Singapore Court Judgement
- CAV Judgment
- The Impact Article
- The New Paper Publication
- The Wan Bao Publication
- The Parties to the suits
- The plaintiffs’ complaints
- ‘Cult’: The Meaning
- The defences
- The History
- The Witnesses
- “The only true church”
- Other allegations
- A week in the saturated life of a disciple
- Communal Living
- Leaving the church
- The law: the notional jury
- Conclusion on justification defence
- The fair comment defence
- Back to the fair comment defence
- The pictorial representations
- The New Paper and Wan Bao
- The New Paper front page
- Paradox – apparent or real?
- Qualified privilege: limit in press publications
IN THE HIGH COURT OF THE REPUBLIC OF SINGAPORE
Suits Nos. 846 to 850 of 1992
(30 Jun – 18 Jul, 22-23 Jul, 28 Jul; 7 Nov ’97)
Central Christian Church and another… Plaintiffs And
Chen Cheng and others … Defendants Coram : Warren L H Khoo J
Counsel : Mr Y H Cheong Mr Christopher Bridges and Mr Mohan Singh for both Plaintiffs in all suits
Mr Tan Chee Meng and Ms Doris Chia for all defendants in Suits 846, 848 and 850.
Mr Daniel John and Mr Robin Lim for First and Second Defendants in Suits 847 and 849
Ms Victoria Chua for Third Defendant in Suits 847 and 849.
1. There is a bi-monthly magazine published in Singapore called Impact. It is a publication of, or associated with, the main Protestant body of the Christian faith in Singapore. In the Oct/Nov 1991 issue of Impact, there appeared an article about two new religious groups which had been actively evangelising among the youths in Singapore. The groups referred to were the Army of God (“AOG”) and the Central Christian Church (“CCC”). This article was subsequently reported on by the New Paper and the Wan Bao. These defamation suits have arisen from the reference to the CCC in all these publications and to its then leader John Louis in two of them.
The Impact article
2. On the front page of this issue of the Impact magazine, there is a hooded figure leading a couple of sheep, the hooded figure bearing the words “Holy Bible” on its front. Next to it are the words “AOG & CCC – Are they Cults?” This hooded figure, and other, differently garbed hooded figures, singly or in a pair, appear in the inside pages of the magazine where three different articles appear.
The first is headed “Satan’s Wily Schemes.” A pair of hooded figures, one holding a lighted candle, appear on the first page of it. The second article is headed “AOG & CCC They’re Not What You Think.” In this article, two hooded figures are shown facing a young lady, against a background of an MRT station. In the part of the article about the AOG, the young lady is shown as if she is shaking hands with one of the hooded figures. A few pages on, where the part about the CCC begins, the young lady is shown as if she is receiving something from the same hooded figure. Two pages further one, the “Holy Bible” hooded figure appears again in the concluding section about the CCC. There then follows on the next page the third article, headed “Who Cares About Heresies Anyway?” Two hooded figures, each holding a lighted candle, appear at the end of the article .
3. The part of the second article which deals with the CCC starts with the following introduction :
- “You may meet them at MRT stations, inviting you to their home meetings. You may even have attended their meetings, described by some to be meeting places of the yuppies. They will tell you that they are part of the Church of Christ, Boston and they do everything exactly as the Bible says … They are the Central Christian Church.”
4. The article then traces the history of the CCC, to its origin in the United States and subsequently London (more of this later). It states that “the Singapore group is led by ‘evangelist’ John Luis (sic.)” It then sets out the beliefs, teachings and characteristics of the group. The following are some of the statements in this part of the article. Under “What CCC Believes”, it is stated that :
- 1. Other churches are not true congregations until they are “reconstructed”
5. Under teachings:
2. The group teaches baptismal regeneration and practices rebaptism. Only those baptised by the group are truly baptised.
3. The movement has a pyramid-type organisation, and expects total commitment to the leadership. One of their leaders was reported to have said : “Leadership is to be imitated, not evaluated.”
4. Members are to confess their sins to one another. All sins including sinful thoughts are to be confessed.
5. Members are encouraged to leave their homes and live communally. Boyfriend and girlfriend relationships tend to be guided, if not determined, by the group and its leaders.
6. Under group characteristics :
6. Control is very tight. The disciple has to report to the discipler exactly how he spent his time and who he was with.
7. The article continues with extracts of interviews with two persons who had left the group. These two apparently had been members of the more conventional Christian churches. They had been attracted to the group by the warmth, openness and sincerity of its members. But they were never able to reconcile what the group taught them with what they had been taught previously, such as in the area of baptism. One of them also had difficulty accepting that CCC was the only true church. She also could not understand why the group was trying to reach out to existing Christians to get them to repent and be rebaptised. Both spoke of the emotional difficulty they experienced on leaving the group.
8. In the middle of the article is interposed a section, in a box, headed “Why People Join Cults” and the author analyses how cult groups satisfy certain basic needs of people.
9. At the end of the article, there is a note saying: “Attempts to interview the leaders of both the AOG and CCC were not successful. ”
10.The Impact article was picked up by two newspapers, the New Paper and the Wan Bao.
The New Paper publication
11.On 23 November 1991, the New Paper, which is an afternoon English tabloid, carried on its front page in 2-inch bold type the loud headline “2 CULTS EXPOSED”. On top of these words appeared distinctly in 1/4-inch bold type the names of AOG and CCC, and under them, there was this statement:
- “Christian groups warn of two new cults in Singapore. The Army of God and the Central Christian Church tend to “stretch the truth” and have “exclusive” practices, says one Reverend….”
12 . More than half the space of the front page was taken up by the headline and these captions and words.
13.The reader is led to page II, where an article appears under the heading “Concern Over Two Cult Groups.” It is accompanied by a sketch of a man holding a mask in front of his face with a Bible-like tome under his arm before a group of three persons.
14.The article begins by saying :
- “Two new Christian groups described as cult groups have sprung up in Singapore, say a few Christian organisations … The groups in question are the Army of God (AOG) and the Central Christian Church”
15.It says that the New Paper’s interviews with pastors from three mainstream churches confirm the concern expressed in the impact Magazine and the Methodist Message, the official journal of the Methodist Church of Singapore.
16.Further down the column, it says
- “One reverend … said he was concerned because of the AOG’s and CCC’s ideological differences with more established churches. The AOG and CCC tend to “stretch the truth” and have ‘exclusive’ practices, [the reverend] says. In addition, “they imply that they are the TRUE believers and the other churches are not”
17.After a few column paragraphs, under the heading “CCC Traits”, it says:
- “Tight control. A disciple must tell the group exactly now he spent his time and who he was with”
18.Then it quotes the two magazines (Impact and the Methodist Message) as saying in respect of the CCC:
- “Other churches are not true churches until they are ‘reconstructed’.”
“The movement expects members to be wholly committed to the leadership. One of its leaders was reported to have said : ‘Leadership is to be imitated, not evaluated’.”
