Sarawak opposition chief fails to review ruling that govt can sue citizens

Legal principle, established by the Federal Court two years ago, that federal and state governments can sue individuals for defamation remains.

PUTRAJAYA: A legal principle established by the Federal Court two years ago that federal and state governments can sue individuals for defamation remains.

This follows today’s unanimous five-member apex court ruling to dismiss a review application by Sarawak opposition leader Chong Chieng Jen to set aside the earlier decision and rehear the matter.

Judge Rohana Yusof, who chaired the bench, said Chong’s application did not fall within the ambit of review under Rule 137 of the Federal Court Rules 1995.

“It was an attempt to disturb the findings of the earlier bench. Even if the decision is wrong, the applicant did not establish grounds for review,” she said.

A review is hardly allowed unless there is a miscarriage of justice or abuse of the court process.

The bench also ordered Chong, who is now deputy domestic trade and consumer affairs minister, to pay RM100,000 in costs to the Sarawak government, represented by JC Fong.

Lawyer Ranjit Singh, who appeared for Chong, said a litigant has to bring another case of similar nature to the Federal Court to revisit and depart from the previous ruling.

On Sept 26, 2018, the apex court, chaired by now-retired judge Ahmad Maarop, said governments in Malaysia could sue citizens for defamation, refusing to accept the common law Derbyshire principle that public authorities cannot bring an action against a person for lowering their reputation.

Ahmad, who delivered the unanimous ruling, said in Malaysia, the right of the federal and state governments was provided for under Section 3 of the Government Proceedings Act 1956.

“Thus, the statutory right of the government to sue in civil proceedings under Section 3 of the act, including for defamation, is not subject to the common law of England,” he had said.

Ahmad said according to Section 3 of the Interpretation Acts 1948/1967, the words “written law” did not include common law.

He added that the government could sue for defamation as it had a reputation.

The bench then ordered the Sarawak government’s defamation suit to be sent back to the High Court in Kuching for trial as the trial judge had not considered Chong’s defence in arriving at a decision.

In April 2013, the state government and state financial authority filed the action relating to Chong’s allegation that RM11 billion had “disappeared into a black hole”, published in a Chinese national daily and a news portal, as well as in pamphlets distributed by Chong and DAP.

On April 28, 2014, the High Court held that the plaintiffs were not allowed under common law to sue Chong for defamation, even though his words against the government were defamatory.

The court also struck out the government’s suit against Chong.

In a majority ruling on April 7, 2016, the Court of Appeal set aside the High Court’s decision, ruling that the government had the right to sue for defamation under the Government Proceedings Act 1956.