Club member to pay $60k for defaming another

Judge considers aggravating factors in awarding costs for libellous online posts

A Singapore Island Country Club (SICC) member was ordered to pay $60,000 in damages and costs by a district judge who found that he had defamed a fellow member in the club's online forum.

Mr Liew Leong Wan, a retiree using the pseudonym "zoro", had wrongly accused Mr Lai Chong Meng of sending a viral e-mail with an attachment of a private investigator's report detailing two SICC staff members' activities in a forum posting in 2013.

He issued a further posting on the same day which gave the appearance of it being Mr Lai's alleged viral e-mail.

Mr Lai, an engineer and SICC member since 1993, responded on the following day, denying that he had circulated the report, and asked Mr Liew to retract the allegation and apologise.

In reply, Mr Liew asked Mr Lai to disclose who had hired the private investigator and why Mr Lai had allegedly used the report.

The stand-off sparked the defamation suit. But before that, Mr Lai applied to the High Court in December 2013 to order SICC to unmask the identity of "zoro" for the case to be pursued against him.

Mr Lai, represented by WongPartnership lawyers Edwin Cheng and Yu Kang Hao, then sued Mr Liew in the State Courts in 2014, seeking damages, costs and a court order to stop Mr Liew from repeating the defamatory statements.

GENTLEMAN'S REPUTATION HURT

The parties are both members of this leading country club in Singapore. The plaintiff is an engineer by profession. To say of him, incorrectly, that he posted a viral e-mail of the two staff with a PI report attached... was, in my view, seriously demeaning of the plaintiff as a gentleman.

DISTRICT JUDGE LOO NGAN CHOR, on the effect Mr Liew's statements had on Mr Lai's standing

Mr Liew, defended by lawyers P. Suppiah and K. Elangovan, denied any defamatory sting in his postings and claimed qualified privilege and fair comment.

However, District Judge Loo Ngan Chor, who heard the case in April, rejected this, finding that Mr Liew was not expressing comments based on facts.

In oral judgment grounds issued two weeks ago, the judge said that it is "quite plain" Mr Liew's postings had libelled Mr Lai.

"In their natural and ordinary meaning, they objectively had the effect of lowering the estimation of Mr Lai that right-thinking persons would have," the judge said.

He said Mr Liew had relied "too readily" on something he claimed someone else had sent him without verifying that this was reliable enough to accuse Mr Lai of being responsible for the viral e-mail.

The judge, who noted both were members of a leading Singapore country club, said to incorrectly say Mr Lai posted the viral e-mail was "seriously demeaning of (Mr Lai) as a gentleman". The club had 7,800 principal members who were potential readers, he said.

He ordered Mr Liew to pay $30,000 in general damages and another $15,000 in aggravated damages.

He said Mr Liew did not check the facts even when asked to retract and apologise and maintained his stand till the end of the trial. "The aggravating factors must have continued to hurt the plaintiff almost as much as the first insults."

He ordered a further $15,000 to be paid in costs by Mr Liew, plus reasonable disbursements.

Mr Liew's lawyer, Mr Suppiah, is applying in the High Court today for permission to enable his client to appeal the case..

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2016, with the headline 'Club member to pay $60k for defaming another'. Print Edition | Subscribe