The simple answer is no. You now cannot be sued for a defamatory comment made against a political party.
On 4th March 2021, the Federal Court made a landmark judgment, finding that political parties are NOT allowed to sue an individual for defamation. This judgment was ruled by a seven-member Federal Court bench.
The bench allowed the appeal by Kepong Member of Parliament (“MP”), Lim Lip Eng (“Lim”) to strike out the suit made against him by Malaysian Chinese Association (“MCA”) in July 2017.
What was the story?
- The Start: Lim made a statement in a press conference in Parliament in March 2017, which suggested that MCA had used government funds that were originally allocated for Chinese vernacular schools.
- The Sting: MCA claimed that the statement made by Lim was defamatory in nature, where it implied that MCA was involved in corruption, and this had heavily ruined MCA’s reputation. Lim’s statement was published across various news outlet.,
- The Suit: Datuk Seri Ong Ka Chuan (“Ong”), who was the then-MCA secretary-general, filed a suit on behalf of MCA as the plaintiff against Lim as the sole defendant. MCA was seeking RM100 million in general and exemplary damages against Lim.
Power of 3 – Sets Lim Free
Strikes 1 and 2: The High Court and Court of Appeal
Lim had made a couple of attempts in striking out the suit in both the High Court and Court of Appeal, but his attempts failed as both Courts dismissed his applications. His claim for striking out was on the grounds that as a political party, MCA had no legal basis to sue an individual.
In justifying his claim, he cited an English case law, Goldsmith v Bhoyrul (1998), which provided that political parties cannot pursue a suit as claimants in defamation suits. He further stated in his defence that he had the right to question issues on public interest in his capacity as a representative of the people. Ong’s lawyers argued in the High Court proceedings that political parties have a reputation that must be protected.
Strike 3: The Federal Court
Lim was granted the leave to appeal to the Federal Court. The Federal Court recently overturned the rulings of the High Court and Court of Appeal, and granted Lim’s application to strike out the case against him.
The single legal question presented before the Federal Court was: whether a political party can maintain a suit for defamation considering the decisions in Goldsmith v Bhoyrul (1998) and Rajagopal v Jayalalitha (2006), which Court of Appeal President Tan Sri Rohana Yusuf ruled in the negative.
The Crux: Political Parties and Government have no Reputation to Protect
Lim’s counsel, Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram, submitted that societies may sue or be sued, but not in defamation claims, citing Section 9C of the Societies Act 1966. He stated, “This provision does not mean that it (societies) has a legal standing to institute defamation action. The tort of defamation is to protect the reputation of a natural person and a fictional person created by the Companies Act. It is not for societies or political parties.”
In essence, Sri Ram argued that the law of defamation protects the reputation of persons so government and political parties, being registered societies, cannot maintain a cause of action in defamation as societies or the Government have no reputation.
This position was accepted by the Federal Court.
Malaysians now have the right to express their thoughts and opinions against the actions of political parties, without the fear of having a defamation suit pursued against them. But this is not a blanket immunity from other laws of the country that target public speeches and messages. So before one gets carried away carrying banners that proclaim freedom of speech, be mindful of other laws that could be waiting round your speaker’s corner.