Lee Kuan Yew v Seow Khee Leng

Judgment Date30 September 1988
Date30 September 1988
Docket NumberSuit No 9332 of 1984
CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
Lee Kuan Yew
Seow Khee Leng

[1988] SGHC 78

F A Chua J

Suit No 9332 of 1984

High Court

Tort–Defamation–Defamatory statements–Slander in course of election rally–Assessment of damages–Aggravated damages–Relevant factors to be considered when assessing award

The defendant was the Secretary-General of the Singapore United Front. During an election rally, the defendant made certain allegations against the plaintiff, the Prime Minister of Singapore. The plaintiff's solicitors wrote to the defendant asking for an apology. The defendant read out the plaintiff's solicitor's letter at his party's rally thereby repeating the slanderous statements and offered a qualified apology. At the start of trial, the defendant withdrew his defence of accord and satisfaction and admitted to liability. The only issue was as to the quantum of damages with the plaintiff seeking aggravated damages and the defendant arguing for nominal damages.

Held, allowing the claim:

(1) The general rule is that damages are to be assessed on a compensatory basis. Specifically, in an action on libel, the assessment of damages does not depend on any legal rule and is a question of fact. This would depend on all the circumstances of the case including the conduct of the plaintiff, his position and standing, the nature of the libel, the mode and extent of publication, the absence or refusal of any retraction or apology, the whole conduct of the defendant from the time the libel was published until judgment, the fact that no apology or retraction can ever be guaranteed completely to undo the harm it has done and the evidence led in aggravation or mitigation of the damages: at [11].

(2) In assessing aggravated damages, the motive and conduct of the defendant, his conduct of the case and his state of mind are all matters which the plaintiff may rely upon as aggravating the damages. On the facts of the instant case, the slander were of a particularly vicious nature as they were totally baseless and were directed at disparaging the plaintiff in his office as Prime Minister of Singapore. Further, the defendant had no belief in the truth of his slanders when he published them and was actuated by malice. Lastly, the purported apologies in fact aggravated damages. As such, a sum of $250,000 would be appropriate as damages: at [12], [23], [28], [37] and [41].

Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin v Lee Kuan Yew [1979-1980] SLR (R) 255; [1978-1979] SLR 197 (refd)

Lee Kuan Yew v Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin [1979-1980] SLR (R) 24; [1978-1979] SLR 429 (refd)

Civil Law Act (Cap 30,1970Rev Ed)s 9

Tan Kok Quan (Lee & Lee) for the plaintiff

Subhas Anandan (M P D Nair & Co) for the defendant.

F A Chua J

1 The plaintiff is, and was at all material times, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore, an office he has held since 1959.

2 The defendant is, and was at the material time, a businessman and the Secretary-General of the Singapore United Front (“SUF”), a registered political party, and at the 1984 general elections was a candidate of his party for the election to Parliament for the constituency of Kampong Chai Chee. Polling day was 22 December 1984.

3 The plaintiff alleged that on 15 December 1984, at car park 13, near Apartment Blk 425, Bedok North Road, Singapore, the defendant, while addressing an election rally of the SUF, falsely and maliciously spoke and published of and concerning the plaintiff in the way of his said office and in relation to his conduct therein defamatory words in Fujian. The following is the literal translation of the said words:

Is Phey Yew Kok a talented and qualified person? He had embezzled more than $6,000,000 of the union funds but the newspapers reported that he embezzled only over $100,000. He is now a rich man doing business in Taiwan. Do you know that nowadays, most of the PAP MPs and ministers are millionaires or at least half-millionaires. To avoid misunderstanding from the public, all the new MPs should declare their wealth for us to know. Let us know how much assets they have before they are elected. Declare it! How much can a MP earn each month? How do they become millionaires in ten years? Impossible! There must be other reasons. There are many opportunities. Just flatter Lee Kuan Yew, you will become wealthy in a short time. So, in this society, the Special Branch, this Corrupt Practice Investigation Bureau is under the Prime Minister's control. You will not succeed if you want to complain against his MPs and ministers. He would simply brush it aside. Eat the 'Angoli', but catch the ikan bilis outside. To prove that to you: 'I will arrest whoever is corrupt. Those committing serious corruption, let them escape.'

4 The plaintiff's solicitors wrote to the defendant on 19 December 1984, asking the defendant whether he was prepared to publish, at his expense, an apology in the terms of the draft enclosed. The terms of the plaintiff were:

… the apology (i) to be published immediately and with appropriate prominence in national Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil newspapers, and (ii) to be read by you at the next SUF rally following delivery of this letter. Mr Lee further requires you to give us your assurance and undertaking in writing that you will not repeat the same or similar statements concerning him.

We require to know if you are prepared to indemnify our client in respect of the costs to which he has been put in the matter, which we now estimate at $500.

Finally, we are further instructed to inform you that our client claims damages. If you proceed in accordance with the preceding two paragraphs, our client will accept nominal damages of $1,000.

In the meantime, it must be clearly understood that our client reserves all his rights in the matter.

5 The letter was delivered to the defendant on the same day.

6 The plaintiff issued a writ against the defendant on 21 December 1984, claiming damages for slander, an injunction to restrain the defendant, his agents...

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