Wednesday, January 31, 2007

JB Jeyaretnam vs Goh Chok Tong


[1985] 1 MLJ 334 (also [1984-1985] SLR 516)



28 NOVEMBER 1984


Defamation — Slander — Words published by defendant at press conference — Whether defamatory of plaintiff Fair comment — Qualified privilege — Damages and injunction — Defamation Act (Cap 32), s 5


The plaintiff, the secretary-general of the Workers’ Party in Singapore, was invited as the only guest speaker on September 21, 1981 at the inauguration of the Singapore Democratic Party. After his speech he left the meeting and at that time or immediately following his departure a large section of the audience also left. The Parliamentary by-election for the constituency of Anson was to be held on October 31, 1981. The defendant, the Minister for Defence and second Minister for Health in the Singapore Government, was the first organizing secretary of the Peoples’ Action Party and was therefore most concerned at securing the return of the PAP’s candidate at the by-election.

On October 26, 1981 the defendant held a press conference at which representatives of the media were present. He said:

“SDP had their inaugural (sic) earlier this month. Mr. Jeyaretnam attended. After Mr. Jeyaretnam had spoken, he left the hall, and when he left the hall 200 participants left with him. I believe the exodus was engineered. I don’t think it was a spontaneous exodus. If it was, it did not speak well for the SDP. It shows that the crowd, the limited crowd still look towards Mr. Jeyaretnam, for the time being, as a leader of the opposition. But I am inclined to believe that the exodus was contrived by the leader of the Workers’ Party to show who is boss at this stage. And surely Mr. Chiam cannot take that trick lightly.”

The plaintiff complained that these words were defamatory of him and he sued the defendant claiming damages and an injunction. The plaintiff also relied on section 5 of the Defamation Act, claiming that the words were calculated to disparage him in his office as leader of a political party and in aspiring to be a Member of Parliament.

The defendant denied that the words in their natural and ordinary meaning were calculated to disparage the plaintiff in his office as the secretary-general of the Workers’ Party. The defendant also raised the defences of fair comment and qualified privilege.


Held: dismissing the claim:

(i) the words spoken by the defendant were capable of a defamatory meaning and were defamatory of the plaintiff. The words imputed to the plain tiff dishonourable or discreditable conduct or motive or a lack of integrity and such an imputation was defamatory of the plaintiff. However, the words though defamatory of the plaintiff were not calculated to disparage him in his office as the secretary-general of the Workers’ Party. They did not ipute any want of integrity or corrupt or dishonest conduct or any other misconduct in the discharge of that office. On this issue the plaintiff failed;

(ii) the defendant had succeeded in establishing the four elements necessary to find his defence of fair comment;

(iii) the plaintiff has failed to discharge his burden of proving that the defendant was actuated by malice when he uttered the words complained of. The action was accordingly dismissed with costs.


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