The Online Citizen

1989 – Lee Kuan Yew’s defamation suit against FEER

May 24
09:58 2009

Nathaniel Koh

This article consists mainly of excerpts from the Straits Times and the Wall Street Journal.


In September 1989, then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew sued the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) over an article related to the “Marxist Conspiracy” saga in 1987.

Mr Lee was suing the Review’s former editor, Mr Derek Davies, writer Michael Malik, publisher Review Publishing and printer Times Printers over an article, headlined, ‘New Light on Detentions’, run in the Hongkong-based weekly’s Dec 17, 1987 issue.

The trial was held before Justice L.P. Thean. Mr Lee was represented by Queen’s Counsel John Previte, while the Review was defended by Queen’s Counsel Geoffrey Robinson.

The Government’s Case

Mr Lee sued the Review over two passages in the article because he felt they suggested that he was intolerant of the Catholic Church, was not in favour of freedom of religious belief and worship, and wanted to victimise Catholic priests and workers.

He also believed that the passages meant that he tricked Archbishop Gregory Yong into attending the Istana press conference, trapped or forced the Archbishop into accepting statements about Catholic lay worker Vincent Cheng, and used his influence as Prime Minister to stop the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation and The Straits Times from broadcasting and publishing the Archbishop’s qualification of his acceptance of statements about Cheng.

The Three Istana Meetings – Testimony by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew

Prime Minister Lee took the stand to give his version of the three meetings that took place at the Istana on June 2, 1987.

Meeting #1

The meeting was meant to discuss the controversy that had arisen as a result of the arrest in May that year of 16 people, including some church workers, connected with an alleged Marxist plot. Mr Lee’s concern was to prevent a collision between the Church and the Government. He said he wanted to defuse the situation, which he felt was being aggravated by the actions of some priests in whipping up emotion through press statements and special masses for the detainees.

Meeting #2

The second meeting, which began at 3.50 pm, was between Mr Lee, Prof Jayakumar and officials, and Reverend Giovanni D’Aniello, Charge D’Affaires of the Holy See in Bangkok. Mr Lee told the court that its main purpose was for him to impress upon the Vatican diplomat the seriousness of the situation and appeal for his help in averting the collision.

Meeting #3

The third meeting, at 5.20 pm, had Mr Lee, with Prof Jayakumar and officials, Rev D’Aniello and Archbishop Yong together. It was at this meeting, the Prime Minister told the court, that he impressed upon Archbishop Yong and Rev D’Aniello the urgency of the Archbishop giving the press a clear picture of the Church’s position.

This had become so because a report had been leaked to AFP news agency that Mr Lee had asked to meet the Archbishop and the delegation.

A press conference at the Istana rounded up the day’s events. It was at this meeting that the Archbishop read out the statement he had prepared with the help of Rev D’Aniello. What Archbishop Yong was purported to have told some priests later about the press conference made up the substance of the second passage in the Review article that Mr Lee objected to.

Refuting the Allegations in the Passage

The three allegations in the passage, Mr Previte noted, were that the Prime Minister tricked the Archbishop into attending the press conference, trapped or forced him into accepting the validity of Cheng’s statement that he had been involved in a Marxist conspiracy, and censored the SBC and The Straits Times.

On the first allegation, Mr Previte contended that the Archbishop knew of the press conference well before it took place and took part in drafting the press statement with Vatican emissary Giovanni D’Aniello.

The QC further argued that the defence should have called the Archbishop as a witness to prove their case that he was indeed “cornered”. But since they did not do so, they had to accept Mr Lee’s evidence.

On the second allegation, the QC cited various notes of meetings which the Archbishop had with Home Affairs Ministry officials before the June 2 meeting, which showed that he, the Archbishop, had accepted the basis for the Government’s detention of Cheng.

On the third allegation, Mr Previte contended that if the words did mean that Mr Lee had indeed

censored SBC and The Straits Times, then it was clearly defamatory and the Review had no defence against it.

The Review’s Case

The Review maintained that several meetings at the Istana on June 2, 1987, led to the Review article and Mr Lee’s defamation suit. The article, it said, was a “remarkably accurate” account of events at the Istana on June 2, 1987, and the Review was justified in publishing it.

Testimony by Father Joachim Kang

THE defence called Catholic priest Joachim Kang as its only witness. The priest was in the Church delegation which met the Prime Minister on June 2, 1987, and was also at a “post-mortem” discussion held at the Archbishop’s house the next day.

