Lee Kuan Yew v Chee Soon Juan

JurisdictionSingapore
CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
Judgment Date04 April 2003
Date04 April 2003
Docket NumberSuit No 1459 of 2001

[2003] SGHC 78

High Court

MPH Rubin J

Suit No 1459 of 2001

Lee Kuan Yew
Plaintiff
and
Chee Soon Juan
Defendant

Davinder Singh SC, Hri Kumar and Nicholas Tang (Drew & Napier LLC) for the plaintiff/respondent

Defendant/appellant in person.

Bank of China v Asiaweek Ltd [1991] 1 SLR (R) 230; [1991] SLR 486 (folld)

Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas (Suisse) SA v Costa de Naray and Christopher John Walters [1984] 1 Lloyd's Rep 21 (folld)

CTN Cash and Carry Ltd v Gallaher Ltd [1994] 4 All ER 714 (refd)

DSND Subsea Limited v Petroleum Geo-Services ASA [2000] BLR 530 (refd)

Huyton SA v Peter Cremer GmbH & Co [1999] 1 Lloyd's Rep 620 (refd)

Microsoft Corporation v Electro-Wide Limited [1997] FSR 580 (folld)

Morgan v Fry [1968] 2 QB 710 (folld)

Rookes v Barnard [1964] AC 1129 (folld)

Sharon Global Solutions Pte Ltd v LG International (Singapore) Pte Ltd [2001] 2 SLR (R) 233; [2001] 3 SLR 368 (refd)

Shunmugam Jayakumar v Jeyaretnam Joshua Benjamin [1996] 2 SLR (R) 658; [1997] 2 SLR 172 (refd)

Third World Development Ltd v Atang Latief [1990] 1 SLR (R) 96; [1990] SLR 20 (folld)

Wellcherry Limited v Gentleteem Limited 1999 HKCU Lexis 1302; [1999] 1529 HKCU 1 (folld)

Rules of Court (Cap 322, R 5, 1997 Rev Ed) O 18 r 8

Civil Procedure–Pleadings–Defence–Particulars of defence of duress not pleaded–Effect on defendant's case–Civil Procedure–Summary judgment–Whether to set aside summary judgment and grant defendant leave to defend claim–Whether defendant had real or bona fide defence–Contract–Discharge–Breach–Whether intimidation a defence to breach of contract of compromise–Contract–Duress–Illegitimate pressure–Whether threat to enforce one's legal rights could amount to duress–Tort–Defamation–Defamatory statements–Republication–Words republished by mass media–Whether defendant liable for republication–Tort–Defamation–Defamatory statements–Whether defamatory in natural and ordinary meaning or by way of innuendo

In the course of campaigning for the 2001 General Elections, Dr Chee Soon Juan reportedly spoke and published certain words which Mr Lee Kuan Yew alleged to be defamatory of him. Pursuant to a letter of demand by Mr Lee's solicitors, Dr Chee apologised and agreed to compensate Mr Lee with damages and indemnify him for all the costs and expenses incurred.

Mr Lee's position was that Dr Chee's agreement to apologise gave rise to a valid contract of compromise which he was entitled to enforce by way of interlocutory judgment. In the alternative, it was argued that Dr Chee had no real or bona fide defence to a claim in defamation.

In resisting the application for interlocutory judgment, Dr Chee denied that he had uttered the impugned words, denied that they referred to Mr Lee, denied that the words even if spoken were defamatory, denied that he was liable for the republication of the words and pleaded the defences of justification, qualified privilege and fair comment. Dr Chee also argued that in any event, any apology or compromise achieved by Mr Lee was null and void, as it was the product of duress and intimidation exerted by Mr Lee and/or Prime Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong.

The senior assistant registrar granted interlocutory judgment with damages (including aggravated damages) to be assessed. Dr Chee appealed. More than two weeks after the conclusion of the appeal hearing, Dr Chee admitted to speaking the impugned words.

Held, dismissing the appeal:

(1) The courts would scrutinise with care any attempt by a disputant to renege on a contract of compromise. In an application for summary judgment, the defendant would not be given leave to defend based on mere assertions alone. The court had to be convinced that there was a reasonable probability that the defendant had a real or bona fide defence in relation to the issues: at [24] to [25].

(2) The defence of duress had to be particularised, regardless of whether counsel for Mr Lee made a demand for further particulars. Dr Chee had failed to do so: at [28].

(3) The manner in which Dr Chee conducted his case revealed that his story of duress was contrived for the sake of creating some sort of a triable issue. The apology was issued by Dr Chee upon the request and persuasion of his party colleagues and not by any improper pressure brought to bear upon him by Mr Lee and/or Mr Goh: at [32] to [36], [37] to [39] and [40].

