SMU law don defamed 3 at condo's AGM

Gao Shu Chao ordered to pay $120,000 in total damages

A Singapore Management University law professor was ordered to pay $120,000 in total damages after defaming three people during an annual general meeting of the management corporation (MC) of Duchess Residences in the Bukit Timah area.

The trio who sued Prof Gao Shu Chao for defamatory remarks comprised MC chairman Tan Kok Quan, who is a Senior Counsel and has been a director of several banks and public-listed companies, Mr Kuah Kok Kim, chairman of public-listed MTQ Corporation, and Mr Gn Hiang Meng, a deputy president of the UOL Group before retirement and now an independent director on several public-listed boards including Haw Par Corporation.

The Sunday Times understands that the defamatory remarks affecting the three office bearers relate to information about monies received from owners at 13 sub-divided lots and the relevant accounts.

At the time the comments were made from the floor on March 4 last year, Mr Kuah was serving as the MC's treasurer and Mr Gn, as the secretary. Prof Gao was a resident and unit owner.

In assessing damages, District Judge Chiah Kok Khun factored in Prof Gao's standing. "As an associate professor, the words spoken by him carried more weight than if they were spoken by someone not schooled in the law," he said in judgment grounds released on Friday.

There was a group of about 16, including other unit owners and staff of the managing agent, at the AGM.

The plaintiffs' lawyers, Mr Raymond Wong and Ms Os Agarwal, argued that Prof Gao refused to apologise even when offered opportunities to retract the words he used.

Prof Gao, who defended himself in court, did not dispute that the words were uttered but denied they were defamatory. He also counter-sued the plaintiffs for breach of statutory duty, among other things.

District Judge Chiah found his "improper" motive in speaking up at the AGM was to avoid paying a special levy that had been approved and that other owners had already paid. "The defendant had used the occasion of the 4th AGM to question and pressure the council into withdrawing its claim against him for the special levy," said District Judge Chiah, adding that it amounted to "express malice".

The judge, who found defamation was established in the case, ruled that "in totality", a sum of $40,000 in damages for each of the plaintiffs, which included $10,000 in aggravated damages, would be appropriate.

The judge said the harm caused by the "sting of the defamation" was moderated by the fact that the three plaintiffs were impacted as a group and not as individuals. It followed the quantum of damages awarded was also correspondingly lowered.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 18, 2017, with the headline 'SMU law don defamed 3 at condo's AGM'. Print Edition | Subscribe