“Members are encouraged to be totally transparent with one another. Members have to confess their sins to each other, including sinful thoughts.”
“Members are encouraged to leave their homes and live together in a group. Boyfriend and girlfriend relationships tend to be guided, if not set, by the group and its leaders.”
19.In a box in the middle of the page where the article appears, under the heading “Leaders of the Cults”, is the statement:
- “John Luis (sic), a Malaysian, was converted and trained by the group while he was studying in England. He was later sent to Singapore to start the group here. ”
The Wan Bao publication
20.A translated version of the Wan Bao article, which appeared also on 23 November 1991, says :
- “Two more religious cults have recently been discovered in Singapore. Local Christian churches have warned their members to be wary. The two cult organisations are the Army of God (AOG) and the Central Christian Church (CCC). Local Christian publications, Impact and the Methodist Message, have uncovered their existence and activities. Christian church sources in interviews have expressed worries about new cults engaging in harmful activities here.
One reverend said he was concerned because of the differences of the cults’ beliefs from those of the more established churches. They always emphasize that they are the “true believers” and that others are not. They always regard themselves highly, they have extreme views and they reject others,..
These two cult organisations not only have an impact on some of the churches in Singapore; it is also possible that they have influence in some mission schools …
According to reports, the new cults have these characteristics. CCC : strict control. Members must disclose frankly who they are with, how they spend their time.
The parties to the suits
21.The CCC is the plaintiff in three of the suits (No. 846, 848 and 850) in respect of the three publications. Mr John Louis, who is referred to only in the Impact and New Paper publications, is the plaintiff in two of the suits (847 and 849). The defendants in all the suits are the editor, the publisher and the printer of the respective publications complained of.
22.Apart from the addition of the complaints about John Louis being referred to as the leader, both suits in his name raise complaints very much about the same matters as are raised in the suits in the name of the CCC. Since there is no dispute that he was the leader at the relevant time, his suits would stand or fall with the suits in the name of the CCC. It was therefore agreed that all the five suits should be tried together. In this judgment, I use “plaintiffs” to refer to the CCC and, where the context admits, to Mr John Louis as well.
The plaintiffs’ complaints
23.The plaintiffs allege that each of the statements and references which have been set out in bold print in the preceding paragraphs of this judgment is defamatory of the CCC or (where he is referred to) of Mr John Louis. There are separate complaints about the depiction in the Impact magazine of the CCC by the hooded figures and the reference there to “Satan’s Wily Schemes”; and there is also a complaint of the use of the sketch of a man with a mask in the New Paper article. However, the main complaint of the plaintiffs is the reference to the CCC as a cult, and to Mr John Louis as a cult leader. That, the parties agree, is the sting of the libel. The defendants in all the suits, although separately represented, adopt a common set of defenses.
“Cult”: The meaning
24.Plaintiffs’ counsel Mr Cheong says that whether words complained of are libelous is determined by an objective test, that is by the meaning in which the ordinary reasonable man would understand them. This applies to the use of the word “cult”
25.Mr Cheong is obviously right, but unfortunately, unlike a word like “thief” or “murderer”, the word “cult” is not susceptible of one generally accepted meaning. A scholar might classify Christian or pseudo-Christian religious groups – in a sort of church-sect-cult continuum, and reserve the term “cult” to the extreme end of a scale of deviation from the mainstream. A person in an orthodox Christian faith might consider almost any group outside his religious orthodoxy as a cult. And then there are also the most notorious violent and destructive groups, such as the ones that led to the Jonestown and Waco tragedies. Probably everyone, Christian or not, would regard them as cults.
26.It is a rule of pleading in a libel action that where there is room for disagreement as to what meaning an ordinary reader might attach to a word, the plaintiff must plead the meaning which he alleges the word to have. See Gatley on Libel and Slander 8th ed. para 1075, citing Allsop v. Church of England Newspaper 11972] 2 QB 21 C.A., and other cases.
27.The plaintiffs did not really plead any meaning for the word “cult”. This can be seen from the fact that in regard to some of the statements in the articles complained of (all set out in bold print above), the plaintiffs would say that the meaning of the statement was that :
- (a) the plaintiff is a cult;
(b) the plaintiffs beliefs and practices are considered strange, unnatural, harmful.
28.They do not appear to have said that “Cult”” means a group with beliefs and practices which are considered to be strange, unnatural and harmful. The pleading seems to have assumed that there is a meaning (which they did not identify) to the word “cult” which is generally accepted; that a cult has certain characteristics which may include but which do not consist entirely of the characteristics in (b) above (strange, unnatural, harmful beliefs and practices). The defendants, on the other hand, also seem to have made a similar assumption. They did not press the plaintiffs to identify a meaning, although, on the basis of the rule of pleading I have just referred to, they could well have done.
29.This common assumption that there is one general meaning which can be assigned to the word “cult” led to an attempt by the defence to fix a definition of what constitutes a cult, and to show that CCC possesses characteristics which make it fall within the definition. The defendants set out in their defence a list of beliefs and practices of the CCC, and adduced evidence in support of this list. (The] list is set out in the section of this judgment under the defence of justification below). They called as their expert witness Rev Adrian Van Leen, an Australian clergyman of a mainstream Christian church, of the “cult-buster” fame. Rev Van Leen postulated a definition of “cult”; he set out a list of characteristics that a “cult” would generally have, and then concluded that each of the allegations in the defendants’ list regarding the CCC was consistent with one or more of the characteristics of a cult which he postulated.
30.The plaintiffs, on the other hand, called Dr Gordon J Melton, a leading authority on religions and cults in America. Although also a clergyman from the mainstream, Dr Melton is more a scholar who prefers to study religious groups in a detached manner. He eschews the use of the word “cult” as he considers that it is an emotive term that only serves to interfere with scholarly inquiry. He avoids defining what is a “cult”. But he has studied groups that have been variously called cults by different groups of people in America – social scientists, orthodox Christians, parents whose children have been lost to those notorious violent and dangerous groups like the Moonies and Hare Krishna. He has compiled a masterly handbook on the cults in America, a compendium of groups that have been variously called cults. He knows only too well how difficult it is to postulate a definition. What is cult to one person may be merely new religion to another. He also knows how difficult it is to say that because a certain group exhibits certain characteristics, everyone would agree that it is a cult. It depends to an extent on who is speaking. The most that Dr Melton is prepared to say is that CCC does share some of the characteristics of groups which have been called (not by him, as he does not himself use such a term) cults. On the other hand, he says that CCC also shares some characteristics with churches in the mainstream.
31.Despite the fact that no meaning has been properly pleaded, Mr Cheong in his closing submission submits that in its ordinary meaning,’cult” is understood to refer to groups which :
- (a) break up families and friendships;
(b) practice double standards or deception as to morals, teachings and money – their leaders grow rich at the expense of the members;
(c) make their members give up all or nearly all their assets;
(d) use mind control methods reminiscent of authoritarian regimes to make automatons of their members;
(e) use methods of control (including violence and harassment of families) to prevent members from leaving;
(f) use harassment or intimidation of ex-members or their families, particularly if they threaten to give testimony against them;
(g) live in communes;
(h) control their members’ every movement;
(i) maintain secrecy – secret agenda;
(j) are started by self-appointed messiahs or prophets.
