Two appeals involving Singapore Parliamentarian and lawyer J.B. Jeyaretnam and freedom of speech issues were heard before Singapore’s Court of Appeal in the week of July 23-28 2001.

One appeal, relating to a bankruptcy order issued in January 2001 after JB Jeyaretnam failed to pay an installment of libel damages awarded to the organizing committee of a 1995 event promoting the Tamil language, may result in JB Jeyaretnam being confirmed bankrupt and so automatically removed from parliament and prevented from standing in future elections.

A second appeal relates to the revival of libel suits filed by Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and other senior members of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) for an allegedly defamatory statement made by JB Jeyaretnam during the 1997 election campaign. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was awarded S$100,000 damages plus costs in 1998 because of this statement.

Background information

JB Jeyaretnam, a former Senior District Judge, was elected as Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party in 1971. In 1981 he won a by-election becoming the first opposition member in over fifteen years to sit in parliament with PAP parliamentarians. Following his re-election in 1984, J B Jeyaretnam was charged for alleged financial impropriety related to the collection of party funds. In 1986 he was acquitted by a District Court of all charges save one. The prosecution appealed the acquittal and the then Chief Justice allowed the appeal, with the direction that a re-trial be heard by a District Court. At re-trial JB Jeyaretnam was found guilty and sentenced to three months in jail, which was reduced by the High Court but with the addition of a S$5,000 fine. The imposition of a fine of over S$2,000 resulted in the automatic disqualification of JB Jeyaretnam as a member of parliament and the conviction also triggered a Law Society hearing that resulted in him being disbarred.

JB Jeyaretnam’s earlier application for the re-trial to be heard before the High Court rather than a District Court, which would have allowed any subsequent appeal to be pursued up to Singapore’s then highest court, the Privy Council located in London, had been refused. After his conviction his appeal to the Privy Council was limited to consideration of his disbarment. In its judgment the Privy Council concluded that JB Jeyaretnam and a co-accused had been “fined, imprisoned, and publicly disgraced for offences for which they were not guilty” and directed the Law Society to reinstate JB Jeyaretnam. The government refused to heed the Privy Council’s advice to facilitate a pardon for JB Jeyaretnam on the grounds that the criminal convictions had not been the subject of the Privy Council appeal. JB Jeyaretnam was subsequently re-instated as a lawyer, but prevented from standing again for election until 1997, when he ran and was returned as a non-constituency member of parliament.

The Appeals:

1) JB Jeyaretnam vs. Lee Kuan Yew et al Shortly after the 1997 election Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and other senior PAP members filed suits against JB Jeyaretnam alleging that he had defamed them at an election rally by saying the words “And finally, Mr. Tang Liang Hong has just placed before me two reports he has made to the police against, you know, Mr. Goh Chok Tong and his people”.

Tang Liang Hong, a Workers’ Party parliamentary candidate, had filed a police report alleging that the PAP leadership had defamed him during the campaign by publicly labeling him an “anti-Christian, Chinese chauvinist”. The PAP leaders listed in the police reports, alleging that they had been defamed by Tang Liang Hong through the reports, sued and were awarded damages of S$8.08 million (US$5.6 million) reduced on appeal to S$4.53 million (US$ 2.3 million). Tang Liang Hong was subsequently declared bankrupt.

In his suit against JB Jeyaretnam, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was awarded S$20,000 increased on his appeal to S$100,000 plus full costs. Amnesty International representatives observed both trial and appeal and expressed concerns that the suits against JB Jeyaretnam were politically motivated. In 1998 Goh Chok Tong began bankruptcy proceedings against JB Jeyaretnam but later agreed to accept payment of the damages awarded to him in installments. Bankruptcy proceedings resumed when JB Jeyaretnam failed to meet an installment but the Prime Minister discontinued them with S$31,000 remaining unpaid. In December 2000, Goh Chok Tong’s co-plaintiffs including Lee Kuan Yew and other PAP members, took steps to revive their 1997 suits which had not yet come before the courts. It is the dismissal of JB Jeyaretnam’s application to dismiss these libel actions for failure to proceed for a period of over three years that is the subject of the appeal before the Court of Appeal in July 2001.

2) JB Jeyaretnam vs. Indra Krishnan et al (the ‘Tamil Language Week’ case) A 1995 article in the Workers’ Party newspaper alleged that an event called the ‘Tamil Language Week’ was an ineffective means of advancing the Tamil language and that a number of those involved were political opportunists beholden to the government. The article resulted in two parallel libel suits against the author of the article, JB Jeyaretnam as editor and members of the Workers’ Party party’s central committee.

