replies to ICJ
Straits Times: October 4, 1997.
By Warren Fernandez
THE Government has replied to the International Commission of Jurists' charge that the Singapore High Court was compliant and had bowed to the executive here in the defamation suit against Workers' Party chief J. B. Jeyaretnam, noting that its report on the case contained false and misleading statements.
It took issue with the suggestion by Queen's Counsel Stuart Littlemore, the ICJ's observer at the hearing in August, that Mr Jeyaretnam had been denied natural justice and that the courts had shown undue deference to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, one of the PAP leaders suing the WP chief for defamation.
The Australian QC had said that Justice S. Rajendran "did the work for the plaintiff", when he framed a lesser defamatory meaning of the offending words uttered by Mr Jeyaretnam at a WP rally on Jan 1.
In his 142-page judgment, Justice Rajendran had rejected the plaintiff's case that Mr Jeyaretnam had implied that the Prime Minister was guilty of committing criminal conspiracy and criminal defamation against Mr Tang.
But he ruled that the WP chief's words were defamatory because they would convey the lesser meaning that Mr Goh, who had called Mr Tang an anti-Christian Chinese chauvinist, could be investigated for doing something wrong.
In a 10-page report on the case released on Thursday, the ICJ argued that by doing so, Mr Jeyaretnam had been denied natural justice since he did not have the opportunity to address the court on the lower defamatory meaning framed by the judge.
Rejecting this, a Law Ministry statement noted that the Court of Appeal had ruled in 1992 that a plaintiff is entitled in law to plead the highest defamatory meaning.
It was for the Court to accept that meaning or give a lesser meaning to the words complained about.
It noted that Mr Jeyaretnam's lawyer, Queen's Counsel George Carman, had not disputed that the judge was entitled to find a lesser meaning to the offending words.
"Lesser meanings were put to the judge in Mr Carman's presence. Mr Carman had every opportunity to address those meanings.
"Mr Jeyaretnam could have pleaded justification or qualified privilege. He had more than five months to do so. He and his QC chose not to do so. The suggestion that Mr Jeyaretnam was denied natural justice is therefore absurd."
Similarly, while Mr Goh's lawyer, Mr Thomas Shields had also pleaded a case for innuendo before the judge, Mr Carman chose not to address the court on the point, the statement noted.
"Mr Littlemore has either misread, or not read the judgment," the ministry said in a four-page statement, which it described as a "preliminary rebuttal". It added that a "point for point rebuttal is being prepared for the ICJ".
Some of the other errors in the ICJ's report included:
Mr Littlemore's statement that it was "troubling" that the judge did not give his verdict immediately in a "simple case".
But, noted the ministry, it was not uncommon for judges to defer judgment to reflect on the evidence. This occurred not only in Singapore, but in other jurisdictions, including Australia.
The allegation that the courts awarded large damages in defamation suits to help the Government remove opposition politicians from Parliament.
This, said the ministry, ignored the law, since the assessment of damages by the courts, whether in England, Australia or Singapore, was based on the nature of the defamation, as well as the standing of the plaintiff.
The suggestion that government leaders had used the courts to silence their opponents by suing them for statements which would be taken as part of the political process elsewhere.
The ministry's response: It is not a democratic freedom to defame another person. The defamation laws, which Singapore adopted from England, gave everyone, including politicians, the right to protect their reputation and honour.
Opposition politicians, including Mr Jeyaretnam and Singapore People's Party chief Chiam See Tong, had also turned to the courts to vindicate their reputations, the ministry noted.
It pointed out that Mr Chiam had once been awarded $50,000 in damages against a restaurant for publishing an advertisement implying that he had consented to the use of his photograph for publicity.
As for Mr Jeyaretnam, he himself had brought a defamation suit against the Prime Minister for saying that the WP chief had put Mr Chiam in a poor light by walking out of the inauguration of the latter's political party.
"In Singapore, if politicians cannot clear their names in court, they will soon lose the respect of the electorate. That is why Mr Chiam and Mr Jeyaretnam sued. Because they do, politicians are not regarded as second-hand car salesman, as in some other countries."
PM Goh didn't have tea served to him during August court hearing.
Singapore Window note: The PM's office put out a seven-paragraph statement denying Mr Goh was served tea, insisting the drink was warm water .
Published in the Straits Times. October 3, 1997