Round One to Alex Au in battle with AGC

Alex Au’s civil society supporters have scored an important if subtle victory in round one of his looming legal battle against the AGC. In making their call for the statements in question to be publicly rebutted, it appears that the AGC’s hand has been forced. The AGC has apparently agreed to a public hearing of the case, an outcome that – perhaps surprisingly – was never guaranteed, and which may shine a politically awkward light on the details of the case against Au.

Storm in a tea cup

To understand the significance of the AGC’s statement, we must briefly overview a couple of significant cases from Singapore’s recent history. It starts in 1997, with a cup of tea (or simply warm water, depending on your point of view), and the case of Goh Chok Tong vs JB Jeyaretnam. The case was one where JBJ was sued over twenty-four relatively innocuous words:

Mr. Tang Liang Hong has just placed before me two reports he has made against, you know, Mr. Goh Chok Tong and his people
JB Jeyaretnam. Campaigning for the 1997 General Election

For various reasons the case attracted significant international attention, and the Geneva based International Commission of Jurists sent Australian barrister Stuart Littlemore to observe and report. His report (which I recommend you read) of the case sparked some controversy, in one part due to his observation that the then PM Goh had been served a pot of tea in the witness-box, but perhaps more significantly because his report was quite critical of the way the case was managed and also the conduct of the judge. Firstly, he observed that the judge was apparently inexperienced in the relevant areas of law for a defamation case, writing that “[t]he significance of appointing to such a sensitive case a judge patently unfamiliar with defamation law escaped few of the lawyers present”, and secondly he accuses the judge of “doing the plaintiff’s [Goh Chok Tong’s] work for him” – in formulating a legal basis for Jeyaretnam’s guilt which was apparently never argued by Goh’s lawyers.

The result of casting the doors of the Singapore high court wide open to international observers was thus embarrassing to the ruling party, and this and other cases against JB Jeyaretnam have done much damage to Singapore’s international legal reputation. In closing, Littlemore wrote “the case does nothing to disabuse the rest of the world of the belief that the High Court in Singapore is infinitely compliant in areas of political sensitivity”. The government would subsequently make procedural changes, apparently in an effort to prevent similarly embarrassing reports from being written about future cases.

Justice behind closed doors

Fast forward nine years to the summer of 2006 and Singapore’s political landscape has changed. The thorn in the government’s side now is Dr Chee Soon Juan whom Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Kuan Yew both brought defamation cases against in the aftermath of the NKF scandal. What is noteworthy, and stands in contrast to the JBJ case above, is the way the case was heard – not in the public arena of a court room, but behind closed doors in the judge’s chambers. The Lees were awarded what is known as a “summary judgement” – essentially a legal victory without a trial – no one was put under oath or cross-examined. Quite why the case proceeded in this way is not obvious, but one possibility is that the government did not want to risk the sort of embarrassment caused when Littlemore entered the high court and wrote of Goh’s teapot.

Forcing the doors open

In light of this, the victory apparently won for Alex Au in his case against the AGC may be a small but significant one. Justice has to be seen to be believed, so the fact that this case will apparently be heard publicly in open court, rather than behind the closed doors of a judge’s private chambers is meaningful. Whatever the outcome, trust in the judicial system can only be re-inforced by a public airing of claim and counter claim, and when a court delivers a well reasoned judgement on the basis of evidence presented. Most crucially of all however, a public hearing helps to guard against the sort of outcome that damaged Singapore’s reputation in 1997. While it is unlikely that Stuart Littlemore will return to Singapore for this case, the court would be well advised not to serve a pot of tea to any of the AGC’s witnesses.

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