Temple office-holder awarded $10,000 in defamation spat

A temple committee office-holder has successfully sued a life member who made unverified claims against him in a letter that was circulated with the agenda for an annual general meeting (AGM).

Mr P. Shanthikumar, then honorary secretary of the Sri Ruthra Kaliamman Temple in Depot Road, went to court after Mr G. Kanagasingam wrote a letter to the temple on June 5 last year that defamed him. The letter was in response to the temple secretary's call to members asking them for matters they wished to include in the temple's AGM on June 19 last year.

District Judge Lee Li Choon, in judgment grounds released this month, said Mr Kanagasingam "had acted out of his misguided belief that he was entitled to give 'feedback' as he had been invited to do so".

The revised agenda and the letter were circulated to all eligible temple members. The contents were then discussed openly at the AGM.

Mr Shanthikumar, through lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam, sued Mr Kanagasingam two months later, alleging that the offending remarks had defamed him.

Mr Kanagasingam's lawyer M. P. Kanisan disputed the claims at the court hearing held earlier this year, saying his client was justified in his actions as the management committee was entitled to know the claims.

The court found Mr Kanagasingam had failed to provide any evidence to support his claims and found his comments in the letter were not "honestly made".

Judge Lee said: "As I have found no basis whatsoever for Mr Kanagasingam to say those offending words, it is clear to me that Mr Kanagasingam either did not honestly believe in the truth of the defamatory words or was at least reckless as to whether the allegations were true or not." He further admitted he did not ask any committee member before making the claims, noted Judge Lee.

Based on the findings, the judge awarded Mr Shanthikumar $10,000 in damages with costs to be assessed but declined to give aggravated damages, ruling the severe impact the letter had on his reputation should not be held against Mr Kanagasingam.

This was because the temple committee, when it received his letter, could have sought him out to discuss and clarify the matter instead of publishing it to all members.

Mr Kanagasingam had also not intended to reach out to ordinary members but only the committee.

"It is the positive act of circulation by the temple committee and the breakdown in communication between Mr Kanagasingam and the temple committee as a whole that led to the more severe impact of the offending words on Mr Shanthikumar's reputation," said Judge Lee.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2017, with the headline 'Temple office-holder awarded $10,000 in defamation spat'. Print Edition | Subscribe