award 'grossly excessive'
South China Morning Post. Sept 23, 1997
Related: QC attacks `political' libel award
'Chilling effect' of big libel awards
THE Court of Appeal was yesterday told the country's biggest libel award should never have been given against opposition politician Tang Liang Hong and should be thrown out.
Top London libel lawyer Charles Gray told the court the cases brought by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and 10 other leaders of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) were politically motivated and the award "grossly excessive".
Mr Goh and his colleagues were awarded S$8.08 million (HK$41 million) and costs - which Mr Gray said could amount to S$3 million - after Mr Tang called them liars.
The PAP leaders, who vehemently deny accusations from the West that they use the courts to crush opponents, said they had no choice but to sue to defend the integrity which was critical to their ability to rule.
The British lawyer said the case should never have been awarded against Mr Tang because Mr Justice Lai Kew Chai, who issued orders critical to the final result, should have disqualified himself because of possible perceptions of bias.
Mr Gray said he was not accusing Mr Justice Lai of bias, but as the judge was once a member of the same law firm as Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, one of the PAP leaders, and as he called Mr Tang a "liar" and a "coward", there could have been a perception of bias.
Mr Goh, Mr Lee and their colleagues should not have used the courts to pursue their battle with Mr Tang, whom they called an anti-Christian, Chinese chauvinist who endangered Singapore's multi-racial harmony during an election campaign, Mr Gray said.
"This is a case where a group of senior ministers have concerted together to use the laws of defamation and the machinery of the court . . . to drive him out of politics once and for all," Mr Gray charged.
"Let them use the ballot box, or political rallies, or the press."
The PAP won 81 of Parliament's 83 seats in the January 2 election after turning all its campaign guns on Mr Tang, of the Worker's Party.
Mr Tang fled the country afterwards, saying his life had been threatened. He has not returned.
Mr Gray also said the PAP leaders brought no evidence to substantiate their charge that Mr Tang was a dangerous chauvinist in Singapore, which is more than 70 per cent ethnic Chinese with substantial minorities of Malays and Indians.
"The amount of the damages awarded against Tang Liang Hong, namely S$8 million, is grossly excessive, out of all proportion to any injury done," he said.
London-based human rights group Amnesty International said it was sending an observer to Mr Tang's appeal.
Published in the South China Morning Post. Sept 23, 1997