Tan Li-Ching Olivia (Chen Lijing Olivia) v Lek Wee Tong

JudgeTheodore Tan
Judgment Date17 August 2021
Neutral Citation[2021] SGDC 165
CourtDistrict Court (Singapore)
Hearing Date21 July 2021,18 March 2021,30 April 2021
Docket NumberDistrict Court Suit No 79 of 2020, Assessment of Damages No 471 of 2020
Plaintiff CounselLee Chung Yen Steven (Hilborne Law LLC)
Defendant CounselThe defendant in person.
Subject MatterTort,Defamation,Damages
Published date21 August 2021
Deputy Registrar Theodore Tan: Introduction

This is a defamation action concerning a number of posts made on the social media platform Facebook. The matter came before me for an assessment of damages after interlocutory judgment was entered.

Facts The parties

The plaintiff, Ms Tan Li-Ching Olivia (“the Plaintiff”), is an Accounts Manager (Consultant) with the Walton International Group (S) Pte Ltd (“Walton”). Walton is involved in what the Plaintiff calls the “pre-developed land investment business” and markets investment opportunities related to rural land outside fast-growing cities in North America to retail investors. 1

The defendant, Mr Lek Wee Tong (“the Defendant”), presently works as a chauffeur.

Background to the dispute

The parties have a long history with each other, having previously been colleagues. The present dispute has its roots in a 2008 investment made by the Defendant with Walton Texas LP (“Walton Texas”), an affiliate of Walton. The Defendant and Ms Catherine Ng (“Ms Ng”), a mutual acquaintance of the parties, each invested a sum of US$5,000 with Ms Ng as the investor of record. At the same time, the Defendant signed an agreement with Ms Ng whereby they would each have a right of first refusal over the other’s interest in the investment.2

It suffices to note that the Defendant never realised any gains from the investment (or an “exit” in the Defendant’s words) in the ensuing years. It is evident from correspondence between the parties that this was the cause of some unhappiness on the Defendant’s part and increasingly strained the parties’ relationship.

The defamatory posts

On 25 November 2019, the Defendant published a post utilising his Facebook account and “tagged” the Plaintiff’s Facebook account (which I will refer to as “the First Defamatory Post”). The First Defamatory Post included a hyperlink to an article published on Bloomberg titled “Investors Pumped Billions into Suburbs that Never Got Built” (“the Bloomberg Article”) and read as follows:3

The Plaintiff responded by “untagging” herself from the First Defamatory Post. The Defendant then followed up on the same day with a second post on his Facebook account (which I will refer to as “the Second Defamatory Post”), which attached a photo of the Plaintiff and read as follows:

The Second Defamatory Post appears to have garnered a total of four “likes” and one “share”.

Procedural history

The Plaintiff commenced the instant suit in January 2020 after the Defendant declined to comply with a number of conditions set out in a Letter of Demand dated 3 December 2019 which included, inter alia, a written apology, removal of the First and Second Defamatory Posts (collectively, “the Defamatory Posts”) and damages. While the Defendant originally filed a Defence and Counterclaim, these were subsequently struck out on the basis that he was an undischarged bankrupt at the time and the Official Assignee’s sanction had not been obtained under s 131 of the Bankruptcy Act (Cap 20, 2009 Rev Ed). Interlocutory Judgment was entered in favour of the Plaintiff with an injunction restraining the Defendant from publishing or repeating the Defamatory Posts and damages to be assessed.4 The Defendant subsequently removed the Defamatory Posts from Facebook.

