‘Black hole’ case: DAP’s Chong ordered to pay RM150,000 in damages, RM50,000 in costs

Chong (front row, third left) with his team of counsels and DAP supporters.

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By Dorcas Ting

KUCHING, Aug 30: In relation to the defamation suit filed by the Sarawak government over the RM11 billion ‘black hole’ remark made by Sarawak Democratic Action Party (DAP) chairman Chong Chieng Jen in 2013, the Kuching High Court today found that the plaintiff has proven their case and ordered the defendant pay a sum of RM150,000 in damages to the plaintiff and costs of RM50,000.

The plaintiffs are the Sarawak government and State Financial Authority (SFA), represented by the State Attorney General’s Chambers, Dato Sri JC Fong, Mohd Azdrul Azlan, Voon Yan Sin, and Oliver Chua; whereas Chong is the defendant and represented by Counsels Chong Siew Chiang and Michael Kong.

In his ruling today, High Court Judicial Commissioner Alexander Siew How Wai said the Court found that the plaintiff had proved their case and found the impugned words or statements defamatory.

On the matter of the ruling in the order of Ruling 14(a) application Enclosure 15 by the previous judge of Court of Appeal and Federal Court, the Court is of the view the final outcome of those ruling on the parties.

He said the first point raised in Ruling 14(a) application, whether a state government can sue for defamation, the Federal Court ruling in the instance that a state government can sue remains the law.

Regarding the various defences pleaded by the defendant or inter alia justification, fair comment and qualified privilege, the Court found that defendant has failed to prove any of the defences pleaded.

Therefore, the Court found the plaintiff’s claim is allowed, and an award of damages in the sum of RM150,000 is to be paid by the defendant to the plaintiff.

An injunction order to restrain the defendant, whether by himself, his servant or agent or otherwise, to publish or cause to publish the same or similar words or statements was issued, and costs in the sum of RM50,000 is to be paid by the defendant to the plaintiff.

The counsels for the defendant then stood up to apply for a stay. However, the Court said the defendant is at liberty to file a formal application for a stay with a certificate of urgency, and the Court will attend to it immediately upon filing.

On April 3, 2013, the State government and SFA sued Chong in the Kuching High Court for defamation as it was alleged that Chong used the term ‘black hole’ to hint that RM11 billion had gone missing from the State coffers.

On June 29, 2013, Judicial Commissioner Christopher Chin Soo Yin found that the defendant had cogent reasons, which explained the seven-year delay in seeking to amend the defence. Therefore, he denied the application of Chong to amend his defence dated April 26, 2013.

Chong applied to Kuching High Court to amend his defence dated April 26, 2013, following his bid to review the apex court’s decision which allows the government to sue for defamation, which the Federal Court dismissed.

The Federal Court in 2018 upheld a majority decision of the Court of Appeal that Chong’s words were capable of defamatory meaning. Therefore, the Sarawak government and SFA could sue Chong for defamation.

Dissatisfied with the Federal Court’s judgement, Chong applied for a review of that judgement on the ground that it violated Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, which guaranteed freedom of speech if the government could sue its citizens for defamation.

However, the State government argued that the application for review was a guise to appeal against the earlier judgement of the Federal Court on the ground that its earlier decision was wrong. The Federal Court had no power to hear appeals against its own decision.

On February 12, 2019, the Federal Court sitting in Putrajaya unanimously ruled that there was no merit in the application and that the Federal Court could not review its own decision.

The application by Chong was dismissed with costs of RM100,000 to be paid to the Sarawak government and SFA.

The case was then heard in Kuching in January 2021. The plaintiff had called seven witnesses, whereas the defendant had called three witnesses during the case trial. — DayakDaily