32.It is apparent that these characteristics listed by Mr Cheong are those associated with the more notorious dangerous, violent and destructive cults that surface in the media from time to time in a dramatic way, such as those led to the Jonestown and Waco tragedies. As we know the facts, the CCC, of course, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be equated with such groups. One can say straight away that CCC is not a commune of half-crazed people living in isolation from the world at large worshipping and kissing the foot of some self-appointed messiah or prophet. Most of its members carry on with their full time jobs just like members of other churches. Its members do not give up their assets to a commune, and its leaders do not live in riches on the backs of its members. It is not a secret organisation run by persons with an agenda which is kept secret from its members. People are welcome to join its meetings and services. In fact it actively tries to get people to attend these meetings and services so that they can see if they wish to join. They are made fully aware of what being a member would involve. People are never deceived or tricked or trapped into joining it. Furthermore, although a member is dissuaded from leaving, if he is bent on leaving, he will not be stopped from doing so. In fact, in the short history of the CCC here in Singapore, the people who have left the group far outnumber the existing members. There has been a constant turnover of members. It certainly does not harass or intimidate ex-members.
33.So, in suggesting a meaning for the word “cult” by reference to the characteristics he listed, Mr Cheong is not only putting forward a meaning which has not been pleaded. With respect, it is also an attempt to win an argument by reducing the opposing argument to absurdity.
34.On the other hand, as stated above, counsel for the defence also indulged in constructing a definition of their own, and sought to show that the characteristics of the CCC tally with the characteristics of a “cult” as so defined (although no doubt of a less sinister overtone than Mr Cheong’s model).
35.The whole exercise of definition searching and characteristics fitting was, in retrospect, quite futile. It only served to demonstrate the illusory nature of the meaning of this word “cult” if one uses it without reference to context.
36.In truth, when one re-reads the Impact article, which is the source also of the other two publications, what led the writer to conclude that CCC was a cult was not because CCC was dominated by characteristics of the dangerous and destructive cults postulated by Mr Cheong. Rather, it was because CCC’s beliefs and practices deviated from those of the mainstream Protestant faith, and a few, perhaps two or three, of the practices (pyramid-type leadership structure, communal living and control by a discipler) may be redolent of some, but only some, of the characteristics referred to by Mr Cheong. One needs only to refer to the description of the article at the beginning of this judgment to get a flavour of it. However, towards the end of his submission, Mr Tan, for the defence, as a back-up position as it were, submitted that a group could also be a cult if its doctrine and practice deviate to an extreme degree from the orthodox mainstream religion. It seems to me that this alternative meaning, although not spot on, is closer to the meaning that one should attribute to the word as used in the context of the article. Doing the best I can, I find that the imputation of the word “cult” in the context is that the CCC is a group with such extreme doctrine and practice that it should be shunned by right-thinking members of society.
37.I now deal with the defences in proper order.
38.The defendants’ first line of defence is that it is not defamatory to call any group a cult. They rely on a definition from a dictionary to the effect that a cult is merely a group of people believing in a particular system of religious worship, with its special customs and ceremonies. To call a group a cult is only to say that it has its own system of worship, customs and ceremonies. It therefore has a neutral meaning.
39.I reject this argument. I find that the word “cult” in the context of the articles has the imputation I have just set out. I have no doubt that the word “cult” is a pejorative term and is prima facie defamatory. It is also defamatory to call someone a cult leader.
40.The defendants then raise the defences of justification, fair comment and qualified privilege. First, the defence of justification.
41.As stated just now, the defendants seek to justify the sting of the libel (that CCC is a cult) by postulating through their expert witness Rev Van Leen, a definition of what is a “cult” and what characteristics, in terms of teachings and practices, a “cult” would have. They then attempt to show that the teachings and practices of the CCC fit those of a cult. The alleged teachings and practices of the CCC are set out in the particulars of the defence. There are minor variations in the wording, but the list is substantially the same in all the suits (with the addition of the reference to John Louis as the leader of the CCC in the suits where he is the plaintiff). Although it will lengthen this judgment, I have to set them out. To add coherence to the listing, I have taken the liberty of changing the sequence of some of the items. The list follows:
- Particulars of teachings and practices
(1) The CCC are the daughter church established by missionaries from the London Church of Christ (“LCC”).
(2) The LCC and CCC are both part of a worldwide religious organisation known as International Church of Christ (“ICC”), also known as the Boston Movement/Boston Church of Christ.
(3) The CCC’s conduct, practices and beliefs are substantially similar to those of the LCC and ICC.
(4) The CCC do not associate themselves with any of the mainstream denominations or churches.
(5) The CCC have through corporate meetings and individual gatherings asserted and/or implied that the CCC are the only true church.
(6) It is stated by the leaders of the CCC that all other churches are spiritually dead and that the majority, if not all, of the members of those churches are not saved accordingly to Christian faith.
(7) The CCC teaches that any baptism which has not been conducted by themselves, LCC or churches of the ICC is invalid. The CCC re-baptises any person who wishes to become a member, even if he/she was baptised elsewhere.
(8) Members of CCC are called “disciples” and are expected to submit to the authority of disciplers and the leaders of the CCC.
(9) If members of CCC do not follow their discipler’s advice, their disciplers report this to their own disciplers, who then speak to the member.
(10) Members of the CCC who openly question or disagree with any of the leadership are deemed to be rebellious and would be isolated and disciplined.
(11) Members of CCC are required to submit weekly accountability sheets to their leaders wherein they set out their proposed activities for each day of the week from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
(12) The CCC encourages members to date and/or marry other members of CCC only.
(13) Members of CCC who wish to date another member individually are allowed to do so only if the members’ respective disciplers give their approval .
(14) The disciple is taught to confess his/her personal weaknesses and private thoughts and sins to his/her discipler.
(15) Members of the CCC are expected to submit a “sin list” to their leaders.
(16) CCC members’ attendance’s at church services, bible talks, and most other meetings are regarded as compulsory.
(17) Members of the CCC are constantly expected to contact, convert, and disciple others (becoming disciplers themselves). Lack of recruiting others is regarded as a failure to be true disciples.
(18) Members of CCC are expected to put their involvement in the CCC’s activities above their work.
(19) The CCC encourages their members to leave their homes to live together with other members.
(20) Because of the time commitment expected of members, they become isolated from their friends and family.
(21) Members of the CCC are encouraged to believe that leaving the CCC and the ICC is the same as leaving and rejecting God, going over to Satan, and that there is nowhere else to turn.
(22) The LCC/ICC have been banned from various institutions of higher learning [in Britain, Ireland, USA and Australia].
42.I now consider the evidence, First, a word about the history of the CCC.
