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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Crystal-ball Gazing

Crystal-ball Gazing

On the final appeal against bankruptcy by Dr Chee Soon Juan in the Court of Appeal, heard by Chief Justice Yong Pung How and two other judges. In his 500-page verdict (said to be written overnight by Yong, the most prolific judge in the history of Singapore), he cited numerous precedents and cases why Dr Chee's appeal should not be allowed. Below, we give a summary of his verdict, assented to unanimously by the two other judges:

First of all, I must give a brief summary of how the case arose.

In September 2001, during the political rallies for the General Election, which saw the return to Parliament of opposition MPs Mr Low Thia Khiang and Mr Chiam See Tong, as well as the election of Dr Chee and four others in a Group Representation Constituency, the said defamation was committed.

In one rally at an open ground in Jalan Besar, Dr Chee finished giving a lengthy speech in which he outlined his vision of a better Singapore, largely based on his book, "Dare To Change" published some years earlier. Towards the end of his speech, Dr Chee reportedly spoke these words, "Lee Kuan Yew's mother is a woman." This is not in dispute by the defendant as several video cameras equipped with microphones have captured his entire speech and actions, a very normal course of action by the PAP as they have known, from past experience, that in the heat of political rallies, candidates often speak without the usual guardedness of speech and actions, and this often form a basis for defamation suits against them. Such a one is now before us.

The General Election being over in September, the plaintiff, Lee Kuan Yew, immediately sued for defamation and the case was heard very expeditiously in the same month, a week after the papers were filed.

The lower court of Justice Rajendran heard testimony from the plaintiff's team of lawyers, including lead lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, who told the court how he had flown around the world to consult with leading defamation specialist Queen's Counsels in Britain, Scotland, Canada, Hongkong and Australia. He told the court how he had carefully described the words and actions of the defendant in very neutral terms (and the court finds this to be important -- in very neutral terms) and the QCs had all unanimously agreed that defamation was indeed committed and there was therefore a case for the plaintiff.

However, not one of the QCs were able to take the case later, citing work load, so Mr Singh ended up leading a team of his lawyers to argue for the plaintiff.

In the lower court of Justice Rajendran, Mr Singh argued that there were several factors which made the offending words defamatory. The first was that this was spoken in front of about 10,000 people at a rally. This makes the circumstances special and the words spoken therefore takes on a special meaning. Secondly, the words were spoken at the end of the rally and what's more, spoken with a smile. This was provocative. The smile implies many things, akin to a wink, which gives special meaning to the words spoken. Indeed, the words meant much more than what their basic meanings, as grounded in the English language, implies because of that smile. SC Davinder Singh cited the precedent of Mr J B Jeyaretnam's case in which the latter also spoke a single sentence at the end of a political rally and was bankrupted as a result, as determined by a lower court and affirmed by myself and two other judges in the Court of Appeal. That precedent becomes law which I find myself to be bound in the present similar case against Dr Chee.

Although the lower court in Mr Jeyaretnam's case found that he had not used any gesticulations to emphasise his sentence, as alleged by Mr Singh who also acted in that case, in this case, the defendant is clearly caught on camera, smiling. Thus, I agree with the plaintiff that such a sentence, together with the smiling, is highly defamatory.

I also considered the innuendo meaning of the sentence. For example, although the sentence, "Lee Kuan Yew's mother is a woman." may seem innocuous, the innuendo meanings are not. For example, this sentence, together with the smile, can imply the opposite, i.e. "Lee Kuan Yew's mother is not a woman.", which then raises the question that "if she is not a woman, then what is she?" This means that an innuendo meaning may be imputed and I concur with the lower court that that is highly defamatory.

When I reviewed the lower court's decision, I became more and more convinced that Justice Rajendran had not done enough to punish the offender for this transgression. For example, he awarded Lee Kuan Yew only $2 million in damages, which was less than the amount totalled against Mr Tang Liang Hong, who was also successfully sued for defamation after the 1997 General Election. Thus, I have no hesitation in enhancing the amount of the award to $5 million. This is because the plaintiff is an upright man, known to be highly honourable, and without a single moral flaw either in character or reputation, whom I have the honour to get to know during my university days and who persuaded me very strongly to give up my lucrative banking career for a life as Chief Justice, even though I had spent more years in banking than in law.

I have also very expeditiously set the hearing for an early resolution so that Parliament may not be held up for too long. It is an open secret that we will not swear in the MPs and open the next session of Parliament until this case is resolved, so we are all making haste to hasten the course of justice in this country. This means that when the new Parliament is convened, it will be without Dr Chee, who will therefore go down in history as not having been an MP. Again, this sort of thing is common in our legal and parliamentary process. It is a certainty that with the vacating of his seat, Dr Chee will have to stand by while a by-election is called, which the PAP has every chance of winning, as Dr Chee will be disqualified from standing, just like Mr Jeyaretnam before him. Thus, this court reaffirms the principles of democracy in that an election won by a fraudulent sentence such as, "Lee Kuan Yew's mother is a woman." should not be allowed to stand.

Thus, with this decision, justice is not only done, it is seen to be done.

Entered into judgement,
this day the 30th of September in the year 2001,
Chief Justice Yong Pung How,
unanimous verdict of three Court of Appeal Judges.