In the first suit, involving Minister of Foreign Affairs S Jayakumar and four other PAP parliamentarians, the defendants agreed to apologize publicly and to pay S$200,000 in damages. In February 1998, after paying S$100,000 in three installments, the defendants were unable to make further payments and the plaintiffs did not pursue the matter at that time.

The second suit was lodged by Indra Krishnan and 9 other members of the ‘Tamil Language Week’ organizing committee, one of whom is now a PAP Member of Parliament. Although the author admitted that he was wholly responsible for the article, the High Court awarded the plaintiffs S$265,000 damages and S$250,000 costs jointly against all the defendants. Two of the plaintiffs subsequently began bankruptcy proceedings against JB Jeyaretnam alone, but were paid off in installments. Subsequently the other eight plaintiffs also began bankruptcy proceedings against JB Jeyaretnam, and one day after JB Jeyaretnam failed to pay an agreed installment in January 2001, he was declared bankrupt. On 16 July 2001 JB Jeyaretnam offered to pay off the remaining damages in three further installments. JB Jeyaretnam’s final appeal against this bankruptcy order will be heard before the Court of Appeal July 223-28 2001. If JB Jeyaretnam is confirmed bankrupt he will be automatically removed from parliament.

Amnesty International had learned that a contributory factor in JB Jeyaretnam’s failure to pay the agreed installment to Indra Krishnan and her fellow plaintiffs by one day in January 2001 was the unexpected petition by Minister of Foreign Affairs S Jayakumar and the 4 other PAP plaintiffs. After making no demands since receiving a third installment towards their S$200,000 award in 1998, these plaintiffs applied successfully to the courts in December 2000 to seize a sum of S$66,600 awarded to JB Jeyaretnam that month against a lawyer who owed him costs. JB Jeyaretnam had reportedly intended to use that money to meet his agreed January repayment. The Minister of Foreign Affairs and his fellow plaintiffs pursued the balance of payments of their damages award against Jeyaretnam alone and not against the other Workers’ Party defendants.

Appeal Judgments

This dismissal of the two appeals resulted in Mr. Jeyaretnam being expelled from Parliament, barred from contesting Singapore’s November 2001 general election and barred from re-admitted to the rolls of the Singapore Law Society. Jeyaretnam commented, “I have, as a result of going into politics, lost everything.”

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam’s 20-year career as Member of Parliament in Singapore and his 42-year career as a lawyer ended on July 23, 2001, when the Singapore Court of Appeal unanimously dismissed his bankruptcy appeal. The following day, Tan Soo Khoon, Speaker of Parliament, announced, “I have to inform honourable members the seat of Mr. J.B. Jeyaretnam, as a non-constituency Member of Parliament, has become vacant.” This observer attended two appeals as discussed below which represent the final chapter in the legal and parliamentary career of Mr. J.B. Jeyaretnam.

The two appeals involving J.B. Jeyaretnam were heard by the Singapore Court of Appeal on July 23rd and July 25th, 2001:

The Lee Kuan Yew case civil appeal number 600023 of 2001 between Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, the appellant, and Lee Kuan Yew, the respondent and former prime minister, presently senior minister of the Government of Singapore, heard July 25, 2001, judgement reserved and given on August 22, 2001. The Krishnan case (the bankruptcy appeal) civil appeal number 600011 of 2001 between Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, the appellant, and Indra Krishnan, heard July 23, 2001 and dismissed, and reasons for judgement given August 7, 2001.

J B Jeyaretnam is now bankrupt, no longer able to earn his living as a lawyer or as an opposition member of Parliament. Mr. Jeyaretnam has faced a number of crippling defamation suits and says he has paid more than S$1.5 million (US$1 million) in damages and costs to members of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and others.


Amnesty International and Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada were concerned that:

the Singaporean government may be using libel laws in a manner that amounts to a violation of the fundamental rights to freely hold and peacefully express one’s opinions. Such use of the libel laws and the awarding of damages, which are not clearly in proportion to the harm, suffered by the victim run the risk of having a serious chilling effect on freedom of expression in Singapore. a number of defamation suits against opposition members and perceived government critics, resulting in large damage awards, may have failed to achieve the requisite balance between protection of reputation and protection of freedom of expression and as such may be inconsistent with international norms protecting the fundamental right of freedom of expression.