43.The CCC is part of a renewal movement which grew out of the traditional Churches of Christ in America. It gained momentum in 1979 when it came under the leadership of Kip McKean, a minister at a Church of Christ near Boston (hence “the Boston movement”). He started a programme there of transforming church members into active disciples, dedicated to what he saw as the first, basic principles of Christianity. The discipling concept became a distinguishing and controversial feature of the movement.
44. In 1981-82, McKean developed a plan that he believed would allow for the evangelism of the world in one generation. This plan envisaged sending a small group of disciples to key urban centers. They would grow a congregation and it would become the pillar from which a cadre of disciples would be sent to each of the world’s national capitals. From the capitals, the movement would move on to the other, smaller cities.
45.The implementation of this plan, with its direction coming from the leadership in Boston, represented a major departure in organisation from that traditionally followed by the Churches of Christ. It led to a separation from the older Churches of Christ movement. In 1988, nine men were appointed as “sector leaders” and given responsibility for different regions of the world. Douglas Arthur was put in charge of developing the movement in the British Commonwealth countries.
46.The church that was planted in London is known as the London Church of Christ (“LCC”). It was there that the two founders of the CCC here in Singapore, Daniel Eng and John Louis, were inducted. Daniel Eng had been a full-time minister in the mainline Church of Christ in Klang, Malaysia when he was invited to train as an intern in London. There he joined the LCC, which was designated by McKean as the body responsible for the expansion of the movement in the British Commonwealth. John Louis, now 33, grew up in Malaysia. He went to England at the age of 15. He had been brought up by staunch Roman Catholic parents, but in London he, too, was inducted into the LCC. In October 1987, John Louis and Daniel Eng were sent to Singapore to begin the planting of the church here. That was the beginning of the CCC.
47.By this time, the ICC had become a controversial group in America because of its aggressive evangelising on university campuses. The LCC had also become controversial in England. In order to ensure a smooth passage in the application to the Registrar of Societies for registration of the church here, it was decided by the leadership to avoid the use of a name with the words “Church of Christ” (a la, for example, London Church of Christ). That is how a rather atypical name, Central Christian Church, was chosen. When asked by the Registrar of Societies what foreign affiliation the church had, instead of saying the London Church of Christ from which it originated, a name of a church in Huntsville Alabama, which apparently had no connection at all, was put forward. In the event, the church was registered.
48.The plaintiffs’ fact witnesses are largely existing members of the group. Many of them are graduates, happily married and successful in their respective professions. As to be expected, they are all positive about the group and what it has done for them and their family. On the other hand, the fact witnesses for the defence are largely ex-members. As to be expected, all of them had less than positive experiences with the group. Some of them had left because they were not able to reconcile the group’s doctrinal teachings with their own inner convictions. Others had left because they were not able to cope with the demands made upon them. All had gone through great emotional trauma after they left, being cut off from the warmth and comfort of the group and having to readjust to the world outside. I find, however, that, on the whole, the fact witnesses on both sides take their oath seriously. There is not much difficulty as far as the primary facts of the practices are concerned. Even Daniel Eng, the co-founder of the CCC who left it in very bitter and unhappy circumstances, was quite helpful as far as the primary facts of the teachings and practices are concerned.
49.However, for the reasons just stated, the witnesses on one side, understandably, tend to put a different colour to the teachings and practices from that put by those on the other side.
50.At the trial, I ruled that no evidence was to be led on the allegation that the LCC or ICC had been banned from various institutions of higher learning overseas, on the ground that, unless the reasons for their being banned were gone into, it would not be helpful, and that any help from such evidence would be far outweighed by the amount of time needed to explore it.
51.Apart from this allegation, and the allegations about communal living, accountability sheets and sin lists (items 20, 12 and 16), all the allegations in the particulars are well supported by the evidence, although, as I say, different witnesses tend to put different colour to the facts, depending on which side they are on. However, whether the defence of justification succeeds on proof of these allegations, of course, is a different matter.
“The only true church”
52.There is some fine argument as to whether the ICC believes that it is the only true church; that other churches do not teach the full Biblical truth; that other churches are “dead” and that their adherents are not true Christians.
53.John Louis says that the CCC teaches people the way to being true Christians, it does not proclaim that it is the only true church or denounce other churches as not true or “dead”. Other witnesses for the plaintiffs say very much the same thing. They are reluctant to say anything against other churches.
54. Dr Melton in evidence puts it this way:
- “… most churches and most religious movements consider themselves to be the possessors of the truth and to be in one sense the only true church. Most churches will draw a circle that includes other churches and say this is the boundary of the only true church. Christianity, by its very nature, is very boundary-conscious of who is in and who is out … Any number of churches consider themselves as the only true church. All churches by implication do that. The ICC has been very reluctant to push the issue. That is, they will basically say we are true, our theology is biblical, we are following the biblical path, but they do not have a history of condemning other churches.”
55.The ICC may not condemn other churches, but I think the line between “the true church” and “the only true church” is an exceedingly fine one. I have no doubt that the implication of everything that is taught and done in the ICC (and therefore CCC) is that it is the only true church, although the more sophisticated leaders may not go out of their way to say so in so many words. Going back to the first true principles of the Bible was, after all, the raison d’etre of the birth of this revival movement in the first place.
56.It would seem to be a natural corollary of this that other churches, by and large, are spiritually dead, in the sense that their commitment to the original principles of the faith has waned. However, that does not mean all is lost. A church whose faith is waning can, in ICC’s view, always be revived by following the ways of the ICC. Hence the reference in the Impact magazine article to other churches being “reconstructed”. That was how the Boston church was revived by McKean’s “First Principles” in the first place. Salvation and baptism 57.The essential teaching of CCC is that in order to be saved and to become a true Christian a person must take full stock of all his sins, confess and repent them, and be baptised by immersion. A person who has been baptised by another church and who wishes to be a CCC member must go through rebaptism in this manner. Only in the rare instances where a convert is thought to have gone through the equivalent of the process of conversion in the manner of the ICC is the need for rebaptism and the steps leading to it dispensed with.
58.The argument about “the only true church”, salvation and baptism may appear to be inconsequential to an outsider, but, as I shall show in another section of this judgment, it lies deeply in the controversy between CCC and the mainstream Christian churches.
59.I now deal with the other allegations in the defence. Laborious as it may be, I am duty-bound to give a summary of the evidence, by reference to these allegations. It is not anything like a full account of life in the CCC. It s more like a response to these allegations, somewhat by way of a check list.
60.First, then, discipleship. Discipleship is a main plank of the ICC movement, in accordance with McKean’s idea of energising all Christians to be active disciples. So in the CCC, like in all other ICC churches, every member has a discipler. The discipler himself has his own discipler and so on. The discipler is a tutor, counsellor and friend, all rolled into one. He monitors and guides, on a regular basis, every aspect of a member’s life.
61.As a disciple, you meet your discipler at least once a week. Apart from studying the bible, you inevitably talk about what you have been doing and what you intend to do, always by reference to your commitment to God and church.
