Lee Kuan Yew v Vinocur and Others

Judgment Date11 April 1996
Date11 April 1996
Docket NumberSuit No 1974 of 1994 (Notice of Motion No 19 of 1996)
CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
Lee Kuan Yew
Vinocur John and others

[1996] SGHC 73

S Rajendran J

Suit No 1974 of 1994 (Notice of Motion No 19 of 1996)

High Court

Civil Procedure–Costs–Principles–Standard or indemnity–Maker of libel repeating libel against injured party–Conduct held to be reprehensible and further damages awarded–Whether reprehensible conduct sufficient as exceptional circumstance justifying award of costs on indemnity rather than standard basis–Damages–Assessment–Defamation–Multiple defendants–Consent judgment entered against some defendants and express reservation of right to sue another–Defendant against whom reservation made repeated libel–Principles to be applied in assessing further damages–Extent of damages recoverable against defendant against whom reservation made–Statutory derogation from common law principle that plaintiff entitled only to single award in respect of single publication of libel–Section 19 Defamation Act (Cap 75, 1985 Rev Ed)

In this libel action, the second defendant, the writer of an article defamatory of the plaintiff, returned to his home country and did not enter appearance. The first, third and fourth defendants were the executive editor, the editor and the publisher of the newspaper in which the article appeared. They published an apology and filed a defence consistent with the apology. A consent order that they pay the plaintiff damages of $300,000 plus costs was entered. The consent order stated that it was not to operate as a bar to the plaintiff's claim against the second defendant. Meanwhile, the second defendant had gone to yet another country and launched a book in which he repeated his libel. The plaintiff sought and obtained judgment in default of appearance against the second defendant but judgment was reserved pending consideration of the effect of the earlier consent judgment on any award to be made in respect of the default judgment. The plaintiff also applied to be awarded costs on an indemnity, rather than standard, basis, as the conduct of the second defendant towards the plaintiff was reprehensible.


(1) At common law a plaintiff was entitled only to a single award in respect of any single publication of a libel or slander even though the publication was made by a number of persons. However, by reason of s 19 of the Defamation Act (Cap 75, 1985 Rev Ed), the plaintiff was, despite the settlement with the other defendants, entitled to continue the action against the defendant against whom the plaintiff had reserved his right to sue, and entitled to recover damages from such defendant. Such damages could take into account further injury to the plaintiff caused by the conduct of this defendant, but should not overlap with the damages already ordered with the co-defendants, such that this defendant was solely liable for the damages arising from the further injury and jointly liable for the damages awarded against the co-defendants: at [18], [24], [25] and [27].

(2) The amendments to the Rules of the Supreme Court which introduced the standard and indemnity basis of awarding costs left the question as to when costs on the indemnity basis would be appropriate entirely open to the court. But from the wording of that rule, it was clear that the standard basis was to be the norm and that the indemnity basis was to be the exception. Exceptional circumstances or a special case must be shown for the court to order costs on the indemnity, rather than standard, basis. While the conduct of the second defendant towards the plaintiff was reprehensible, no other grounds for departing from the normal rule was canvassed before the court so as to justify an order of costs against the defendant on an indemnity basis: at [30]and [31].

Bartlett v Barclays Bank Trust Co Ltd (No 2) [1980] Ch 515 (refd)

Cassell & Co Ltd v Broome [1972] AC 1027 (distd)

Lee Hiok Ping v Lee Hiok WoonSuits Nos 1401 of 1973 and 2457 of 1981 (folld)

Raja Shariman v CA Ribeiro & Co Ltd (1921) 1 MC 57 (folld)

Defamation Act (Cap 75,1985Rev Ed)s 19 (consd)

Ordinance No 149 (Libel) (SS Ord No VII of 1915)s 12

Tan Kok Quan and Angali Mohan Ramchand (Lee & Lee) for the plaintiff

Second defendant absent.

Judgment reserved.

