Judge awards Lee and Goh $500,000

7 December 2005

A Singapore opposition leader lost a three-year legal battle against defamation charges brought by the city-state’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, and his successor, court documents showed on Friday.

Singapore’s High Court ruled that Chee Soon Juan of the Singapore Democratic Party must pay Lee and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong S$500,000 ($303,600) in damages in relation to a case dating back to Singapore’s 2001 general elections.

Chee, a free speech advocate, was found guilty in August 2002 of defaming Lee and Goh for questioning their use of public funds during the 2001 poll. He lost an appeal in 2003 but judges had yet to award damages in the lawsuit.

Justice Kan Ting Chiu said in a written judgment that Chee impeded court proceedings by failing to show up at a hearing in September to review damages in the case. The judgment was made on Thursday and made available to foreign media on Friday.

“He knew the allegations he made were false, but he refused to admit that, and tried to delay the progress of the legal proceedings against him,” Kan said.

Chee has a month to appeal against the extent of the damages.

The damages mean Chee will most likely declare himself bankrupt, effectively ruling him out of the next elections due by 2007, if he cannot pay S$300,000 to Goh and S$200,000 to Lee. Singapore laws forbid bankrupts from standing for office.

Critics such as rights group Amnesty International have charged that defamation lawsuits brought by Singapore leaders are designed to cripple the opposition.

The U.S. State Department, in its 2004 annual report, sharply criticised Singapore for using libel suits to intimidate opposition politicians, saying the threat of libel has stifled political opinion and disadvantaged the opposition.

Singapore leaders say such actions are necessary to safeguard their reputation.

The ruling People’s Action Party, first under Lee Kuan Yew and now led by his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, has dominated parliament since independence in 1965. It won 82 of 84 seats in November 2001 elections and has never lost more than four seats in any election. Chee’s party has no seats.

Singapore’s most prominent opposition figure, 79-year-old J.B. Jeyaretnam, lost a legal battle in November to discharge a bankruptcy ruling that bars him from standing in the next general election.