62.If you have committed a sin, you would confess to him. He might also ask you about the sins you have committed and confessed in the past, and ask you if you have overcome them. You are not unlikely to use any “sin list” for this purpose, particularly if your discipler already knows what your sins were. Contrary to what is alleged, you do not submit “sin lists” as a matter of routine. If there is any sign that you might not be candid about it, your discipler will encourage you to open up, he might even press you.
63.Sins are of all kinds – behavioural, moral, emotional, spiritual, e.g. sexual immorality or impurity, greed, selfishness, arrogance and pride. I assume that what is considered a sin would be largely nothing new to a Christian of any shade of the faith.
64.Although discipleship is in theory a one-to-one relationship, a discipIer often has several disciples under him, depending on his capability to cope. So, sometimes the topics described above may be discussed in the company of other disciples, even intimate topics like one’s sexual sin. In the book of the church, this is perfectly in order. You are taught to be open, to share your life and thought with everyone else; very little of your personal life is kept to yourself.
65.As sharing the faith is such an important thing for the church, a major subject of your conversation with your discipler is likely to be about what you have been doing in that area, how many people you have contacted and how many you are likely to bring to meetings, and so on.
66.If you have difficulty fitting in your church commitments with commitments in other areas of your life, such as your job, your discipler will help you plan your time so that you can fit everything in. But if you find that you cannot adjust your commitments in other areas of your life to your commitments as a disciple, you are likely to be advised to give up the former. The church and your faith always come first in your life.
67.To help you concentrate on this business of time management, your discipler might use a printed form with days of the week and hours of the day, so that you can see how you could fit everything in. This is one of the “accountability sheets” that was much talked about at the hearing. No, the church does not, as a general practice require members to fill out “accountability sheets” for form’s sake. The church is run by highly intelligent people, and they are not likely to want to waste anybody’s time in unnecessary form-filling. Where forms are useful, however, they will be used.
68.Now, relationship with members of the opposite sex. Yes, it is true that the church takes great interest in your relationship (the with-a-view-to-marriage kind) with members of the opposite sex. It is true you must not form any relationship with anyone outside the church. If you have not formed a relationship with anyone, your discipler might suggest that you do so; he might also suggest who might be suitable. If you have formed one, he might encourage you to go on, or, if he thinks (no doubt after consulting other seniors) that your partner is not suitable (e.g. too “spiritually mature” for you), he will discourage it. A courting relationship which has received the blessing of the church may be announced to the entire congregation.
69.If by any chance you develop a serious relationship with someone outside the church, unless you can persuade your partner to join the church, you will most likely try to hide the fact from your fellow CCC members. Your relationship would probably not be able to withstand the strain of the advice and concern of your discipler and others around you and you will find yourself in an exceedingly difficult position of conflict.
70.Now, submission to authority. There is no rule to say you are expected to submit to the authority of your discipler; or to say that if you disagree with the leadership, you will be isolated and disciplined.
71.8ut consider the fact that you have always been taught that it is sin to be arrogant and proud and virtue to be submissive and obedient. Consider the fact that you have also been taught that what is expected of you by the church is what is expected of you by God. Consider the fact that a member of any group has a natural tendency to conform to group norms and a natural desire to be accepted; the pain of rejection and the pleasure of acceptance ensure submission without the need for any overt pressure or explicit rules. So, submission to the leadership is a norm in the CCC.
72.The Impact article refers to a pyramid-type of leadership organisa6on. Yes, there is such a hierarchical organisational structure, progressing from the ordinary member to the evangelist, who is the leader of CCC, as follows: ordinary member – assistant bible talk leader – bible talk leader – assistant zone leader – zone leader – full-time intern – assistant evangelist – leader evangelist. Daniel Eng, who should know, says that every leader, down to the lowest level, is directly answerable to another leader higher up in the pyramid until it reaches Kip McKean. When Eng was in the CCC, he had at one time four levels of leaders below him. He was himself answerable to John Louis, who was answerable to Douglas Arthur (one of the “sector leaders” responsible for the movement in this part of the world), who in turn was answerable to Kip McKean. Daniel Eng also says that whatever instruction or new idea Kip McKean had, would flow through this hierarchical system.
73.Now, recruitment, evangelising, sharing the faith, call it what you will. If there is one thing that can be said about the CCC without fear of contradiction except of the semantic kind, it is that conversion of non-believers is top on its agenda. It is in line with the vision of evangelising the whole world in a generation.
74. Recruitment activity is the one single most important commitment of every CCC member at every level. A member does it wherever and whenever the opportunity presents itself. He also goes out and creates the opportunity for recruitment. Almost every one that a member comes into contact with is a potential target for recruitment. Members of one’s own family, one’s relatives and friends, are all natural targets. So are people a member comes into contact with at work or study. In Singapore as elsewhere, campuses of universities and colleges are favourite grounds for recruitment. One evening a week is set aside for members to do recruitment in a more public way. They go out, typically to MRT stations or out on the streets, to share the faith. The targets are people who are between their late teens and early thirties, but primarily those in their twenties, and English-educated.
75.The object of these “sharing of the faith” activities is to get people interested enough to accept an invitation to attend the church’s services and other activities, with a view to eventual conversion. It is quite true that you are considered a good Christian if you succeed in getting new members. Conversely, if you fail to do so, you will feel, or made to feel, that you have failed as a good Christian.
A week in the saturated life of a disciple
76. As a member of the CCC, almost all your evenings and weekends are taken up by church activities of one kind or another. Monday evening is designated “Family Night”. You are with your family, but you spend time explaining your new-found faith to your family. You may even succeed in converting a brother or sister. You might also use this evening to follow up on contacts that you have made on your public faith sharing rounds. The rest of the evenings of the week, you go out evangelising; you meet your discipler; you attend bible studies, prayer meetings. The whole week-end is virtually taken up. “Relationship-building” is on Saturday afternoon, with group outings, group datings, and group fun. Sunday is more bible study, fellowship again and dinner.
77.There is also a service in the afternoon. This service, and the one on Wednesday are activities you must attend. Missing either one would cause great concern. So, with all these activities every day of the week, what time have you got left for yourself? Apart from your job or your studies if you are a student, practically none at all. No one would be asked to give up his job, but where the requirements of the job (e.g. overtime or courses) conflict with your commitment to Church and God, they must be adjusted to fit in with the latter. Church and God are always number one, as one witness puts it.
78.This is the position if you are a mere member. What if you become a discipler yourself, or a group leader? The answer, again simply, is more demands. You are then not only responsible for yourself; you are responsible for those under you. It means monitoring the commitments of those under you, in addition to accounting for your own commitments. Dr Melton in his scholarly way puts it very mildly when he refers to the CCC as a high-demand group.
79.With such total commitment to the church, you will find that you have no time at all for your family, friends and relatives. The natural result is that you lose touch with friends outside the church; you do not socialise with your colleagues at work. You may be physically living with your family, but your priority is elsewhere. Your only friends are CCC members. The CCC provides all your social, emotional and spiritual needs. Except for your work or studies, you are as good as being completely cut off from the outside world. So, yes, you become isolated from your friends, and even your own family.