Father Kang said that he was the un-named priest quoted by Father Edgar D’Souza in the Review article who said that it was hard to believe that the ISA arrests of 1987 were not an attack on the Church and that the real targets were not the detainees but four priests. His testimony focused, among others, on these areas:

·         The Mass for detainees: There was nothing unusual about the May 27, 1987 Mass at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. Father Kang told the court that there had been Masses with congregations bigger than 2,500, and it was not unusual for lay people to address the congregation during a Mass.

·         The Istana meeting: The Prime Minister was stern and forceful when he told the Church delegation on June 2, 1987, about his fears of an impending “collision” between Church and Government. Father Kang said he was stunned and “almost dumbfounded” when Mr Lee “turned the spotlight” on four priests whom he criticised for venturing into the political arena. Mr Lee also seemed impatient with the Archbishop, and twice waved him aside when he tried to clarify some points. When the Archbishop read from a prepared statement, Mr Lee looked at his watch and asked him how much longer he would take.

·         Why he did not question PM: Father Kang said he had expected the Istana meeting to focus on the ISA detentions and the 16 detainees, but was shocked to be presented one folder on detainee Vincent Cheng and another on four priests. Asked why he did not question Mr Lee when the latter asked the delegation if they had any questions, Father Kang confessed that he did not have the courage to do so. He had asked Mr Lee one question, but did not dare say any more, because of the way Mr Lee acted at the meeting.

·         The detainees: Not very much was said about them at the Istana meeting. The Prime Minister dismissed detainee Vincent Cheng and the others as “stupid novices” and said that former student agitator Tan Wah Piow, who had been named as the mastermind of the Marxist conspiracy, was a “simpleton”. Father Kang said he got the impression that the real target of the Government’s action was not the 16 detainees, but the four priests.

·         The Istana press conference: The 10-member Church delegation had gone to the Istana in three cars. Archbishop Yong and the others were at their cars and ready to leave after their meeting with the Prime Minister, when someone came up and asked the Archbishop to stay behind. Some of the delegates went back to the Archbishop’s house and waited for him. When the Archbishop got back about an hour later, his first words were: “I was cornered.” He had just returned from a televised press conference held at the Istana.

·         The Review article: When he read the article soon after the Dec 17, 1987 issue came out, Father Kang recognised the unnamed priest quoted by Father D’Souza as himself. He had said the words at a “post-mortem” held at the Archbishop’s house on June 3 to discuss the Istana meeting. He was not surprised to see the account of that discussion in the Review, even though it had been a private meeting of some of the Church delegates and three of the four priests who had been named.

The Verdict

In his 114-page judgment, Mr Justice L. P. Thean indicated that he was inclined to award full legal costs to the Prime Minister because he had “succeeded substantially on all the issues”.

Mr Justice Thean held that both passages referred to Mr Lee and was defamatory of him by imputing “dishonourable and discreditable” conduct. Examining the Review’s defences, he rejected the argument that the two passages, as interpreted by the Review, were true in substance and in fact.

On the first passage, he said there was no suggestion that Mr Lee had severely criticised the Church. The magazine had not proved that the 16 detainees were mere scapegoats either.

On the second passage, he said there was no evidence that the Archbishop was tricked or pressured into attending the Istana press conference.

He also turned down the Review’s plea that the two passages amounted to fair comment on matters of public interest.

He went on to rule that Mr Davies and Mr Malik were guilty of “express malice” – ill-will, spite or wrong or improper motive – citing several incidents to support his conclusion. It followed, he said, that Review Publishing was also “vicariously liable”.

“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.”

‘The other aggravating factor is the conduct of the defendants through their counsel in repeatedly attempting in the cross-examination to put to the plaintiff matters which have no relevance to the issues … the line of cross-examination … exacerbated the hurt to the plaintiff’s feelings and the damage to his reputation, particularly in this case, which has received extensive publicity.’


  • socrates

    Nathaniel Koh:

    What is the point of this article? What are you trying to say to your readers?
    Where is th newspeg??

  • white raven

    What a big farce! Everyone was bullied and cowed by one man. Nothing escapes his vengence and wrath.

  • white raven

    #1, socrates..

    As a wise man by yr nickname, you should be intelligent enough to know what the article was intended to do. If you still do not, how abt considering how domineering was the old man on the Archbishop, the Church, the judges and his own Minister.

  • Donaldson Tan

    This incident demonstrates that while the Singapore Constitutions guarantees self-autonomy for religious institutions, it does not mean it is absolutely free from Government’s interference.

  • Lai CF

    1) socrates on May 24th, 2009 12.29 pm Nathaniel Koh:

    What is the point of this article? What are you trying to say to your readers?
    Where is th newspeg??
    Nat, care to asnwer that question?

