ICJ condemns parody of justice in Singapore

The ICJ stated that the Singapore leadership’s ongoing use of defamation proceedings to silence opponents seriously undermined the rule of law.

The trend is epitomised by a recent decision of the Singapore Court of Appeal. In July 1998, this Court upheld the appeal of Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong concerning a defamation award made in 1997 against Mr. J. B. Jeyaretnam MP, the Secretary-General of the opposition Workers’ Party.

In July 1997, a first instance court had awarded Mr. Goh damages of $S20,000 for words spoken by Mr. Jeyaretnam during the course of the country’s electoral campaign. Mr. Jeyaretnam’s allegedly defamatory statement was as follows: “Mr. Tang Liang Hong has just placed before me two reports he made to the police, against – you know – Mr. Goh Chok Tong and his people”.

Mr. Jeyaretnam appealed the first instance decision. Mr. Goh cross-appealed, claiming inadequate damages. On Appeal the sum was increased to $S100,000 and Mr. Goh’s cost award from 60% to 100%.

Mr. Stuart Littlemore QC (Australia), a defamation law expert, was sent to observe the trial on behalf of the ICJ. Upon receipt of his report the ICJ released the following statement today:

  • In determining that Mr. Jeyaretnam’s words were defamatory, the Court was unduly compliant to the government. The context of the words was clearly political as the government had an election tactic of attacking Tang Liang Hong on racial grounds. Mr. Tang had declared his intention of making a complaint to the police that the attack was false and defamatory. He had also been taunted by Goh and other government members for not filing a complaint. As Mr. Jeyaretnam was making the closing speech of his party’s campaign, Mr. Tang told him the complaints had been made, and put copies of his police reports on the lectern. In this context the words were not defamatory or – if there were any element of “defamation” in them – it was the sort of remark that is tolerated in any democracy.
  • The finding of malice was insupportable and indicative of the Court’s bias. The first instance judge found no evidence of malice. However, the Court of Appeal found that Mr. Jeyaretnam was “reckless in making the assertions he did” and yet the only “assertion” that he made “was the simple truth”; namely the police reports had been filed.
  • The Court further demonstrated bias in finding that Mr. Jeyaretnam’s counsel’s cross-examination of Mr. Goh, at trial, was “a baseless attack” which “aggravated the hurt caused to Mr. Goh” and for which he should be compensated. In making this finding the Court cited no examples of alleged impropriety and Mr. Littlemore QC commented that nowhere else in the Common Law world could it have been said that the cross-examination was anything but properly vigorous and relevant.
  • The Court’s decision to increase the damages on the basis of “precedent cases” is not established. The Court only cited two cases which did not involve actions brought by government members and, therefore, avoided explaining the disproportionately high damages consistently awarded to them.
  • In awarding costs, the first instance judge relied on clear authority for his ruling, and the Court of Appeal presented no rationale for overruling him.

Mr. Goh started bankruptcy action against Mr. Jeyaretnam who faces 7 more suits for the same words.

“These legal actions, before compliant courts, which result in political opponents being silenced through crippling awards of damages, undermine the rule of law and infringe the right to freedom of expression”, stated Mr. Adama Dieng, ICJ Secretary-General. “It also silences future political opposition to a government that holds every elected seat in parliament.”

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