Ting Choon Meng v Attorney-General and another appeal
|09 December 2015
|09 December 2015
|Community Justice and Tribunals Appeals Nos 1 and 2 of 2015
|High Court (Singapore)
 SGHC 315
See Kee Oon JC
Community Justice and Tribunals Appeals Nos 1 and 2 of 2015
Tort — Harassment — False statements of fact — Government alleging that false statements made by owner of company that previously commenced patent infringement suit against it — Government applying for order that those statements could not be published unless accompanied by notification bringing attention to falsehood and true facts — Whether Government having right to apply for such order — Whether statements false — Whether it would be just and equitable to grant Government such order — Section 15 Protection from Harassment Act (Cap 256A, 2015 Rev Ed)
These were appeals by the maker and publishers of certain statements of fact against a district judge’s order that those statements could not be published unless published together with a notification clarifying that the statements had been declared by the courts to be false and that the truth of the matter could be found in a response published by the Ministry of Defence (“MINDEF”). This order was granted pursuant to an application by the Attorney-General under s 15 of the Protection from Harassment Act (Cap 256A, 2015 Rev Ed) (“the Act”), which provided that, where a false statement of fact about any “person” was published, the court could, on that person’s application, order that the statement not be published unless accompanied by such notification as necessary to bring attention to the falsehood and the true facts.
The maker of the statements (“Dr Ting”) owned a company (“MobileStats”) which had successfully registered a patent in respect of a vehicle designed to deliver medical services in emergencies. Later, following a tender exercise, MINDEF awarded a contract to another company (“Syntech”) under which MINDEF agreed to purchase from Syntech a number of medical military vehicles. MobileStats commenced a suit alleging that MINDEF’s purchase and use of those vehicles infringed its patent. But MobileStats subsequently discontinued the suit in the midst of the trial, which resulted in the revocation of its patent on the ground of invalidity.
In the aftermath of MobileStats’s discontinued suit, Dr Ting gave an interview which was recorded on video and published online. In this interview, Dr Ting claimed to have had an encounter with the Army’s then-Chief Medical Officer (“Dr Wong”) in which Dr Wong saw MobileStats’s patented vehicle, expressed interest in making a similar vehicle for military use, and acknowledged the existence of MobileStats’s patent but said that he would see how he could “get around” the patent. Dr Ting also claimed that MINDEF had dragged out proceedings in the suit in order to increase MobileStats’s litigation costs and thus put financial pressure on it. The Attorney-General’s position was that two false statements of fact emerged from that interview, viz, (a) MINDEF had knowingly infringed MobileStats’s patent with the intention of applying subsequently to revoke that patent, and (b) MINDEF had deliberately delayed court proceedings as a “war of attrition” against MobileStats.
Following the publication of the statements, MINDEF issued a response on its Facebook page in which it said, among other things, that the suit MobileStats had commenced against it was in actuality a patent dispute between MobileStats and Syntech, with MINDEF having been no more than a mere “consumer”. The publishers of the statements not only reproduced MINDEF’s response in full but also provided a link to that response from the webpage containing the statements. MINDEF’s response was also reported in a number of national newspapers.
Three issues arose for determination. The first was the threshold legal issue of whether the Government was a “person” within the meaning of s 15 of the Act such that it had the right to invoke that provision. The second was whether Dr Ting’s statements were false. The third was whether, in the event that the statements were found to be false, it would be “just and equitable” to grant the Attorney-General the order that the district judge had granted.
Held, allowing the appeals:
(1) As to the first issue, the Government was not a “person” within the meaning of s 15 of the Act and so did not have the right to invoke that provision. Even though s 15 was unique in that it encompassed false statements of fact that did not strictly amount to harassment whereas the other provisions of the Act targeted nothing less than harassment, s 15 nonetheless had to be considered part of a holistic, harmonious whole that included the other provisions of the Act. The purpose of those other provisions was to protect persons from the detrimental emotional or psychological impact of the words or deeds of other persons. Hence, the underlying if unexpressed rationale for providing protection against false statements under s 15 was that those statements had a detrimental emotional or psychological impact on their intended subject even if they did not rise to the level of harassment. It followed that s 15 was not so wide as to encompass all false statements but was confined to false statements capable of affecting their intended subject emotionally or psychologically, which presupposed that the subject of the statement was a human being: at  to .
