Lee Kuan Yew v Jeyaretnam JB (No 1)

CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
JudgeLai Kew Chai J
Judgment Date03 August 1990
Neutral Citation[1990] SGHC 51
Citation[1990] SGHC 51
Subject MatterFair comment,Factors in assessing damages,Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, art 14,Constitutional Law,Tort,Defamatory statement made of politician in the course of election campaign,Whether public character exception available in Singapore,Defamation,Fundamental liberties,Freedom of speech,Whether speech capable of lesser defamatory meaning,Whether allegations factual in nature
Date03 August 1990
Plaintiff CounselDavid Eady QC and Tan Kok Quan (Lee & Lee)
Docket NumberSuit No 1754 of 1988
Published date19 September 2003
Defendant CounselDonald Martin Thomas QC and JB Jeyaretnam (JB Jeyaratnam & Co)

Cur Adv Vult

This action for slander arose out of what the defendant had uttered in the course of an electioneering speech made on 26 August 1988 in the Parliamentary general elections of 1988 before a crowd of about 7,000 people at Bedok Town Centre, car park no 6. The trial of this action, which lasted four days, is concerned with the usual, and in this case the most important, issue as to the ordinary and natural meaning of the speech complained of. The second issue is whether the defence of fair comment avails the defendant. The third issue is whether, as the defendant asserted, there is a novel defence of privilege based on art 14(1) of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore. Fourthly, where the answer of this court to the second issue and/or third issue is in the affirmative, only then will the question arise as to whether the defendant was actuated by malice which would be fatal to the defences of fair comment and privilege. The fifth matter for consideration in this trial is the quantum of damages if the defendant is liable for the slander and, finally, this court has to decide whether in its discretion it will grant the injunction sought.

At the commencement of the trial there was some doubt, having regard to the averments of para 5 of the defence which was later renumbered as para 7 of the amended defence, whether the defendant was relying on the defence of justification. Those averments, followed by certain particulars of facts, are in these terms:

Further or in the further alternative, in so far as the words used by the defendant consist of allegations of fact, they are true in substance and in fact.

Those averments do not allege that the particulars of facts pleaded apparently by way of justification go to prove the truth of the defamatory meaning of the words as contended by the plaintiff. Nor do they seek to justify any lesser defamatory meaning or meanings which have to be spelt out in accordance with the decision of Lucas-Box v News Group Newspapers Ltd [1986] 1 WLR 147. If Lucas-Box has been followed, the issue or issues would have been defined between the parties and they and this court would have been assisted when it came to deal with this aspect of the case. Inevitably, Mr Eady, learned counsel for the plaintiff, submitted that unless the particulars justify the published words in some defamatory meaning, they were irrelevant and should be struck out. However, Mr Thomas, learned counsel for the defendant, made it clear to this court that the defendant was not pleading justification as a defence and that the particulars listed will be relied upon only in support of the plea of fair comment. In those circumstances, para 7 of the amended defence was allowed to stand so far as they may be relevant to the issue of fair comment.

The parties

The plaintiff was admitted to practise as an advocate and solicitor in August 1951. He has been very active in politics. In November 1954, he became the secretary-general of the Peoples` Action Party (PAP) on its foundation and, save for a brief interlude of a month in 1957, has held that office ever since. In March 1955, he became a member of the Legislative Assembly. In the May 1959 general elections, the PAP won a majority and the plaintiff formed the government and became the Prime Minister of Singapore. Since then there has been eight general elections which the PAP won. Throughout this period the plaintiff has remained the Prime Minister.

The defendant is also an advocate and solicitor. He was for a time in the Singapore Legal Service where he rose to become the Registrar of the Supreme Court and the equivalent of the senior district judge in 1963. He went into private practice in 1964. On 27 June 1971 he joined the Workers` Party and on the same day became its secretary-general. He has held that office ever since. He unsuccessfully contested a number of elections between 1972 and 1980. In October 1981 he won the by-election for the Anson seat. In the 1984 general elections he retained the Anson seat with an increased majority. However, he was declared by the Speaker of Parliament to be disqualified from Parliament following a conviction for an offence under the Penal Code.