80.No, contrary to what the Impact and New Paper articles say, members in general are not encouraged to leave home to live with other members. There are a few from Malaysia who might find it convenient to live in the few places which CCC has at its disposal, but, by and large, members do not leave home to live communally, in the way of those of some of the destructive cults in the U.S. that one reads about. Mrs Carpenter got the information about communal living from Rev Van Leen’s articles. What was stated is true for some ICC establishments abroad, as confirmed by Dr Melton (in respect of the one in Los Angeles).
Leaving the church
81.If you are able to cope with the demands and succeed in meeting expectations, you are likely to get enormous satisfaction from being a member. You are likely to find much happiness.
82.0n the other hand, if you find that you are not able to meet these constant demands on you, or you are unable to resolve some underlying conflicts, this may trigger off negative feelings about the church. You may then think that discipleship is nothing but a form of control over your life; you may resent the pervasive intrusion into every aspect of your life. You may question whether CCC is the only true church as you have been taught. Particularly if you had gone over to the CCC from some other church, you may question whether they are right to have said that your previous baptism had been invalid. In general, you are exhausted, disillusioned. You begin to miss meetings. When you show signs of wanting to leave the church, your discipler and your friends will try to dissuade you from leaving. It is then that you may be told that leaving the CCC is like leaving and rejecting God and going over to Satan.
83.A substantial number of people do leave the church; the “fallaway” rate is quite high. As stated earlier, in the short history of the CCC, there has been a constant turnover of members .
84.When you leave, while you feel a great sense of relief, you are most likely to experience a great emotional, social and spiritual trauma. There is suddenly a huge void in your life. One witness says :
- “After leaving the CCC, I felt very alone because most of my circle of friends were gone. I did not go to any other churches because I had become very critical of Christianity. … My own personal relationship with God was gone because I felt that if God was so concerned with works, I could never measure up to that standard …”
85.This witness could not bring herself to go to any church for 2 and a half years after she left. Some people give up going to church altogether. Dr Melton likens the trauma of leaving the CCC to that of a person going through a divorce. This is a measure of the depth of the emotional and spiritual involvement required of a member of the church, while he is in it.
86.To sum up, apart from some exceptions and qualifications (sin list, accountability sheets, communal living), most of what the defendants say about the CCC is true in substance; so are the statements in the three publications about CCC’s beliefs and practices.
87.I now go back to the defence of justification.
The law : the notional jury
88.In a defence of justification, the defendant must show that in so far as the libel consists of statements of fact, those statements are true, and in so far as it consists of comment, the comment is correct. Sutherland v. Stopes  A.C. 47 at p.95. Unlike a statement of a primary fact (e.g. that X stole something from Y), the statement that a group is a cult is, being an inference from the primary facts of the group’s characteristics, is essentially a comment. It is more appropriate to ask : “Is the statement correct?” than to ask “Is the statement true?”. I can imagine, however, that some people might ask, colloquially, a question like : is it true that CCC is a cult, just as they might ask: is it true that so and so is a male chauvinist pig? or a cheapskate?
89.Different people undoubtedly have different notions of what is a cult, or how much deviation from the norm, if there is a norm, would make a group a cult. The first question to ask is : by whose standard is one to judge? This is not an easy question to answer, but I shall attempt to do it by going back to the basics.
90.In a system of trial by jury, the jury decides whether the libel is true in substance and in fact. If this case were tried by a jury in a country whose population was predominantly and homogeneously adherents of the orthodox mainstream Christian faiths, I am sure there would be every chance that the jury would find that the CCC was indeed a cult. The verdict would simply reflect the predominant view of such a society.
91.In a system, such as ours, where the functions of judge and jury are combined, when the judge is performing the function which would otherwise be performed by a jury, it is only right that he put himself in the position of a hypothetical or notional jury, and try to come to an educated guess as to what such a jury would have decided. Only if he does this, instead of allowing his personal, private view to rule the day, would it be possible for a case like this to be decided with a just and consistent result, regardless of who is the trial judge or what his religious persuasion, if he has any, may be.
92. What, then, would be the complexion of this notional jury? Since it would be drawn randomly from the adult population of a country with a diversity of races, cultures and religious faiths, it would reflect this diversity. There would be one or two Christians of the more conventional mould, probably none from the fringe. There might be one or two who are not Christians but whose worldview is sympathetic to orthodox Christianity. But together they would not form a majority. If the jurors were to do a proper job of deliberation, it would not do for them to bow to the view of the minority. It would be a dereliction of duty if any of them were to say: “Only you Christians know what is a cult in your religion. So, will you please decide for us all?”
93.Turning to the case at hand, we have here a case of a new religious group which is an off-shoot of a movement which has acquired quite a controversial reputation in the West. Its doctrine of salvation and its concept of baptism are apparently controversial. Its concept of discipleship and its practice in that area are also apparently things that the more conventional Christian churches find disagreeable. With a few minor exceptions (such as in relation to the “sin list”, accountability sheets, communal living) and qualifications, what the defendants say in their defence about CCC’s practices is largely and objectively true, even though people in the CCC itself would not see the same things in quite the same way. But, to the collective mind of the hypothetical jury, does this make CCC a cult? I venture to suggest, no.
94.If there is one thing that binds a jury of such a composition, I would suggest it is the national creed of tolerance. This hypothetical jury would know that there is a great diversity of religions and religious groups in the world. Many of them are represented here. Each has it own beliefs and practices, some of which might appear to an outsider to be strange and extraordinary .
95.The majority of the hypothetical jurors (who are by definition not Christians), I venture to suggest, would not understand why anyone should be so troubled by the fact that the CCC claims to be the only true church. Many religions claim to be the true path to some desirable state or other. Equally, I suggest that the majority of the jurors would not be unduly perturbed by the fine points about CCC’s doctrine of salvation and baptism. They might well wonder why that should make it a cult. To the minds of this majority, what CCC teaches is probably no more strange than what is taught by many others. The same can be said about almost everything else that is practiced by the CCC – the discipleship, the control, the unremitting demands. My best guess is that the minority of Christians and Christian-sympathisers in the hypothetical jury room would have a difficult task persuading the others that CCC is indeed a cult.
Conclusion on justification defence
96.So, I find on balance that the defendants have failed to justify the main sting of the libel of calling the CCC a cult. The defence of justification fails in all the suits.
97.As pointed out above, there are complaints about other statements and other matters (such as the pictorial depictions in the Impact and New Paper articles). They do not add to the sting of the libel. So whether they are justified or not, it does not matter. I do not need to say anything about them.
The fair comment defence
98.The second line of defence of ail the defendants in these suits is that the respective publications in so far as they refer to the CCC as a cult are fair comment on a matter of public interest.
99.There is no doubt in my mind that the subject matter of the publication is a matter of public interest. Also, as stated above, to make a statement that a group is a cult is essentially to make a comment. So, it is a comment on a matter of public interest. The question then is : Is it a fair comment?