The parties’ cases The Plaintiff’s case

The Plaintiff seeks general damages of $50,000 and aggravated damages of $20,000. Her arguments can be briefly summarised as follows: The nature and gravity of the Defamatory Posts were serious as they accused the Plaintiff of being dishonest and fraudulent, and of committing a serious criminal offence. The inclusion of the link to the Bloomberg Article would have lent further credence to this assertion.5 The Plaintiff is established in the land investment industry. Even though the Defendant is not a man of standing, his position as her friend would add to his credibility compared to an investor with only a business relationship.6 The Defamatory Posts reached a sizeable audience. This can be inferred, inter alia, from their privacy settings, the number of friends the parties had on Facebook, the number of persons who interfaced with the post and the usage of the “hashtags”. The Defendant also refused to remove the post until the injunction was granted some 5 months later.7 The Defendant’s conduct demonstrates malice as he was reckless as to the truth of his allegations and continues to insist in their veracity despite evidence to the contrary while refusing to apologise.8

The Defendant’s case

The Defendant’s submissions, on the other hand, are difficult to follow. Part of his written submissions appear to address a plea of justification or matters not entirely relevant to the assessment of damages. For example, the Defendant contends that “the [Bloomberg Article] did indicate Plaintiff was committing cheating/scamming [sic]. It was reporting the current situation with Walton International Group. I was explaining to the Plaintiff the matter at hand. I did not have any intention to defame the Plaintiff”.9 The Defendant also levels a number of allegations against the Plaintiff for her conduct in relation to his investment with Walton Texas, stating that the present suit would not have occurred had the Plaintiff responded to his attempts to reach her in July 2018.10 The Defendant further points out that no police report had been made or investigation commenced as to whether the Plaintiff had been defamed.11 To the extent that the Defendant still appears to dispute liability at this stage, I do not think that it is open to him to do so, a point I made repeatedly to him in the course of proceedings.

On the issue of quantum, the Defendant appears to take the position that no or nominal damages should be awarded to the Plaintiff. In summary, the Defendant argues that:12 The extent of publication of the posts were limited since the Plaintiff “untagged” herself on the same day and he only has 200 friends on Facebook. He is only a regular employee and not a national figure or politician. He did not know how “hashtags” worked and only used them as they were a trend at the time. He removed the Defamatory Posts in compliance with the injunction and refrained from making similar posts. He is presently in difficult personal circumstances. He did not have any intention to defame the Plaintiff or act with malice.

Seen in this light, the quantum of damages sought is out of proportion when compared to awards given where widely-published defamatory statements are made of national figures such as politicians.

Further submissions

After parties had tendered their written submissions, I invited them to address in further submissions the following two issues: First, whether following the decision in Lee Hsien Loong v Leong Sze Hian [2021] SGHC 66 (“LHL”), the court should in determining the extent of publication of a defamatory statement made on Facebook take into account only publication to persons located within Singapore; and Second, whether the recently published High Court decision in Yeow Khim Seng Mark v Phan Ying Sheng [2021] SGHC 145 (“Yeow”), particularly the quantum of damages awarded therein, had any relevance to the present matter.

Both parties accept that I should adopt the approach in LHL and focus on the number of persons based in Singapore to whom the Defamatory Posts would have been published.

The parties, however, take differing positions on the relevance of Yeow. The Plaintiff argues that the case can be distinguished while the Defendant submits that it should be considered in determining the appropriate quantum of damages here. I will discuss Yeow in greater depth when I deal with the precedents cited by parties (see [49] below).

The Law

An award of damages in a defamation claim can be broadly separated into general and aggravated damages. General damages serve three purposes (see Arul Chandran v Chew Chin Aik Victor [2001] 1 SLR(R) 86 (“Arul Chandran”) at [53]): First, they act as a consolation to the plaintiff for distress suffered from the publication of the defamatory statement; Second, they repair the harm to the plaintiff’s reputation; and Third, they serve to vindicate the plaintiff’s reputation.

In determining the amount of general damages to be awarded, the court takes into account the following considerations (see Lim Eng Hock Peter v Lin Jian Wei and another and another appeal [2010] 4 SLR 357 at [7]): The nature and gravity of the defamation; The conduct, position and standing of the plaintiff and the defendant; The mode and extent of the publication; The natural indignation of the court at the injury caused to the plaintiff; the conduct of the defendant from the time the defamatory statement is published to the very moment of the verdict; the failure to apologise and retract the defamatory statement; and the presence of malice.


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