Hong Kong
1989-12-12 00:00:00

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew has been awarded 230,000 Singapore dollars (US$117,948) in damages in his libel suit against the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) by High Court Justice L.P. Thean.

Lee´s complaint arose from an article, entitled "New Light on Detentions," published in the Dec. 17, 1987, issue of the FEER. The article addresses the detention of Catholic Church workers under Singapore´s Internal Security Act (ISA).

After reserving judgment on the case at the end of the three-week trial which started Sept. 25, Justice Thean delivered his verdict Nov. 30. The FEER has one month to appeal the decision.

"Having taken into account all the relevant matters, including the aggravating factors, I think that a fair and reasonable sum as damages for the plaintiff is $230,000," Justice Thean said.

Lee was also granted 6 percent annual interest from Dec. 31, 1987, and a court order restraining the Hong Kong-based magazine from repeating the libel.

Justice Thean ruled that Derek Davis, then FEER editor, and Michael Malik, the writer of the article, were guilty of "express malice."

The High Court justice also said that during cross-examination, the FEER´s lawyer, Queen´s Counsel Geoffrey Robertson, repeatedly tried to cross examine on matters irrelevant to the case. Thean said that there were also numerous instances during the five days Lee was in the witness stand when the counsel put questions "calculated to be offensive and to increase the hurt to his (Lee´s) feelings."

-- The first of two passages which Lee says defamed him had Edgar D´Souza quoting an unnamed priest saying that it was hard to believe Lee´s meeting with a Church delegation June 2, 1987, at Istana, the prime minister´s residence, was not an attack against the Catholic Church.

D´Souza, a priest who has since left the priesthood, also quoted the unnamed priest as saying the 16 ISA detainees were merely scapegoats for "four radical priests" who were the government´s real target.

Thean said that there was no suggestion that Lee had severely criticized the Church, nor had the magazine proved that the 16 detainees were scapegoats.

-- The second passage asserted that the press conference following the Istana meeting was called without the knowledge of Archbishop Gregory Yong Sooi Ngean of Singapore, who reportedly felt cornered into accepting a statement about ISA detainee Vincent Cheng.

Thean said there was no evidence that Archbishop Yong was tricked or pressured into attending the Istana press conference.

He also noted that the word "cornered" in the context of the article carries the sinister implication that the archbishop was tricked and pressured.

Therefore, the judge ruled that the paragraph in which the word "cornered" appears defamed Lee and "tended to lower him in the esteem of right-thinking people in Singapore."

Thean held that both passages referring to Lee defamed him by imputing "dishonourable and discreditable" conduct.

-- Thean rejected the FEER defense that the two passages, as interpreted by the FEER, were true in substance and in fact. He also turned down the FEER´s plea that the two passages amounted to fair comment on matters of public interest.

Thean maintained that the first passage included comments attributed to Father Joachim Kang, but were not actually made by him. Father Kang was the FEER´s sole witness at the trial who had attended the Istana meeting.

The judge said it was clear that the precise words spoken by Father Kang were different from what appeared in the magazine´s article. "It is clear to me that ... Father Kang did not say the words as set out."

He added that what Father Kang said at the meeting at the archbishop´s house was different from what appeared in the article in at least two respects:

-- The priest did not refer to Lee´s threat regarding the use of powers under the ISA as "an attack against the Church," and he did not refer to the 16 ISA detainees as "scapegoats."

"These words are crucial. In them lies the sting of the libel," Thean said.

The judge noted that at the Istana meeting, Lee did tell the Church delegation that the government had full rights under the ISA. A fair-minded man "could honestly believe that the statement was a threat, and that the threat was directed at the four priests," Thean said.

However, considering the context in which Lee made the statement, the judge did not think that a fair-minded man could honestly believe that Lee´s statement was "an attack against the Church" and that the real targets "seemed not to be the 16 detainees who were merely scapegoats, but rather the four priests."


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