The factual background

In August 1988, general elections were called. Polling day was scheduled for 3 September 1988. The PAP contested all 81 parliamentary seats in 55 electoral divisions and won all of them save one seat. Two defeated Workers` Party candidates were declared as non- constituency members but one of them, Mr Francis Seow Tiang Slew, was disqualified with effect from 17 December 1988 under art 45(i)(c) of the Constitution of Singapore because he was convicted of five offences and fined $3,000 each for three offences and $5,000 each for two offences. The Workers` Party contested in 20 electoral divisions having a total of 32 seats. The defendant was not himself a candidate because of his disqualification from Parliament. However, he ran the election campaign for the Workers` Party as secretary-general and spoke in about 24 election rallies in support of his party`s parliamentary candidates. In response to the plaintiff`s emphatic and oft-repeated call for `high moral and intellectual ground`, the defendant in the election hustings questioned the honesty of the PAP government. In the course of his attack against the claim of the PAP government that it was an honest government, the defendant referred to the suicide of Mr Teh Cheang Wan, the former Minister for National Development. It was submitted on behalf of the plaintiff that in the course of such an attack at the Workers` Party rally on 26 August 1988 at the Bedok Town Centre, car park no 6, the defendant had slandered him. Before I turn to the speech of the defendant in question, I need to set out the context relevant for the purposes of this action.

On 20 November 1986 the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), which was answerable to the plaintiff as the Prime Minister, learnt for the first time of an allegation that $500,000 had been paid some years earlier to Mr Teh Cheang Wan as bribes. One Liaw Teck Kee was alleged to be the intermediary and he was asked by the CPIB for an interview. Liaw Teck Kee immediately visited Mr Teh Cheang Wan to warn him. On the following day the plaintiff was informed by the CPIB of the allegation of corruption against Mr Teh Cheang Wan. The plaintiff authorized discreet investigations to continue. On 25 November 1986 one Liu Cho Chit on behalf of Mr Teh Cheang Wan offered a bribe to Liaw Teck Kee to induce Liaw Teck Kee not to implicate Mr Teh Cheang Wan. Liu Cho Chit later pleaded guilty to this offence in the district court. Towards the end of November 1986, Mr Teh Cheang Wan was in Jakarta, Indonesia where he attended the eighth meeting of ASEAN Ministers on Agriculture and Forestry. At this time, the plaintiff was asked by the CPIB to authorize open investigations which meant that Mr Teh Cheang Wan and other witnesses would be interrupted by officers of the CPIB. The plaintiff gave the authority. Following the interrogation of Mr Teh Cheang Wan he was instructed on 2 December 1986 by the plaintiff to take leave of absence until 31 December 1986. On 11 December 1986 the investigation papers were referred to the Attorney General as public prosecutor to consider prosecution.

On 13 December 1986 Mr Teh Cheang Wan wrote a letter to the plaintiff to `bring some relevant points of the investigations` to his attention. In the letter he referred to two allegations put to him by CPIB. The first allegation was that he had assisted a private developer so that two- thirds and not the entire piece of land were acquired by the Ministry of Defence and that he further assisted in facilitating the development of the remaining one-third of the land. The second allegation was that he had assisted in the sale of a piece of state land to another private developer who could after amalgamation with his own land put up a bigger hotel. It was alleged that he had received $800,000 as gratification for being in the two cases. Mr Teh Cheang Wan went on in his letter to explain that he had assisted in the first case because it was morally right to intervene and that the second case was not an uncommon occurrence where the proposed development merited amalgamation. He thought the truth of the matters was that Liaw Teck Kee had taken advantage of his personal relationship with him and that Liaw Teck Kee had pocketed the money paid by the two private developers. He ended the letter in these terms:

11 I am completely innocent of any gratification. If I am brought to trial, the very process of it (sic) which will be painful and long, will certainly be the end of me even if I am found innocent. I strongly believe that innocence deserves to be protected.

(12) I am extremely sorry that matters have come where the reputation of the PAP government might be adversely affected. My error has been in wrongly trusting a friend who has made use of me for his own profit. I am willing to accept full responsibility for this. I would accept any decision which you may want to make . (The emphasis is added as references to this sentence have to be made later.)

At about 8am on 14 December 1986 Mr Teh Cheang Wan was found dead in his home at 12 Bukit Tunggal Road, Singapore. The autopsy carried out later that day established that death was due to an overdose of Amytal barbiturate.

At 9.15am on 14 December 1986 the security officer of Mr Teh Cheang Wan delivered to the plaintiff a letter which Mr Teh Cheang Wan had addressed to him shortly before his death. The plaintiff knew that this letter had to be turned over to the State Coroner and had duly noted on the envelope `opened and read 9.15am 14 December 1986, LKY`. In the undated handwritten letter to the plaintiff Mr Teh Cheang Wan stated that he had been feeling very sad and depressed for the two weeks preceding, that he felt...

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