By Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss
Dr Lee Wei Ling: “i will no longer write for SPH as the editors there do not allow me freedom of speech. in fact, that was the reason why i posted the article on LKY would not want to be hero-worshipped.” (Facebook on 1 April 2016 at 1.07pm)
Janadas Devan: “Reading Wei Ling’s unedited writings was like sailing through a fog. The effort of turning her raw material into coherent articles — that’s what I remember most about editing Wei Ling.” (Facebook on 4 April 2016 at 3.05pm and Straits Times on 5 April 2016)
Dr Lee Wei Ling is the daughter of Singapore’s former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew and Janadas Devan is the son of Singapore’s third President, C.V. Devan Nair 1.
By now, many will be aware that following Dr Lee Wei Ling’s Facebook post on 1 April 2016, a public spat ensued between Dr Lee Wei Ling and Janadas Devan 2. Reading their feisty online exchanges sparked off an interest in me to find out more about the relationship between their respective fathers, Lee Kuan Yew and Devan Nair.
For the most part of their lives, Lee and Nair 3 were political comrades. But in their later years, they were bitterly suing each other in court.
Public records bear witness to a tragic tale of close cronies turning into feuding foes. When the People’s Action Party was formed on 21 November 1954, Lee and Nair were among its founding members. Nair is credited for helping to establish the Singapore National Trades Union Congress. On 23 October 1981, Nair was elected by Parliament as Singapore’s third President.
Then on 28 March 1985, Nair resigned as President of Singapore without completing his term of office. In 1988, Nair left Singapore for good and never came back.
Singapore High Court: Lee Kuan Yew v Nair Devan (1988)
On 6 May 1988, Francis Seow was detained under the Internal Security Act (Cap. 143). On 22 May 1988, Nair publicly spoke up for Francis Seow, questioning the basis for his detention without trial. Lee, taking offence to certain parts of Nair’s public statements, took swift action and sued Nair for defamation three days later on 25 May 1988.
Initially, Lee’s lawsuit cited two instances of alleged libel arising from Nair’s comments made to the media on 22 May 1988. Then on 7 April 1989, Lee added a third instance of alleged libel to his lawsuit against Nair, citing Nair’s alleged libellous comments as contained in an article written by a reporter published in The Straits Times on 23 May 1988.
In response to this additional claim by Lee, Nair applied to Court to drag the newspaper into the fray to share the blame (if any) with him. The newspaper protested vigorously, but the Court agreed with Nair, observing that the newspaper had made its own decision to republish Nair’s press statement. So Straits Times Press (1975) Ltd became a party to the lawsuit. This meant that if the Court were to decide that Nair’s comments were libellous, the newspaper could be made to share liability with Nair to pay damages to Lee.
Lee’s 1988 lawsuit lasted over four years and spawned two reported interim court decisions, one on 3 September 1990 4 and the other on 8 December 19925. As to the final outcome of that lawsuit, whether it was won, lost or discontinued, I do not know. I have not been able to find out what happened to Lee’s 1988 lawsuit. If anyone knows, do share.
Ontario Supreme Court: Lee v. Globe and Mail, Nair (1999)
On 29 March 1999, the Canadian newspaper, Globe and Mail published an article 6 entitled ‘Singapore Sage’ reporting on an interview with Nair. In that article, Nair alleged that Lee had Singapore doctors slip hallucinatory drugs to Nair to make him appear befuddled.
In June 1999, Lee filed a lawsuit in Canada against Globe and Mail and Nair for defamation.
In response to Lee’s lawsuit, Globe and Mail filed their Statement of Defence, pleading the defences of justification, fair comment and qualified privilege. Lee countered by applying to court to strike out certain parts of their Defence. However, the Court decided 7 to dismiss Lee’s striking out application with costs.
As for Nair, he responded by filing a Counterclaim against Lee, seeking damages on the basis that Lee’s lawsuit was an abuse of process. Nair argued that the real purpose of Lee’s lawsuit was to silence, not only Nair, but all of Lee’s critics and opposition in Singapore. According to Nair, Lee’s action was part of a pattern of using the libel process to silence his critics and opposition and was “a mere stalking horse intended to further foster and continue a climate of fear and intimidation”. 8
In turn, Lee filed a Motion to have Nair’s Counterclaim thrown out of court. As it turns out, the Canadian Court found merits in Nair’s arguments and allowed Nair’s Counterclaim to stand. Once again, Lee found his court application dismissed with costs. 9
Lee having failed to strike out certain parts of the newspaper’s Defence and to strike out Nair’s Counterclaim, the parties (Lee, Globe and Mail and Nair) were left to slug it out in Court in respect of Lee’s defamation lawsuit, Globe and Mail’s Defence and Nair’s Counterclaim.
But the legal case never got much further after that and was eventually discontinued. Nair’s mental health had overtaken him.
On 1 July 2004, Globe and Mail reported 10 that Nair had been diagnosed as suffering from early dementia that he was no longer able to give evidence in court proceedings.
That terse report also stated that as to Nair’s allegation in the ‘Singapore Sage’ article that Lee had Singapore doctors slip hallucinatory drugs to Nair to make him appear befuddled, “Mr Nair’s family has said that, having reviewed the record, there is no basis for this allegation.”
Nair passed away in Canada on 7 December 2005. He was 82. Nair gave the best years of his life to public service in Singapore. His final resting place is a grave in Hamilton, Canada.