(2) As to the second issue, in relation to statement (a), it had not been shown that this was false. MINDEF had not challenged Dr Ting’s assertion that Dr Wong had intimated an intention to “get around” MobileStats’s patent, meaning that this assertion remained unrebutted. Thus, it remained a real possibility that, when MINDEF purchased the medical military vehicles from Syntech, it was cognisant of the possibility that these vehicles might infringe MobileStats’s patent, but decided to purchase them anyway on the basis that Syntech would bear any liability for infringing intellectual property rights: at  to .
(3) Still on the second issue, in relation to statement (b), this was false because MINDEF was not the party that conducted the litigation in the suit commenced by MobileStats. It was Syntech that instructed counsel to resist the suit and bore the expense involved. In the circumstances, MINDEF would have no interest in delaying proceedings in the suit, and any design to delay would have been Syntech’s initiative and not MINDEF’s: at  to .
(4) As to the third issue, despite the falsity of statement (b), it would not be “just and equitable” to grant an order under s 15 of the Act in relation to that statement. This was so for four main reasons. First, the false statement was of a relatively minor nature in that it had not gone anywhere near seriously impugning the core of MINDEF’s identity. Second, MINDEF had suffered no emotional or psychological impact. Third, MINDEF had had the means to publish widely its own version of the truth. Fourth, the publishers of the statement had made genuine and substantial efforts to point out that the truth of the statement was not undisputed: at  to .
[Observation: Even though only human beings might avail themselves of the remedy under s 15 of the Act, this did not necessarily preclude recourse to s 15 whenever false statements were directed against entities other than human beings. An allegation ostensibly aimed at a corporate body might be, in substance, an allegation against the human beings who managed that corporate body. If so, it was open to those human beings to seek redress under s 15 of the Act: at .]
Choo Zheng Xi and Jason Lee (Peter Low LLC) for the appellant in CJTA 1/2015; Eugene Thuraisingam and Suang Wijaya (Eugene Thuraisingam LLP) for
the appellants in CJTA 2/2015;
Hui Choon Kuen and Lam Qian Yi Debra (Attorney-General’s Chambers) for the respondent;
Chen Jie’an Jared (WongPartnership LLP) as amicus curiae.
9 December 2015
1 These were two appeals against the decision of the district judge (“the District Judge”) to grant the Attorney-General an order under s 15 of the Protection from Harassment Act (Cap 256A, 2015 Rev Ed) (“the Act”) in respect of certain allegedly false statements that had been made by Dr Ting Choon Meng (“Dr Ting”), the appellant in Community Justice and Tribunals Appeal No 1 of 2015 (“CJTA 1”), and published on a website called “The Online Citizen” by the appellants in Community Justice and Tribunals Appeal No 2 of 2015 (“CJTA 2”). The order which the District Judge granted was that those statements could not be published unless they were published together with a notification clarifying that the statements had “since been declared by the Singapore Courts to be false”, and that the truth of the matter could be found in a separate statement published by the Ministry of Defence (“MINDEF”).
2 Broadly speaking, the allegedly false statements concerned a patent dispute between Dr Ting’s company MobileStats Technologies Pte Ltd (“MobileStats”) and MINDEF. MobileStats had commenced an action in the High Court in 2011 alleging that MINDEF’s purchase and use of a particular vehicle constituted an infringement of a patent that it owned. But MobileStats subsequently discontinued the action in the midst of the trial, which resulted in the revocation of its patent on the ground of invalidity. Later, Dr...
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