Workers' Party v Tay Boon Too

CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
Judgment Date01 November 1974
Docket NumberSuits Nos 1913 of 1972 and 1207
Date01 November 1974
Workers' Party
Tay Boon Too

[1974] SGHC 18

F A Chua J

Suits Nos 1913 of 1972 and 1207 of 1973

High Court

Tort–Defamation–Libel–News broadcast of rally and publication of allegedly defamatory words–Whether words complained of defamatory–Whether defence of qualified privilege applied–Sections 12 and 13 Defamation Act (Cap 32, 1970 Rev Ed)–Tort–Defamation–Slander–Allegedly defamatory words uttered in Hokkien at a public rally–Statement of claim setting out the impugned words only in English–Whether publication of alleged words proved–Whether special damage suffered–Whether words defamatory–Section 5 Defamation Act (Cap 32, 1970 Rev Ed)

The plaintiff sued the defendant, Tay Boon Too (“Tay”), for damages for slander in respect of allegedly defamatory remarks about the plaintiff at a public rally. In a separate suit, the plaintiff sued the Attorney-General for damages for libel contained in a radio news broadcast of the rally by the Department of Broadcasting. Tay had made the impugned remarks in Hokkien and the fact that Tay made those comments was broadcast by the Department of Broadcasting in English based on a report made by its reporter. The plaintiff in its amended statement of claim did not set out the alleged defamatory words in Hokkien. In both actions, the plaintiff claimed, inter alia, special damage of $10,577.38 for “election expenses incurred by plaintiff”. The court ordered the two actions to be consolidated.

Tay denied that he had uttered the words complained of and contended that the words allegedly spoken by him neither bore nor were capable of bearing a defamatory meaning. He also pleaded justification for part of the words allegedly spoken by him and maintained that the plaintiff had not proved publication of the words in question. The Attorney-General contended that the words complained of were not defamatory and that the broadcast was made on an occasion of qualified privilege.

Held, dismissing the claims:

(1) The plaintiff had not proved publication of the words complained of. In an action for slander, the witnesses must prove the words used and cannot be allowed to state the impression produced upon their minds by the whole of the conversation. It was not sufficient for them to state what they conceive to be the substance or effects of the words. In this case, the reporter who was present at the rally and who had heard Tay's speech could not prove the actual words alleged to have been published. It was clear that what he had set out in his report was what he conceived to be the substance or effect of the words or his impression of what was said: at [24] to [26].

(2) The slander alleged by the plaintiff was spoken in Hokkien but the words complained of were set out in English in the amended statement of claim. If the slander alleged was in a language other than English, it had to be set out in the statement of claim in the foreign language precisely as spoken and followed by a literal translation. The translation had to be verified by an interpreter sworn as a witness. It was not enough to set out a translation without setting out the original or vice versa. While the absence of a translation in the pleadings might not be fatal to the plaintiff's case, the absence of original words in the foreign language in question was: at [27] and [30].

(3) The general rule was that no action would lie for slander unless the plaintiff could prove that he had suffered special damage as a result of the publication of the defamatory words. The general rule did not apply to four classes of imputations of which only two were relevant in this case. They were (a) where the words impute a crime for which the plaintiff could be made to suffer physically by way of punishment; and (b) where the words were calculated to disparage the plaintiff in any office, profession, calling, trade or business held or carried on by him at the time of publication. The plaintiff failed to prove that any of these exceptions applied. The words did not impute to the plaintiff that it had committed a criminal offence for which it could be convicted. Furthermore, the words “office, profession, calling, trade or business” were not applicable to a political party: at [34] to [39].

(4) The plaintiff could only maintain an action for slander if he had suffered special damage, which must be the natural, direct and reasonable result of the defendant's words. The plaintiff failed to establish that it had suffered special damage. There was no evidence to link the dismal failure of the plaintiff to win a single seat in the Parliament with the statement of Tay. In any event, it could not be said that the entire election expenses of the plaintiff in 20 constituencies could represent special damage as a result of words uttered by a small group of people at one street meeting in one constituency: at [40] to [44].

(5) The falsehood of a statement alone did not render it defamatory. An imputation to be defamatory had to tend to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of the society generally. The receipt of funds by a political party was not per se defamatory. The plaintiff failed to prove any innuendo as regards the alleged receipt of funds: at [51] to [61].

(6) Tay did not succeed in his plea of justification. He had to (a) prove that the defamatory imputation was true, (b) justify the precise imputation complained, and (c) prove the truth of all material statements in the libel. There was no substantial justification of the whole libel: at [63] to [66].

(7) The Attorney-General succeeded in raising the defence of qualified privilege on the claim based on news broadcasts. The words were broadcast at a privileged occasion and there was no evidence of malice. The report was a fair and accurate report of the proceedings at a meeting that was bona fide and lawfully held for a lawful purpose and for the furtherance or discussion of election issues: at [67] to [75].

Braddock v Bevins [1948] 1 KB 580; [1948] 1 All ER 450 (refd)

Burns v Associated Newspapers (1925) 42 TLR 37 (refd)

D & L Caterers Ltd & Jackson v D'Ajou [1945] 1 All ER 563 (refd)

Edwards v Bell 1 Bing 403; 130 ER 162 (refd)

Grubb v Bristol United Press [1963] 1 QB 309; [1962] 2 All ER 380 (refd)

Harrison v Bevington 8 Car & P 708; 173 ER 683 (folld)

Jenkins v Phillips 9 Car & P 766; 173 ER 1045 (refd)

Maitland v Goldney 2 East 426; 102 ER 431 (folld)

Rainy v Bravo (1872) LR 4 PC 287 (folld)

Seymour v Butterworth 3 F & F 372; 176 ER 166 (refd)

Sim v Stretch [1936] 2 All ER 1237; (1936) 52 TLR 669 (folld)

Syed Husin Ali v Sharikat Penchetakan Utusan Melayu [1973] 2 MLJ 56 (refd)

Zenobio v Axtell 6 TR 162; 101 ER 489 (refd)

Defamation Act (Cap 32, 1970 Rev Ed) ss 5, 12, 13 (consd)

J B Jeyaretnam (J B Jeyaretnam & Co) for the plaintiff

G S Hill and P Selvadurai (Rodyk & Davidson) for the defendant in Suit No 1913 of 1972

Tan Boon Teik (Attorney-General) and Warren Khoo (Deputy Senior State Counsel) for the defendant in Suit No 1207 of 1973.

F A Chua J

1 The plaintiff, a political party in Singapore, is suing Tay Boon Too for damages for slander. Tay Boon Too is a member of the People's Action Party, another political party in Singapore, and he was nominated for election to Parliament for the constituency of Paya Lebar in the 1972 General Elections (Suit 1913 of 1972).

2 The plaintiff had also nominated a candidate for election to Parliament for the same constituency.

3 The plaintiff is also suing the Attorney-General for damages for libel contained in a radio broadcast and published by the Department of Broadcasting, Ministry of Culture, on 26 August 1972 (Suit 1207 of 1973).

4 By an order of court of 11 February 1974, these two actions were ordered to be consolidated.

5 The PAP held a public election rally at Lorong Tai Seng in the constituency of Paya Lebar on the night of 25 August 1972. Tay Boon Too was one of the speakers.

6 That same night in the 11.00pm regular news broadcast of Radio Singapore the following item of news was broadcast:

At another PAP rally in Lorong Tai Seng, the PAP's candidate for Paya Lebar, Mr Tan [sic] Boon Too, accused the Workers' Party of...

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