  • Spirit-centred

    This article indicate that the government is very worried about the power of the church and also the mosque. As long as they smell anything unusual, they will step in to stamp you out. In fact the churches and mosques are infiltrated with their people in recent times. So don’t play play!!

  • glad

    I am glad that PAP and MM Lee is still around to refute this is necessary.

    Will PAP speak up? Or like a few good men, Jack Nicholas – we folks are unable to handle the truth?

    What is the truth?

  • glad

    I am glad that PAP and MM Lee is still around to refute this if necessary.

    Will PAP speak up? Or like a few good men, Jack Nicholas – we folks are unable to handle the truth?

    What is the truth?

  • winstoncheng

    Thanks for the article. I didn’t know much about what happened then and Fr.Joachim’s involvement in this case. Now that I do, I have many questions in my mind. Think I better keep them to myself.

  • Catherine Tan

    What’s your point Nathaniel? This is not some term paper in SMU…

  • scarecrow

    no one dares to comment.

  • anomynous

    Since when have Singapore abolished the jury system?
    What is the rationale of doing away with juries.
    Does a case like this show the pros and cons of a jury system?

  • death upon mankind

    who’s the real marxist?

  • prettyplace

    Nathaniel it’s a very serious article…..

    But, I still have to take LKY’s words…that he wanted the situation defused.
    And the whole world by now knows, that he is certainly 100percent forceful.

    I usually don’t side him…but the extra events which happened after the arrest were alittle troubling….if left unchecked…..i don’t wish to speculate……..

  • prettyplace

    But of course, you can turn around and ask me …..if nobody ask then who will….

    It was the time..the time… friend..Singapore and Singaporeans, i doubt would have been able to navigate the uncharted waters….then….

    Good piece…keep it up.

  • rwkc

    I note that in this case two QCs were involved, one for the plaintiff and one for the defendant. Was it because of the plaintiff’s engaging of a QC that triggered the engagement of a QC by the defendant?

    If engagement of QC was started first by the defendant, why was the same defendant denied the use of a QC in the defamation suit filed by LKY and LHL in 2006?

    Were there any changes in the law between 1989 and 2006, with regard to use of QCs in our courts?

    Why was the plaintiff allowed a QC, assuming the plaintiff was the party who initiated the engagement of a QC, in the 1989 case?

    Was it because of the non-engagement of a QC by the plaintiffs in the 2006 case that the defendant was denied the use of a QC, even though the defendant had, more than once, made known their wish to engage a QC? It was with disbelief that I read that Justice Tay Yong Kwang turned down FEER’s request to engage a QC because in his opinion the case was not sufficiently complex to warrant the engagement of a QC. Surely,Justice Tay should have known better than to make a subjective statement like that and then used it as a legal criterion for rejecting FEER’s request. Was he acting rationally or irrationally? Or just being prejudicial, in an unjustifiable or dishonorable way?

    Would someone with legal expertise please comment.

  • http://TOCSingapore Edward

    Take heart fellow citizens. The old man don’t have many more years to sue political opponents, independant foreign newspapers, magazines and journalists. Just don’t mention or imply that he or his family is corrupt and you are quite safe.

  • prettyplace

    No more QC because got Senior Council now mah….Singapore they say is matured enough with eloquent lawyers.

    I don’t know which year Privy Council was struck off also….must have been somewhere around that time..i guess…..if not the appeal court would have been held in Britain.

    I do want to add this….the arena the detention argument was going into was what I oppose and not the detention argument itself.

    There was an interesting comment by GCT today.
    May we live in Interesting Times.

  • Richard

    in the book “Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-War Singapore” published by NUS Press last year, there is an article on the so-called “Marxist Conspiracy”. the book is available at Borders.

    for those who would like to have a deeper understanding of the saga, you will find some answers in the article. as stated in the article, the real target of LKY’s action was not Vicent Cheng and the other detainees, they were just the scapegoats.

  • Waititi

    Time for the karma to take over.

    The old man and myself are two old man.

    Though I am pushing to 70.
    But, my machine is still good and I need not have to see any doctor for a long time.

    In fact I do not even have a doctor.

    Not so for our old friend.

    He jets around the world to see very expensive doctors. .

    I only take vitamin pills and the cost is as little as 10 tablets for 23 US cents. True. Swear in the name of Nirvana.

    I am my own doctor.

    I take other natural medicine.

    My friends say I am a pubau and in the local context it means I can flirt with women.
    I do not live in Singapore. I live in a village in Indochina.

  • http://deleted Waititi

    Health is precious.

    Does the old man have good health.

    Now is the time to make peace with all.

    His karma may come anytime.

    The he will be reincarnated.

  • Tin

    I know that the Catholic Churches were ‘silenced’ at that time, but I’m sure that Catholics then and now (thanks to TOC) will have renewed awareness of the cruelty of Lee Kuan Yew.