LRWC is of the opinion that the dismissal of the two appeals and the use of defamation proceedings against Mr. Jeyaretnam and other government critics have impaired the right of Singaporeans to fully engage in professions that carry with them the duty or responsibility to, when necessary, be critical of government. This affects lawyers, parliamentarians, journalists, human rights defenders and all who depend on their services.



Fact Summary

Amnesty International and LRWC prepared a summary of the facts and legal proceedings relevant to J.B. Jeyaretnam’s appeals.

Public Statement

LRWC and Amnesty International prepared and AI distributed a Public Statement explaining the importance of the appeals and announced attendance at the appeals. [AI/LRWC Public Statement July 20 2001]


LRWC corresponded with other organizations concerned with freedom of speech for parliamentarians and advocates including the Inter-Parliamentary Union.


B.C. lawyer Howard Rubin, representative of Amnesty International and Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada attended the appeal proceedings.


Defamation in Singapore: Report to LRWC In the matter of Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam and two Appeals in the Court of Appeal of the Republic of Singapore, Gail Davidson and Howard Rubin (August 2001)


Canadian lawyer Howard Rubin, representative of Amnesty International and LRWC attended two appeals involving JB Jeyaretnam, former Secretary-General of the opposition Worker’s Party heard before Singapore’s Court of Appeal in the week commencing Monday 23 July 2001.

Mr. Rubin attended to assess respect for international freedom of speech norms protecting parliamentarians and advocates and reported directly back to Amnesty International and Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada. This appeal observation formed part of the organizations’ ongoing investigations into alleged violations of the right to freedom of expression in Singapore.

Mr. Rubin also met with Chee Soon Juan, Doreen Steidle Canadian High Commissioner to Singapore and with lawyers, politicians and former Internal Security Act detainees.



March 2002 – LRWC provided a copy of Defamation in Singapore: Report to LRWC In the matter of Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam and two Appeals in the Court of Appeal of the Republic of Singapore, Gail Davidson and Howard Rubin ( August 2001) to Ingeborg Schwarz of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). The IPU represents 142 member parliaments around the world. On 23 March 2002 at Marrakech, the Council of the IPU passed a resolution affirming that Jeyaretnam’s statements judged defamatory were a legitimate exercise of free speech rights. The IPU sharply criticizing the ‘clear intention’ to use defamation proceedings to silence Jeyaretnam and remove him from Parliament.

Ingeborg Schwarz reported that, “the [IPU] resolution draws,…largely on Howard Rubin’s trial observer report, which was instrumental not only in the decision to declare this case admissible but also to make it public.”

Chee Soon Juan

The Singapore High Court in a judgment delivered Friday January 18/02 barred internationally known trial lawyer Stuart Littlemore Q.C. from defending a defamation suit against Dr Chee Soon Juan, Secretary General of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), on the grounds that Mr. Littlemore “lacks decency” and is “not a suitable person”! The plaintiffs, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew suit against Chee, Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party, is based on remarks Chee is alleged to have made before the November 2001 general elections. In l997, Mr. Littlemore monitored the trial of a defamation suit filed by Prime Minister Goh and other officials against J. B. Jeyaretnam for the International Commission of Jurists. Littlemore’s report criticized the Singapore judiciary of lacking independence from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

Dr Chee Soon Juan and leading SDP member Ghandi Ambalan were recently convicted of several offences alleged to have occurred at the May 1 2002 Labour Day rally. Dr Chee, who was not represented by a lawyer at trial was sentenced to a fine of S$4,500 (US$2,540) or five weeks in jail for speaking without a permit at the gathering and for trespassing on government property. Ghandi Ambalam was fined S$3,000 or four weeks in jail on similar charges. Both men chose to go to jail. Ghandi Ambalan was later released after his family paid the fine. (SR 15/10) Dr Chee Soon Juan was convicted in July of violating in February the ban on Speakers’ Corner speeches pertaining to religion and ethnicity and fined S$1,725. The Alliance for Reform and Democracy (ARDA) condemned the decision, which also resulted in a ban against Dr Chee’s contesting elections for five years. (SDP 5/8)

Defamation suit in Canada

Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kwan Yew has filed a defamation suit in the Ontario Supreme Court against the Globe and Mail and former President Devan Nair claiming damages of $400,000.


Defamation in Singapore: Report to LRWC In the matter of Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam and two Appeals in the Court of Appeal of the Republic of Singapore, Gail Davidson and Howard Rubin (August 2001)