How Much Damages is Enough?

by singaporearmchaircritic

Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost
my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of
myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation,
Iago, my reputation!

As I am an honest man, I thought you had received
some bodily wound; there is more sense in that than
in reputation. Reputation is an idle and most false
imposition: oft got without merit, and lost without
deserving. You have lost no reputation at all,
unless you repute yourself such a loser.

–          Shakespeare, Othello

Under Singapore law, damage to reputation is presumed in a claim for libel.

The award of general damages is primarily to compensate the plaintiff for the consequences of the defamatory statement. It serves to “console the plaintiff for the hurt and distress that has been caused by the defamation” and “redress … the harm that has been caused to his reputation and as a vindication of his reputation” (“Damages in defamation: what is considered and what is awarded?”).

Nonetheless, the plaintiff does not have to prove that he has suffered emotional injuries or actual damages to his reputation as a result of the defamation.

Here’s a recap of how much damages the Singapore court had awarded to our PAP political leaders in defamation cases from 1979:

Lee Kuan Yew vs J. B. Jeyaretnam (1979) Awarded: S$130,000 In which Mr Lee was awarded S$130,000 for Mr Jeyaretnam’s allegation that Mr Lee had abused his office as Prime Minister and lacked honesty and integrity.

Lee Kuan Yew vs Seow Khee Leng (1989) Awarded: S$250,000 In which Mr Lee was awarded S$250,000 for the remark by the opposition candidate that he was guilty of corruption.

Lee Kuan Yew vs J. B. Jeyaretnam (1990) Awarded: S$260,000 In which Mr Lee was awarded S$260,000 for Mr Jeyaretnam’s remarks that he was guilty of dishonourable and/or criminal conduct.

Lee Kuan Yew vs Derek Gwyn Davis & Ors (1990) Awarded: S$230,000 In which Mr Lee was awarded S$230,000 for an article in the Far Eastern Economic Review accusing him of using his powers improperly under the Internal Security Act.

Lee Kuan Yew vs Vinocur (1995) Awarded: S$350,000, S$300,000 and S$300,000 In which Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was awarded S$350,000 while SM Lee and Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong were awarded S$300,000 each for an article in the International Herald Tribune alleging nepotism and corruption in the three leaders.

Lee Kuan Yew vs Vinocur (1996) Awarded: S$400,000 In which Mr Lee was awarded S$400,000 for an IHT article which alleged that he had relied on a compliant judiciary to obtain judgment against political opponents and bankrupt them ( “Award much higher because injury greater,” Straits Times, 30 May 1997).

Other cases:

Lee Kuan Yew vs Tang Liang Hong (1997) Awarded: S$2.3 million

Goh Chok Tong vs Tang Liang Hong (1997) Awarded: S$1.4 million

Lee Kuan Yew vs Chee Soon Juan (2005) Awarded: S$200,000

Goh Chok Tong vs Chee Soon Juan (2005) Awarded: S$300,000

(sources: “Award much higher because injury greater,” Straits Times, 30 May 1997 and this)

In Tang Liang Hong’s case, Justice Chao Hick Tin awarded a record S$8.075 million in damages to 13 plaintiffs including Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong. He justified his decision to award the record sum “because the injury, embarrassment and hurt caused were much greater” (“Award much higher because injury greater,” Straits Times, 30 May 1997).

Injury to Reputation?

There are four types of harm to reputation: 1. special damage refers to “demonstrable pecuniary loss” such as the loss of a job or contract; 2. actual injury which includes demonstrable harm other than those classified as special damage, such as a disrupted or deteriorated existing relationship; 3. harm to relations in general, including harm to future relations such as social isolation; 4. Damage to public image (“Reputation, compensation and proof,” pp.767-770).

The public has no way to gauge the extent of the first three types of damage unless relevant information is disclosed by the plaintiff himself.

Evidence that one’s public image is tarnished may include the following:

Quantitative or qualitative changes in the plaintiff’s fan mail would be relevant, and print and electronic clipping services can provide a sample of the media coverage of the plaintiff before and after the defamation. If the plaintiff is a performer, ratings and audience turnouts can provide a barometer of public acceptance.

If the alleged harm is the creation of a negative public image, a plaintiff should be able to prove the existence of injury through the testimony of people who had not heard of him previously, but who now hold an unfavorable impression of him. He should be able to show the extent of the injury through survey evidence showing the portion of the population that heard and remembered the defamatory statement (“Reputation, compensation and proof,” p. 770).

Notwithstanding that no proof of actual harm to reputation is necessary for plaintiffs seeking damages, we may, inferring from the above, adopt some measures to gauge if our political leaders’ public image has been blighted by the defamatory statement.

First, has the media coverage of the political leader turned against him after the defamation? We can firmly say “no” in the context of our local mainstream media.

What about foreign media? Ideally, we need a sample of media reports before and after the defamation in order to know. However, taking into account foreign media’s previous run-ins with our political leaders and the absence of defamation lawsuits by our leaders against foreign media in recent years, it is likely that the media have steered clear of allegations of corruption or abuse of power by our leaders after the high profile defamation cases involving Far Eastern Economic Review and IHT.

Furthermore, Singapore has always ranked very highly in the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) by Transparency International. From available data on Transparency International’s website, Singapore has always been one of the top ten least corrupt countries in the world since the CPI debuted in 1995 (source). This shows that the impression of Singapore as a relatively corruption-free country has persisted despite allegations of corruption directed at our political leaders in the past.

In other words, it does not seem that our political leaders’ reputation for being non-corrupt has been harmed, much less in a substantial way, by the defamation statements over the years.