100.The use of the word “fair” in the context of the defence of fair comment is slightly misleading. It does not, as one might think, mean something just, reasonable, balanced, something that one arrives at after weighing the pros and cons and the pluses and minuses. The crux of the meaning of the word is honesty, and not these other meanings.
101.More than a century ago, Lord Esher M.R. in the much cited case of Merivale v. Carson  20 QBD at pg. 280, 281 said:
- “The question which the jury must consider is this : would any fair man, however prejudiced he may be, however exaggerated or obstinate his views, have said that which this criticism has said?”
102.For “fair”, read “honest”. In Turner v. Metro – Goldwyn Meyer Pictures Ltd  1 ALL E R 449 at 461, Lord Porter in the House of Lords said he would adopt this dictum of Lord Esher except that he would substitute “honest” for “fair”, as otherwise some suggestion of reasonableness, instead of honesty, might be read into it. So, the emphasis is honesty.
103.It is often said that such a test is an objective one. See Gatley, op cit., para 73; Aaron v. Cheong Yip Seng  1 SLR 623 at 651. However, the rule has a subjective element to it in that if it is shown that the comment was in fact not the honest expression of the commentator’s real opinion, he will fail in this defence. See, for example, Turner v. MGM, ibid, per Lord Porter; Silkin v. Beaversbrook Newspaper [19581, WLR at 747, per Diplock J. Pray J in a 1905 unreported case (RV Russell), cited by Diplock J in the Silkin case, told the jury:
- “[The commentators] must believe what they say … If they do believe it, and they are within anything like reasonable bounds, they come within the meaning of fair comment.”
104.The law recognises that on anything attracting comment, different people can feel quite differently about it; they express themselves differently in what they say and how they say it. Some may feel very strongly about the subject and express themselves in robust or exaggerated language. The law, in short, recognises the place of bias and prejudice in how people express themselves about things. In Merivale, Lord Esher stressed the point when he said:
- “Every latitude must be given to opinion and to prejudice … mere exaggeration, or even gross exaggeration, would not make the comment unfair. However wrong the opinion expressed may be in point of truth, or however prejudiced the writer, it may still be within the prescribed limit.”
105.In the Russell case, a liquor licensing case, Bray J said it was a matter on which people who knew the subject held very, very strong views. If they used strong language, every allowance should be made in their favour. He said to the jury :
- “If comments were made which would appear to you to have been exaggerated, it does not follow that they are not perfectly honest comment. ”
106.What is true of liquor licensing is even more apt in a matter like religion. People do feel very strongly about the subject. This is of particular relevance when one considers the Impact magazine article .
107.As stated above, the Impact magazine is a publication under the umbrella of the main body of Protestant churches in Singapore, referred to as the evangelical community. The writer of the article complained of, Mrs Mary Carpenter, was also the executive editor. She was in a sense a spokesperson for that community. She belongs to one of the mainstream churches herself. Mrs Carpenter explains that from early 1990, various people in the evangelical community had expressed concerns about the CCC’s activities. The group set itself apart from the mainstream, and avoided establishing any link with the umbrella organisations of the mainstream churches – the National Council of Churches and the Evangelical Fellowship of Singapore. Its members seemed to think that it was the only true church, as they even stood outside other churches and invited their members to attend its meetings and services. Mrs Carpenter got hold of some articles written by Rev Van Leen on the ICC movement, albeit in the Australian context. She also interviewed two or three ex-members of the CCC. What they told her appeared to fit well with what Rev Van Leen had written about the ICC. She was particularly impressed by what they told her about the CCC’s claim to be the only true church; about the group’s insistence on rebaptising Christians who had been baptised before; and about the near-total control of members’ lives by instilling guilt.
108.Rev Van Leen was highly regarded by the evangelical community here, and Mrs Carpenter said she had no reason to question the correctness of what he had written, especially as it was by and large confirmed by her interviews and by what she had heard about the group here. She felt she had enough material on which to write a feature article on the CCC, Her article was thus largely based on Rev Van Leen’s writings and the interviews with these ex-members.
109.Mr Cheong for the plaintiffs questions Mrs Carpenter’s honesty in what she wrote. He submits that Rev Van Leen, the author of the articles Mrs Carpenter relied on, is a very biased commentator. His one-man organisation, the Concerned Christian Growth Ministries, was set up with the avowed object of exposing cults. He himself has been called a cult-buster, and has the mind- set of one. He is prepared to label as cult any religious movement that does not agree with his own conventional Christian precepts; he has even called Islam a cult. He has made charges against the CCC without studying the group from the inside, content to rely on materials on the ICC from other countries. Mrs Carpenter did not make any attempt at verifying the truth of Van Leen’s assertions. She also did not make any real attempt to get the facts from the CCC itself, before publishing the article.
110. I am quite satisfied that Mrs Carpenter honestly believed what she wrote. Since Rev Van Leen shares much of the bias and world-view of the evangelical community of which Impact is its voice in Singapore, I think it is understandable that Mrs Carpenter, as its editor would accept, at face value, views expressed by him in his writings. In Mrs Carpenter’s own words, she belongs to a community in which Van Leen is highly regarded; his reputation and credentials had never been questioned. So, I think the fact that she did not question what the reverend had written does not lead to the conclusion that she did not honestly believe in what she wrote. Furthermore, she sought and obtained confirmation of at least some of the practices from the ex-members she interviewed. It is true she did not make sufficient attempt to verify the facts with CCC leaders. She has explained the difficulty of contacting them. But even if she had spoken to them, from the facts as we know them now, it is unlikely that she would have found anything that would have altered the general position that the group’s teaching and practice diverged quite substantially from the tradition to which she belonged. Those in the CCC would undoubtedly have added qualifications or put a different colour to its teaching and practices. She would have no doubt been corrected on the facts about communal living, “sin lists” and “accountability sheets”. But these are just minor manifestations of a deep division between the CCC and the mainstream churches, symptoms of a disease rather than the disease itself. There would have been no running away from the fact that CCC was different – different, in the view of the mainstream, in some fundamental ways. Mrs Carpenter came across on the video link as a perfectly honest person, like so many of the other witnesses on both sides of the case. I do not think she is inherently capable of saying or writing anything she does not honestly believe in. So, I do not think Mrs Carpenter’s honesty is an issue.
111.The defendants in respect of this article, as well as those in the newspapers, rely on the same statements of basic facts about the CCC which they relied on for their defence of justification. The defence, in gist, is that the CCC’s teachings and practices are so deviant from those of the mainstream that the defence of fair comment is available. Unfortunately, as I stated earlier, the initial approach of the defence was to try to define in the abstract what characteristics a cult had and to establish that the CCC had those characteristics. As a result, there has been no systematic analysis of what are mainstream beliefs and practices and how CCC’s beliefs and practices differ or deviate from them. The comparison came out only in the cross-examination of Mrs Carpenter, by way of examining the basis of the various statements about the CCC in her article. What she says, in gist, is that all the CCC beliefs and practices profess to be derived from the Bible, but CCC gives the scriptures an interpretation and application which are totally at variance from those of the mainstream churches. I shall refer only to a few subjects, briefly.
