Lawmaker misses libel damages deadline

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 January, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 January, 2001, 12:00am

Veteran opposition leader Joshua Jeyaretnam faces the loss of his parliamentary seat after the High Court yesterday declared him a bankrupt.

But even before the verdict was handed down, Mr Jeyaretnam said he would lodge an appeal against the decision and hoped to keep up his fight against the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). 'We have been over the same ground before. I shall be appealing,' he said.

Yesterday's decision was made when lawyers for eight petitioners requested that the head of the Workers' Party be declared bankrupt after he missed paying an instalment on libel damages by a single day.

Although Mr Jeyaretnam attempted to pay the third share of the S$227,000 (HK$1 million) award on Wednesday - 24 hours after the deadline - the petitioners, including some PAP members, pressed ahead with their action.

The bankruptcy was one of two court defeats for Mr Jeyaretnam yesterday. He also failed in an application to block a slander charge against him by 10 people, including Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and several other cabinet members.

Mr Jeyaretnam said the suit filed last month, three years after the alleged slander, was politically motivated amid speculation the Government will call a general election earlier than the scheduled poll, due by August next year.

'Elections are expected this year and suddenly the plaintiffs take out an application,' he said.

Over the past two decades, members and supporters of the ruling PAP have frequently and successfully sued Mr Jeyaretnam and other prominent opposition leaders for libel and slander.

International human rights groups have criticised the practice, saying it is meant to intimidate opposition leaders and dissuade others from joining their ranks. But PAP leaders and other plaintiffs say the legal barrage is the only effective way to safeguard their reputations.

Mr Jeyaretnam, a non-constituency member of Parliament, is one of only three opposition members in the House.

The 1995 libel case followed an article that appeared in the Hammer, the newsletter for the Workers' Party. Mr Jeyaretnam was the editor.

The piece criticised the organising committee of a 1995 Tamil Language Week, saying they were seeking political gains. The eight committee members sued Mr Jeyaretnam and were awarded the S$227,000.

Mr Jeyaretnam did not attend the 80-minute bankruptcy hearing in chambers at the High Court yesterday.

He has 14 days in which to appeal, first to the High Court and, if unsuccessful, in the Appeal Court.

The Workers' Party chief has found himself in this position at least once before.

In May last year, he was declared a bankrupt after failing to pay S$12,092 in damages to lawyers R. Kalamohan and R. Ravindran over the same article. That bankruptcy petition was set aside soon afterwards when he settled the debt plus costs.

Mr Jeyaretnam was the first opposition candidate to break the PAP's monopoly on power in 1981 and has become the city-state's best known anti-establishment figure.

A lawyer by training, he acquired a reputation for fierce debates with the country's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, also a lawyer.

The struggle against the PAP has continued over the years despite the sustained dominance of the ruling party.