Challenge to Sarawak’s government’s right to sue dismissed by High Court

Court - file pic.

KUCHING, May 15: The Sibu High Court has dismissed an application by PSB President Dato Sri Wong Soon Koh to amend his defense in a defamation suit filed by the Sarawak State Government, to enable him to challenge the locus standi or the right of the Government to sue him for libel.

The Sarawak government had in July 2020 sued Wong for libel contained in a press statement issued by him on May 8, 2020 where he alleged that the Sarawak Government gave a massive discount on State Sales Tax (SST) payments to Petronas through a deal struck behind closed doors between the Gabungan Parti Sarawak-led State government and Petronas because its MPs are in the cabinet of the federal government.

The Sarawak government denied there was any discount on SST due from Petronas and that the words published by Wong were defamatory as they imputed the Sarawak government had acted in a manner prejudicial to the interests of Sarawakians and the State’s constitutional rights to collect SST from Petronas to safeguard the positions of its MPs in the Federal Cabinet.

In April this year, Wong applied to amend his defense to enable him to raise the issue that the Sarawak Government has no right under common law to sue him, as a citizen, in libel. His counsel argued that the action affected his right to freedom of speech as he has a duty, as a state assemblyman, to hold the Sarawak government accountable for its actions.

Wong’s counsel further argued that the decision of the Federal Court in Chong Chieng Jen v Government of State of Sarawak which ruled that a government may sue his citizen in libel under section 3 of the Government Proceedings Act, 1956 should be “revisited”.

In a written submission signed by State Legal Counsel, Dato Sri JC Fong and State Legal Officer, Mohd Adzrul Azlan, the Sarawak Government contends that the decision in Chong Chieng Jen v Government of State of Sarawak must be followed by the High Court until and unless the Federal Court decides to override its own decision in that case.

The Sarawak Government’s Counsels argued that freedom of speech for Dato Sri Wong was not affected. He is not an ordinary citizen with no avenue to voice his views, but experienced assemblyman whose freedom of speech is protected by parliamentary privileges under Article 72 of the Federal Constitution for whatever views he aired within the Sarawak Legislative Assembly (DUN). But he chose to make defamatory statements outside the DUN. Thus, he must be subject to the normal laws of defamation of this country.

Agreeing with the Sarawak Government’s contention, Judicial Commissioner, Christopher Chin, in a written Judgment released on Wednesday, 12 May, 2021, said although he had “misgivings” about the Federal Court’s decision in Chong Chieng Jen’s case, he is bound to follow that decision and that the Sarawak Government has, therefore, the legal capacity or locus standi to sue Wong for defamation.

Chin therefore dismissed Wong’s application with costs to the State Government of RM3,000.00. The trial of the case is scheduled to be heard on July 28 in Sibu.

However, it was learnt that Wong had filed an urgent appeal to the Court of Appeals against the High Court’s decision. — DayakDaily