Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Singapore justice in 1974: Slander permitted, because it's in Hokkien

J.B. Jeyatretnam

Tay Boon Too (郑文滔)

Straits Times,

THE High Court yesterday dismissed with costs two defamation suits by the Workers’ Party (represented by J.B. Jeyatretnam), arising from an election rally speech by Mr. Tay Boon Too (郑文滔, PAP MP for Paya Lebar, 1966-1976), then a PAP candidate for Paya Lebar, at Lorong Tai Seng on Aug. 25, 1972.

The plaintiff had claimed that the two defendants had defamed the party with a claim, allegedly attributed to Mr. Tay, that it had received $600,000 from Kuala Lumpur (in the suit against Mr. Tay) and “from a foreign country” in the action against the Broadcasting Department [Radio Singapore], when this was “false”.

The two defendants, the judge observed, had not sought to justify their statements that the plaintiff had received the money. [i.e. Tay Boon Too had not given any proof of his statement.]

The action against Mr. Tay, which was for slander, failed on the main ground raised on his behalf – that the plaintiff had not proved in law the “publication” of the words complained of.”

Mr. Tay’s speech was in Hokkien and there was no evidence before the court and also in the plaintiff’s amended statement of claim of the Hokkien words which the plaintiff regarded as “defamatory.”

The judge said the only official language of the court was English and it was fatal to the plaintiff’s case not to have the original words, as alleged spoken in Hokkien, set out in its pleadings.

*********  My comment  ************

To clarify matters, the judgment reads:

Here the slander alleged was spoken in Hokkien but the words complained of were set out in English in the amended statement of claim. English is the official language of the court and in that context any other language would be a foreign language (Galley on Libel & Slander, 7th Edn, paragraph 987). If the slander alleged is in a language other than English it must be set out in the statement of claim in the foreign language precisely as spoken and followed by a literal translation. It is not enough to set out a translation without setting out the original or vice versa. (Gatley on Libel & Slander, 7th Edn, paragraph 987). While the absence of a translation in the pleadings may not be fatal to the plaintiffs case the absence of the original words in the foreign language in question is.

What a technical manoeuvre. For the absence, in the statement of claim, of a sentence in Chinese, whose absence has no impact on the substance of the case (the sentence in Chinese could be produced during trial), a slander could not be challenged in court.

And the case can be misleadingly, though correctly, summarized thus: "The Workers' Party sued Tay Boon Too for slander, and lost." (implying that Tay's statement was true.)

Tay Boon Too had not denied making the statement. He did not need to.

He also did not need to prove that his statement was true.


The Broadcasting Department, sued for libel, succeeded in its defence, raised in its pleadings, that its news bulletin reports on the subject matter were “fair and accurate” and related to “a privileged occasion” (an election rally).

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