(4) Even if it were true that Mr Lee and/or Mr Goh had “threatened” to initiate legal proceedings against Dr Chee's party colleagues if Dr Chee did not apologise, a threat to enforce one's legal rights did not amount to duress, where the threat was made bona fide,and was not manifestly frivolous or vexatious. Dr Chee raised the allegation that Mr Lee and/or Mr Goh had acted in bad faith more than a year after Mr Lee had initiated the action and only after the conclusion of the appeal hearing, and with the allegation lacking in particulars. Such belated allegation was not worthy of serious consideration: at [42] to [44].

(5) Dr Chee's allegation of intimidation was not a valid defence because it was not a vitiating factor but a tort in its own right. A “threat” to do what one had a legal right to do could not amount to intimidation: at [48] to [49].

(6) On Mr Lee's alternative claim in defamation, the court could enter summary judgment if it was convinced that Dr Chee had no real or bona fide defence: at [51].

(7) The impugned words were defamatory of Mr Lee either in their natural and ordinary meaning or by way of innuendo. Dr Chee was liable for the republication of the words because he intended and in fact demanded that the journalists republish the words. The three defences of justification, qualified privilege and fair comment were bare allegations. The court would not grant leave to defend based on mere assertions alone: at [55] to [56].

Judgment reserved.

MPH Rubin J

Introduction

The application

1 This was an appeal by Dr Chee Soon Juan to judge in chambers from the decision of Senior Assistant Registrar Mr Toh Han Li (“the SAR”) granting interlocutory judgment with damages (including aggravated damages) to be assessed in a defamation action brought by the respondent, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee is, and was at all material times, the Senior Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, a Cabinet Minister of the Government of Singapore, and the former Prime Minister of Singapore. On 25 October 2001, Mr Lee, as a candidate of the People's Action Party (“PAP”), was returned unopposed as a Member of Parliament for Tanjong Pagar Group Representation Constituency (“GRC”) in the 2001 General Elections. Dr Chee is, and was at all material times, the Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party (“SDP”). Dr Chee was a candidate, along with four others, for Jurong GRC in the 2001 General Elections.

2 On 28 October 2001, in the course of campaigning for the 2001 General Elections, Dr Chee reportedly spoke and published certain words in public and in the presence of, inter alia,various members of the print and broadcast media at an election rally at Nee Soon Central (“the Words”), which Mr Lee alleged to be defamatory of him.

3 On 19 November 2001, the present suit was commenced by Mr Lee against Dr Chee. On 8 December 2001, Mr Lee filed an amended Statement of Claim seeking to enforce a contract of compromise arising from the publication of an apology by Dr Chee or alternatively, claiming against him for defamation. In Suit 1460/2001, Mr Goh Chok Tong, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore, commenced a similar suit against Dr Chee for allegedly defamatory words spoken by him at Hong Kah West hawker centre and at the election rally at Nee Soon on 28 October 2001.

4 In both cases, Mr Lee and Mr Goh took out a summons-in-chambers application praying for interlocutory judgment with damages (including aggravated damages) to be assessed; and costs of the action, including the assessment of damages, to be taxed on an indemnity basis. Both applications were heard at the same time by the SAR, who granted the applications for interlocutory judgment.

The facts

The Words

5 On 28 October 2001, at an election rally held at Nee Soon Central, Dr Chee spoke the following words in the presence of members of the public and the print and broadcast media:

Yesterday, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was at his best. When he's at his best, names, bad names have no problem rolling out of his tongue. He called me all sorts of names. How do I react? I say no problem. No problem. Because the more names you call me, I know the more it is that the PAP has to worry. I challenge the PAP to stop calling me names and talk about the issues …

And so I challenged Mr Lee Kuan Yew yesterday to answer this one question, why is he not addressing this very important issue that the SDP is campaigning on this election … .

… So when we met … when we met Goh Chok Tong this morning during our walkabout, he was there just about 3 or 4 feet away, I asked him, “Mr Goh, what happened to our money? What happened to this $17 billion?” He wouldn't answer. He just waved us on. I am very serious about this. My friends, it is your money, this is your money, no, not the Government's money, not Goh Chok Tong's money. It is your money. And when I asked him and he waved us on, it hit me, it hit me very clearly, that the Government will not answer you. The Government can say, “No, I am not interested in answering you, because you are not in Parliament”… But if you get Mr Ling How Doong from the SDP into Parliament, this guarantee I give you, the first question that he will ask is what has happened to our $17 billion?

You must be very careful that you don't give the entire government this free rein and take the money and use it without any opposition keeping it in check. And this is that same question that I want to ask Mr Lee Kuan Yew today. Address this point. I want to ask the media to publish this point. And see for...

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