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Entrance of State court (Photo - Terry Xu)

Court dismissed defamation suit filed by Certis Cisco against former actress after four years of lawsuit

After four long exhausting years of fighting a defamation suit filed by Certis Cisco Security Private Ltd (Certis Cisco) against her, Mdm Ho Seng Mui, can finally breathe a sigh of relief with the dismissal of the suit by District Judge Loo Ngan Chor with legal costs being awarded to her.

In the defamation suit, Certis Cisco had claimed libel against the former Singapore Broadcasting Cooperation actress over a Chinese article published on local Chinese newspaper, Lianhe Wanbao in July 2013. The article reported on Mdm Ho's loss of her jewelries that had been kept in a security deposit box and how she was unable to retrieve the jewelries.

Law firm Drew and Napier, acting for Certis Cisco, claimed that the report on Mdm Ho's story clearly identified its subsidiary company, Certis Cisco Secure Logistics Pte Ltd as the "security company" mentioned in the article, given that there had been numerous articles about previous alleged losses involving the company (published in July and August 2012) prior to the publication of the report. They also noted that the article stated that Mdm Ho had been using the company’s safe deposit box services since 1990 and Certis Cisco was also the only security firm here providing safe-deposit box facilities since 1990.

With that as a basis, Certis Cisco called upon a former customer who had terminated her account on 27 August 2013, alleging that Mdm Ho's defamatory comments which were published within the Chinese article had caused it to suffer custom loss and special damages.

Mdm Ho denied that the article had referred to Certis Cisco because it was not named in the article. The article had used the term, "insurance company" rather than "security company". She pleaded justification and fair comment as her defence.

In the cross-examination of Ms Chan Yunhong, who wrote the article on Lianhe Wanbao, it was revealed that the newspaper had masked the identify of Certis Cisco as an insurance company as the original intentions of the article is only meant to alert the public of the issue of safe deposit boxes. The masking was also meant to protect Mdm Ho as she was concerned about her safety for disclosing the matter to the public.

Non-literal translation of Chinese article

As the offending article was originally written in Chinese, the text was said to be translated by Mr Quek Kwang Woei, from Scribers International Pte Ltd for the submission to court. In the translated text, "保险公司" ((báoxiăn gōngsī) was written as "security company". Mr Quek had agreed in his cross-examination that the literal translation should be "insurance company", however, said later that his translation was contextually correct as there is no insurance company that provides security boxes.

However, It was subsequently revealed in cross-examination that Mr Quek was not the primary translator of the article and that he had no idea who translated the article.  Mr Quek also admitted in court that his highest academic qualification for English and Chinese is at O Level and he lacked the qualifications to translate the documents.

Lawyers Choo Zheng Xi and Ng Bin Hong of Peter Low and Choo, who represented Mdm Ho noted in their closing submission that it is not the job of the translator to second-guess the content of an original work or to play the role of editor of an original work, particularly when the most important thing a piece of translation needs to achieve is accuracy to the original. They also highlighted that Certis Cisco had failed to demonstrate that the translated article was translated by individual(s) qualified to render the translation which is in breach of the Rules of Court and sought that the court not to accept the translated article as evidence, and if it does, give little weight to the article as it is shown to be unreliable and riddled with mistranslations.

Certis Cisco not identifiable from the Chinese article 

The judge in his judgement, wrote,

"The need for a literal translation of non-English words in defamation cases is a question of law. The logic for this legal imperative is not far to find. In determining if there is a defamation, it if for the court to make that determination and it does so by way of an objective yardstick. Such an objective yardstick is impossible where the translation is not literal."

He noted that the Chinese words, "báoxiăn gōngsī" should have been literally translated as "insurance company" and not "security company" which Certis Cisco had relied on in its claims. Given this as a fact,  Judge Loo ruled that the offending words in the article which were cited by Certis Cisco cannot be deemed as capable under law to be referring to itself as the term, "insurance company" was used in the article.

"In my view, no reasonable reader of the article would have drawn any such connection with any certainty. And one tempted to do so, still assuming him to be one not avid for scandal, would have paused and asked, "but the plaintiff is not an insurance company"." wrote Judge Loo.

With the judge's findings, the case was dismissed with costs awarded to Mdm Ho.

Nominal damage to be paid to Certis Cisco, should the case stand

Judge Loo stated that he would have ordered only nominal damages to Certis Cisco, had he needed to judge the damages to be paid.

He pointed that Certis Cisco did not set out to prove what number of readers might have made connection between the use of insurance company to itself nor prove how much of its own goodwill was lost owing to the libel of its subsidiary. It was further pointed that Certis Cisco's reputation took a beating due to several newspaper reports and it was the open letter by the Vice-President of Certis Cisco Security, Richard Lau that mentioned eight loss reports made to Certis Cisco.

"the plaintiff's reputation was cumulatively damaged by these 2012 newspaper reports as well as by Mr Lau's disclosure of the eight reported losses along with the article. Inexplicably, the plaintiff sued only the defendant." wrote Judge Loo.

Defendant persisted despite time, geography, and legal costs

In the defence's closing statement, they wrote, “Mdm Ho is a retired actress and a housewife. She lost a sizeable amount of jewellery she had deposited with Certis Cisco over the course of more than twenty years. This jewellery may not be all that valuable in monetary terms, but they represented her joys, her sorrows, the numerous memories of her loved ones and the glamorous part of her youth. Over the course of trial, the Court would have seen Mdm Ho’s great desire to have this lost jewellery returned to her, it is also very clear that Mdm Ho had also gone through great lengths to seek their return. She has persisted despite time, geography, and legal costs.”

TODAY reported that Mdm Ho had expressed relief that the lawsuit has ended and said “This lawsuit has taken 4 years, and I have had to fly back and forth from Hong Kong and Singapore to fight it,” while a Certis Cisco spokesperson was reported saying that the firm was studying the judgement before deciding on its next course of action.

1. Between 11 July 2012 and 21 August 2012, there were at least 20 other instances where customers of Certis Cisco reported loss of items from their safe deposit boxes, of which there were at least 17 customers reporting losses from their boxes situated at Certis Cisco’s Paya Lebar Branch situated at Certis Cisco Centre II, 20, Jalan Afifi, Level 1, Singapore 409179 (the “Premises”)

2. During the same period between July 2012 and August 2012, there were a series of newspaper reports alleging losses from safe deposit boxes operated by the Certis Cisco.

3. On 21 August 2012, Mdm Ho accessed her safe deposit box at the Premises.

4. At the Premises, Mdm Ho alleged that the jewellery in her safe deposit box were missing. Mdm Ho then completed and signed a Report of Loss Form at the Premises.

5. Mdm Ho made a police report regarding the loss of her valuables on 27 August 2012.

6. Mdm Ho received a letter from the police dated 27 June 2013 stating that “investigations thus far did not reveal any evidence to conclude that theft had been committed at the said premises

7. Mdm Ho contacted Ms Chan Yunhong, a reporter from Lianhe Wanbao, on 8 July 2013.

8. The article was published in Lianhe Wanbao on 21 July 2013.