Jeyaretnam trial : Day 5
August 23, 1997
Times quoted in Singapore damages call
FROM CHRIS LYDGATE IN SINGAPORE
THE politically charged defamation suit against Singapore's most prominent opposition politican, J. B. "Ben" Jeyaretnam, ended its first phase yesterday with counsel for Goh Chok Tong, the Prime Minister, asking for S$200,000 (£84,000) in damages.
Summarising the Prime Minister's case, Thomas Shields, QC, said that he sought additional damages because of the way that Mr Jayaretnam's defence had been conducted. George Carman, QC, Mr Jeyaretnam's lawyer, has suggested the case was intended to bankrupt his client, so removing him from parliament. He had also pursued a withering cross-examination of Mr Goh, probing fundamental issues about the functioning of democracy in Singapore.
Quoting both The Times "QC speaks of climate of fear in Singapore" and the International Herald Tribune "Goh's motives questioned in Singapore case" Mr Shields said that the defence had tried to turn the case into "a sort of show trial", attacking the Prime Minister's credibility.
Mr Jeyaretnam, 71, is facing eight libel suits filed by 11 senior members of Singapore's ruling People's Action Party, including Mr Goh and Lee Kuan Yew, the Senior Minister, who was Mr Goh's predecessor.
The suits were triggered by a remark Mr Jeyaretnam made at the last Workers' Party rally before the January election, when he told the crowd he had just been handed two police reports filed against PAP leaders by Tang Liang Hong, a party colleague. In court, Mr Goh likened that announcement to a "Molotov cocktail" lobbed in his direction.
Singapore newspapers had given lavish coverage to the police reports, in which Mr Tang accused PAP leaders of deliberately lying about his beliefs and painting him as an "anti-Christian Chinese chauvinist" a damaging claim in an island nation constantly engaged in a delicate ethnic and religious balancing act.
Mr Carman said Mr Shields's line of reasoning was an "astonishing argument" which implied that the media could not report on legitimate public events. He appealed to the High Court to "look behind the libel game" at the true motivation for the litigation, and to limit any damages to a single dollar.
The case has generated considerable interest both internationally and in Singapore. The Straits Times, the island's leading morning newspaper, has carried reports on several pages every day and, while the coverage has certainly been more favourable to the PAP leaders than reports from foreign journalists, most of the issues raised by Mr Carman have been faithfully covered, albeit usually in the back pages.
Mr Justice S. Rajendran said that he did not expect to issue a judgment in the case until next month.
The other ten plaintiffs, all senior PAP members, have agreed to be bound by Mr Justice Rajendran's decision in the Prime Minister's case. Damages, if any, will be on a case-by-case basis.
The plaintiffs have already been awarded a total of S$5.6 million in damages against Mr Tang for allegations by him, including those contained in the police reports mentioned by Mr Jeyaretnam at the rally.