assessment Hearing eventually took six days. For ease of reading, I will discuss all the oral applications made at the May 2008 hearings in the final section of this judgment (see [224]–[249] below).

6 There are four parts to this judgment. They deal with, respectively:

(a) the Striking-Out Applications (“Part A”);

(b) the assessment of the damages to be awarded to the Plaintiffs (“Part B”);

(c) the proceedings against CSC and CSJ for contempt of court (“the Committal Proceedings”) arising from their conduct in court from 26 to 28 May 2008 (“Part C”); and

(d) the oral applications made at the May 2008 hearings (“Part D”).

They are prefaced with a brief summary of the Libel (see [8]–[9] below).

7 Mr M Ravi (“Mr Ravi”) represented the SDP in respect of the Striking-Out Applications and the Assessment Hearing, while CSJ and CSC acted in person. As for the Committal Proceedings, Mr Ravi represented CSC, and Mr J B Jeyaretnam (“Mr Jeyaretnam”) represented CSJ until he ceased to act as counsel for the latter, who then acted in person. Mr Davinder Singh SC (“Mr Singh”) represented the Plaintiffs throughout.

The Libel

8 Briefly, the Libel made numerous comparisons between the National Kidney Foundation (“NKF”) and the People’s Action Party (“PAP”). The Libel was published in The New Democrat Issue 1 against the backdrop of what the Plaintiffs termed “the NKF Saga”.[note: 2] Particulars of the NKF Saga were set out in the pleadings as follows:[note: 3]

PARTICULARS OF [THE] NKF SAGA

(a) On 11 July, 2005, trial of a libel action (“NKF Suit”) brought by the National Kidney Foundation (“NKF”) and its ... Chief Executive Officer T. T. Durai (“Durai”) against Singapore Press Holdings commenced. The proceedings of the NKF Suit were extensively reported in the local press. In the course of and after the trial, issues arose in relation to [the] NKF’s funds and their use, the benefits enjoyed by [the NKF’s] former management, the characterisation of Durai’s salary and defamation suits brought by [the] NKF and/or Durai.

(b) Over the next few days, public outrage erupted on an unprecedented scale across Singapore. It culminated on 14 July, 2005 when Durai and his entire 15-member board of the NKF resigned.

(c) In August 2005, the interim board of the NKF invited the police and the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore to investigate into the activities of the former board of the NKF.

(d) On 19 December, 2005, an independent auditor appointed by the interim board of the NKF released a 332-page report criticizing the manner in which the former NKF board and Durai managed the financial affairs of the NKF.

(e) On 17 April, 2006, Durai was arrested by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, released on public bail and ordered to appear in court the following day.

(f) On 18 April, 2006, Durai, three former directors and an employee of the NKF were charged in court for, inter alia, corruption and breach of fiduciary duties.

(g) On 24 April, 2006, it was reported that the NKF had commenced civil proceedings against Durai and some former members of the NKF board of directors for, inter alia, breach of fiduciary duties.

[emphasis in bold in original omitted]

The defamatory passages in the Articles (“the Disputed Words”) and the Photograph are described in Lee Hsien Loong (HC) ([3] supra) at [21]–[26]. The sting in the Disputed Words is explained as follows (id at [61]–[63]):

61 In my view, the sting in the Disputed Words lies in the way they highlight the commonality between the PAP-led Government and the NKF, namely, lack of transparency and lack of accountability. By this, the Disputed Words imply that the PAP and the political elite are not transparent about the finances of the Government and government institutions such as the GIC [Government of Singapore Investment Corporation] because they want to conceal their financial improprieties, just as Durai [the former chief executive officer of the NKF] erected a shroud of secrecy around the NKF in order to hide its management’s pecuniary abuses. This is evidenced by the standfirst on page 5 of the English Article [ie, the English article mentioned at [1] above] that highlighted the impossibility of not noticing “the striking resemblance between how the NKF operated and how the PAP runs Singapore. It would take someone foolishly blind not to be concerned with how our financial reserves and CPF [Central Provident Fund] savings are dealt with. Here are the similarities”. The standfirst as well as the suggestive statement in the text box on the same page of the English Article, “If you think the running of NKF was bad, read this…” ... blatantly invite and encourage the ordinary, reasonable reader to indulge in some degree of conjecture about the financial improprieties practised by and in the PAP-led Government.

62 The English Article goes on to state that this system of non-accountable, non-transparent governance, which has been “engineered over the decades by the PAP”, represents “what a “democratic society, based on justice and equality” should not be”. A similar statement is made in the Chinese Article [ie, the Chinese article mentioned at [1] above], which asserts, inter alia, that “the system that the People’s Action Party has moulded over the decades ... is the extreme opposite of the justice and impartiality advocated by a democratic society”. As explained above at [42], LKY is the only individual to have led the Government for “decades”. As such, the ordinary, reasonable reader would understand the English Words and the Chinese Words as implying that LKY had systemically set up a political system which is inconsistent with the ethos of justice and equality encapsulated in our national pledge – in other words, “a corrupt political system for the benefit of the political elite” as pleaded in the statement of claim. Similarly, since LHL is the leader of the present Government, the ordinary reader would also reasonably infer from the English Words and the Chinese Words that he has “perpetuated” the corrupt political system put in place by LKY. In addition, by drawing parallels between the PAP-led Government and the NKF under...

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