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Court cuts Tang's record libel damages bill

South China Morning Post. Singapore Updated at 1.24pm Nov 12, 1997.

SINGAPORE'S Appeals Court said on Wednesday it was reducing record libel damages awarded in a case against an opposition politician.

The court said in a written judgment it slashed the original award of S$8.08 million by 44 per cent, or about S$3.55 million, to S$4.53 million.

Opposition figure Tang Liang Hong was sued by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and 10 of his political colleagues after Mr Tang accused them of lying when they called him an ''anti-Christian Chinese chauvinist'' during the campaign for general elections on January 2.

Mr Tang was an unsuccessful candidate for the left-leaning Workers' Party.

Mr Goh and other members of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) accused Mr Tang of threatening harmony in multi-racial Singapore.

Mr Tang filed police reports saying the PAP leaders were lying, and they sued.

Other comments he made during and after the election were also elements in the suits and court case.

The PAP won 81 of the 83 parliamentary seats at the election. Mr Tang fled Singapore, saying he feared for his life. He has not returned and was unrepresented for parts of the case.

Mr Tang's British lawyer, Charles Gray, said at the appeal hearing in September that the suits against his client were ''thoroughly political in their complexion''.

He said they should be thrown out because they were grotesque and argued that the case against Mr Tang was fundamentally flawed in law and contrary to natural justice.

But lawyers for the PAP leaders said they sued to defend the integrity critical to their ability to rule.

Representing Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who as prime minister ran Singapore for 31 years until 1990, PAP MP Davinder Singh said Mr Tang had made his allegations against the ruling party for political gain.

''Tang deliberately and for cynical political gain perpetrated the libel that the various plaintiffs were liars and criminals,'' Mr Singh said.

Mr Gray said upholding the record damages would have a ''chilling effect'' on freedom of speech and limit political debate in Singapore.

Human rights group Amnesty International sent an observer to the appeal, as it did in another recent libel suit by the PAP leaders against one of Mr Tang's lawyers, Joshua Jeyaretnam.

Amnesty said it was concerned by reports that Singapore's leaders had used defamation laws to stifle political opposition.

Mr Jeyaretnam, who is also the leader of the Workers' Party, said after the judgment: ''I suppose it's about the best that can be expected to get the damages reduced, although Mr Tang would have liked the appeal to be allowed altogether.''

 Published in the South China Morning Post. Nov 12, 1997

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