S Rajendran J

1 On 8 December 1994, the plaintiff, who is currently the Senior Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, commenced proceedings against the four defendants claiming damages for alleged libel contained in an article entitled “The smoke over parts of Asia obscures some profound concerns” published in the International Herald Tribune (“IHT”) on 7 October 1994. The first defendant was the executive editor, the third defendant was the editor for Asia and the fourth defendant was the publisher of the IHT. The second defendant was the author of the article containing the alleged defamation. The first, third and fourth defendants entered appearance on 12 December 1994 and filed their defence on 23 January 1995.

2 The relevant part in the article published in the IHT that caused offence was as follows:

Intolerant regimes in the region reveal considerable ingenuity in their methods of suppressing dissent … Others are more subtle: relying upon a compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians, or …

3 In the statement of claim filed on 9 January 1995 the plaintiff claimed that these words in the context of the said article were widely understood to refer to the plaintiff and that these words meant and were understood to mean, in their natural and ordinary meaning and/or by way of innuendo, that the plaintiff had cynically sought to suppress legitimate and democratic political activity in Singapore by the subtle means of:

  1. (a) suing political opponents for defamation knowing that he did not have a meritorious claim or claims; and/or

  2. (b) relying on a 'compliant judiciary' to grant judgment in his favour irrespective of the merits;

for the purpose of using any judgment thus obtained to bankrupt the relevant political opponents and/or for the specific purpose of thereby prohibiting them from taking part in any election activity. The statement of claim gave particulars of various court actions for defamation instituted by the plaintiff in some of which bankruptcy petitions had been filed by the plaintiff upon default by the judgment debtor concerned to pay the damages awarded.

4 The first, third and fourth defendants had, in the 10-11 December 1994 issue of the IHT, apologised unreservedly to the plaintiff and to the Singapore judiciary for having published the impugned passage in the said article. In their apology they acknowledged that the passage could be understood as suggesting that the plaintiff had sought to suppress political activity in Singapore by bankrupting opposition politicians through court action in which the plaintiff relied on a compliant judiciary to find in his favour without regard to the merits of his case. The first, third and fourth defendants stated in the apology that it was not their intention to make such a suggestion and went on to say that such a suggestion would be unfounded and that they did not associate themselves with it.

5 The defence filed by the first, third and fourth defendants was consistent with this apology. In the defence, the first, third and fourth defendants acknowledged that the said words were capable of being construed as having reference to the plaintiff, admitted that the words were defamatory and undertook not to further publish the said words or similar defamatory words.

6 On 19 April 1995 the first, third and fourth defendants consented to judgment being entered against them for damages to be assessed and an order to that effect was recorded by Lai Siu Chiu J. On 27 November 1995 at the assessment hearing, Goh Joon Seng J recorded a consent order that the first, third and fourth defendants pay the plaintiff damages of $300,000 plus costs. It was recorded in the consent judgment that the plaintiff's claim against the second defendant was...

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20 cases
  • Lee Kuan Yew v Tang Liang Hong and Another
    • Singapore
    • Court of Appeal (Singapore)
    • 12 November 1997
    ...(R) 248; [1997] 2 SLR 819 (refd) Lee Kuan Yew v Vinocur John [1995] 3 SLR (R) 38; [1995] 3 SLR 477 (refd) Lee Kuan Yew v Vinocur John [1996] 1 SLR (R) 840; [1996] 2 SLR 542 (not folld) Lewis v Daily Telegraph Ltd [1964] AC 234; [1963] 2 All ER 151 (folld) McCarey v Associated Newspapers Ltd......
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    ...imputation has not been proved.Now, on the authorities for damages cited to me, this case is unlike that in Lee Kuan Yew v Vinocur & Ors [1996] 2 SLR 542, where the libel on the Senior Minister was published by a reputable publication and had appeared to have been written by an unbiased obs......
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    • High Court (Singapore)
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    ...in situations where there has been a settlement between the plaintiff and one of several defendants: see Lee Kuan Yew v Vinocur & Ors [1996] 2 SLR 542 . 150.I therefore propose to assess the damages payable by the defendant in accordance with established convention. Mr Shields thoughtfully ......
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