  • Laulall

    A trained and talented lawyer who is sharp and quick can easily argue one way or another, either in favour or against, in any issue given the same facts and situation.

    However, the judge has the benefit of time to go back to the comfort of his office to examine in detail, even with the help of technology and assistance from others, everything that has been said and argued in court and come out with a decision or judgment one way or the other, depending on how he thinks and perceives the case “should be”. And he is only human. And a human no matter how intelligent, honourable, unbiased, etc., etc. is never perfect. In other words, he can also err.

    In the final analysis, no matter what, one has no choice but to accept, even unwillingly, whatever that has been dished out by the judge. It is unfortunate, that there is no more “trial by jury” and higher courts of appeal such as The Privy Council in the UK, to turn to for any appeal, where a neutral third party can review and examine any dispute from a detached and different angle. Most unfortunate of all is if there happens to be only one single judge to preside over a case.

    It would be better if there are at least three judges to preside over any case of national or international interests, or of great importance to the people or to the state.

    What can a tiny island state with small-minded (kiasu) and small-hearted (kiasi) people do in order to aspire to follow in the footsteps of the great countries which have great leaders with not only great-minds but also equally great-hearts?

    Therefore, the reality of our situation today, and for many more years to come, is that the state will always have the final say in everything that happens within the country. There is no point hitting one’s head against a stone!

    In the mean time, until and unless substantial improvements are done to the existing system …. pray, “Help us God!”

  • Hahaha

    For those asking about the end of using QC in Singapore. Refer to the earlier TOC article.
    He lost his seat in 1986 and was jailed for a month after the government applied the law in dastardly novel ways – not even his recourse to the British Privy Council, which exonerated him of the charges, helped – and did not enter Parliament again for more than a decade.

    The Singapore’s Senior Council was formed after that.

  • IMS

    In the name of god, they are too worried about the consequences than to tell the truth? Have they sinned?

    Years later, you have uncovered the truth and you asked thse fathers to tell the truth or to stand up for the truth. Would they?

    Politics is a very dirty game, it is same in almost all Asian countries. What can we do? Just tell me what can you do except to comment in this forum?

  • kingrant

    #10, Catherine Tan,

    What do you think? To me, just reporting the whole episode as it was is already so telling. Need one ask? Look at the forceful dominance of one man over the whole process. Everyone is ruled by fear, through fear. Whoever bucks the system gets the end of his knuckledusters. There is no rule of law. His word is the law. He has thought the 22 “Marxist conspirators” should be detained without trial indefinitely, and there is no law,no lawyer, no institution, no man who would stand up to him who has not been crushed. If he decides that you should die tomorrow, will anybody cometo yr help? The man is more powerful than God. At least for God, your day of reckoning starts after yr death. With LKY, your hell on Earth starts immediately. Is this what Singapore wants?

  • kingrant

    LKY doesnt need to pick up the phone or tell anybody or give orders. Through his cunning and shrewdness, he knows how to work the system to his best interests, by instilling fear. As they say, kill one chicken to frighten the monkeys is all a tyrant needs. Everyone is so ruled by fear and threat of loss of his job, future, freedom, that he will obey and do things out of His expectation. If you don’t, you never know when the knife will descend on you or which door will close on you. This fear is pervasive in the civil service, the organs of state, the Ministries, even his own younger Ministers. No one can run, no one can hide.

  • kingfisher


    There are so far a few daring heroes to defy him

    1. Chia Thye Poh
    2. the late JBJ
    3. Chee SJ & his sister
    4. the 22 Catholic Church members allegedly involved and as yet unproven to this day in a Marxist conspiracy
    5. the late Lim Chin Siong
    6. Father Joachim
    6. the late Devan Nair

  • George

    Sadly our court was used to silent critic which in a free democractic society would encourage a healthy debate on subjects that have many options and opinions. We in SinKapore sadly is not allow to have an opinion different from that of PAP or MM Lee. A free press mean exactly that e.g. the freedom to publish subject of public interest to be determined by the editor and not by the gahment. We no longer have any free press either local or foreign in Sinkapore. Fair enough, for those who are curious enough would surf the net to read all the forbiden news. Total control is getting harder but big brother is working on it to control cyber space as well. We shall wait and see what they will do next. However, we shall find a way to jump over the firewall.

  • NERV

    Well there is a saying that to win your enemies you don’t have to kill them you just need to outlive them.

  • Happygolucky

    i think pm lee certainly has his reason for doing so. he do not want to associate the government with any religion cus singapore is a multi-religion country. perhaps he was a little harsh while doing do…