Singapore Chided for using civil law to gag debate

 

Jerry Norton, 17th October 1997 THE AGE

 

Amnesty International has condemned Singapore politicians for defamation suits it describes as politically motivated attempts to silence criticism.

Amnesty International is increasingly concerned about the Singapore leadership’s use of civil defamation suits for political purposes," Amnesty said that yesterday from its London headquarters. Leaders from Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party vehemently deny that they sue for political reasons. They say they are motivated by a desire to preserve their reputation and the integrity critical to their ability to govern.

Referring to eight suits against the opposition politician Mr Joshus Jeyaretnam by Singapore’s Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, and 10 other party leaders, Amnesty said the action was "both unreasonable and unnecessary". "Amnesty International questions why Jeyaretnam’s case was ever brought to court."

Nine People’s Action Party members, the Prime Minister and his predecessor, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, have accused Mr Jeyaretnam of defaming them at a political rally for January’s elections. They said he defamed them by saying at a Worker’s Party colleague "has just placed before me two reports he has made to the police" against Mr Goh and other leaders.

Amnesty said the words were innocuous and would not have excited comment in a society that respected freedom of expression. Judge S. Rajendran in the High Court found in Mr Goh’s favour last month and awarded him $S 20,000 ($A 17,500) in damages. Judge Rajendran said Mr Jeyaretnam’s comments gave a "broad negative impression" because it suggested Mr Goh may have done something wrong, and was defamation by innuendo because the audience would have known the contents of the police report.

But the award was one-tenth what Mr Goh had sought and the judge said the Prime Minister’s Lawyers had overstated his case. Judge Rajendran also said Singapore’s Judicial system was open and independent of political pressure. "There are no private directives to a judge from the executive or from anyone else on how a case is to be conducted, how the judgment is to be phrased, how the law is to be applied or what matters of policy are to be considered," he said.

Amnesty said the relatively low award "does not remove the threat that Mr Jeyaretnam may still face bankruptcy and subsequently be expelled from parliament".

Bankrupts are not permitted to serve in Parliament. Mr Jeyaretnam still faces possible awards and cost from the other suits.