112.First, CCC’s controversial practice of rebaptism. While a mainstream church would recognise a baptism which a person has undergone previously at another church, CCC requires that he undergo the process of sin confession and repentance and baptism all over again. Thus, it is not the mere fact of requiring rebaptism, or the form of it (immersion vs, sprinkling), but this rejection of the validity of the act of baptism by other churches that sets CCC apart from the rest. That is emphasised by the fact that CCC regards itself as-the true, if not the only true, church.
113.Then, confession of sin. Yes, it is also part of biblical teaching. But in the tradition in which Mrs Carpenter has been brought up, sin against God should be confessed to God alone; sin against a person should be confessed to God and to the person sinned against. As a Christian leader, Mrs Carpenter has done a lot of discipling herself, but she would not ask a person to confess his or her sins to her just because she is the discipler. She does not consider that she has a right to ask for confession, or to pressure someone to confess. This is how she sees CCC’s practice in this area. It gives the discipler unlimited access to a person’s life, as she puts it.
114.Discipleship is also biblical in origin, and is practiced in some churches Mrs Carpenter knows of. But she sees CCC’s discipleship practice as allowing unlimited control over and access to a member’s life, quite contrary to the original biblical spirit of discipleship as she sees it.
115.These are individual instances of difference. Is there some generalised division in fundamentals that would explain why the mainstream churches think that the ICC movement is so different? What underlines the schism between the ICC movement and the mainstream?
116.Of all the materials put before the court, probably the best summary is contained in an article entitled “As Angels of Light” by Steve Wookey, described in the article as a curate at a London Church (not named). Mrs Carpenter referred to it in her evidence. I assume he belongs to the evangelical community that Mrs Carpenter belongs to. He compares the LCC’s teachings with those of the bible (as seen through the eyes of one of a more conventional bent).
117.It seems to me that the controversy centres around two main areas : first, works versus faith as the means of salvation for a Christian, and, second, the doctrine underlying baptism. Not being schooled in any Christian tradition, I do not pretend to understand it all. But according to Wookey, LCC believes that salvation is by faith and works, whereas the true (by him) teaching is that salvation is by God’s grace, which comes by faith alone; there is nothing that we can do to either earn our salvation or to complete it. He says
- “The LCC seems to have little understanding of grace. They lay much emphasis on what we do, very little on what God does. They therefore appear to fall into the trap of the oldest heresy of all – believing that we can gain acceptance with God through our own efforts (i.e. justified by works) …
118.He also says that, since LCC believes that salvation is not through faith alone but also involves works, “assurance (that one is a Christian and that his sins are forgiven) is only possible through having one’s commitment checked by the church,” whereas the true (by him) position is that “assurance is the right of every Christian … Real assurance comes from trusting in God, not in ourselves.
119.Mrs Carpenter herself in fact echoed this doctrinal difference with the CCC in the concluding paragraph of the Impact magazine article thus:
- “How do we assess groups like the AOG and CCC? Perhaps we should look at their claims in the light of the battle cry of the Protestant Reformers. Simply stated, it is Faith Alone, Grace alone, Scriptures Alone, and God’s Glory Alone. Not faith plus any works, not grace plus goodness or giftedness in me … and not God’s glory plus my own kingdom building. Each time we see a group breaking ranks with the slogans of the Reformation, we need to be alert, even if that group was our very own. And we must ensure sound teaching in our churches so that members will not fall prey to cultic groups.”
120.The perceived emphasis by CCC on “works” probably explains why its practices (discipleship, commitment to church, aggressive proselytising) are so badly received by those in the mainstream even though CCC professes to base them all on the bible. Those in the mainstream seem to see these practices as nothing but manifestations of a deviation from orthodoxy which is rooted on more fundamental doctrinal differences.
121.The other main area of contention is in regard to the doctrine underlying baptism. I understand even less of this, but, according to Wookey, LCC teaches that baptism is the moment of conversion and has to be understood and practiced correctly for it to be effective, whereas the bible (according to him) teaches that all that is needed is faith.
- “The teaching of the Bible is that we are saved through faith, and that baptism is a public expression that faith is present, but it is not faith itself. People could become Christians without being baptised, and nowhere is it taught that the only correct expression of faith is baptism … LCC has no support for its teaching that only baptism with a completely correct understanding of it (i.e. their understanding) is valid.”
122.The controversy in regard to the doctrine underlying baptism is manifested in the requirement of the CCC, as stated above, that Christians who have been baptised before (e.g. in a Roman Catholic infant baptism) must go through the whole process of sin confession and repentance and must be baptised again before they are considered to be saved. This implies a view of baptism which is radically different from that held by the mainstream churches.
Back to the fair comment defence
123.I return to the dicta in the cases cited earlier in this section of my judgment. Religious beliefs and practices are matters people can feel very strongly about. There are probably few things which stir human emotions more than religious differences. It is also a well-known fact that disputes between those who break away and those from whom they break away are often acrimonious. When what is cherished as sacred is denied or contradicted, it naturally invites a response. Salvation and baptism lie at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, and it is a serious thing for anyone to question the validity of the way to salvation practiced by other Christians. The response can be expected to be commensurate with the seriousness of the attack and the strength of the feeling.
124.In the case at hand, we have a group that is part of a break-away movement from the mainstream, aggressively challenging the core beliefs of the mainstream, and succeeding in luring away adherents from it. It can be expected that those on the other side of the divide would feel very strongly about it.
125.The defence of fair comment does allow latitude for the strength of people’s feelings. When a person makes a comment, he is often using more the emotional than the disciplined intellectual aspect of his faculties. He speaks his mind rather than makes an evaluative judgment. In his Encyclopedia of American Cults, Dr Melton says that social scientists tend to classify religious groups on a church-sect-cult continuum, depending on how far the group’s norms differ from the main churchly denominations, whereas the Christian approach to cults would include every group which departs from orthodox Christianity. it seems to me unlikely that a Christian in the mainstream orthodoxy, when making a comment on the CCC, would pause to deliberate whether CCC is a cult or merely a sect, the way a scholar might do. He is likely to take the typical orthodox Christian stance, and say it is a cult.
126.Given all this, to the question whether an honest man could have said what Mrs Carpenter said about the CCC, it seems to me that the answer must be yes. I would add one thought. Many groups accepted as mainstream religions today were once regarded as cults. Christianity itself, I understand, was regarded as a cult and only over time developed into an established religion. It is the bane of any new religious movement on the fringe to be labeled a cult by those in the centre. It is unfortunate for the new movement, but it seems to be a fact of life. This is not the first time that an ICC church has been called a cult and I think no one would predict that it was the last.
127.So, given the latitude the law allows, I find that the defence of fair comment succeeds in respect of the Impact magazine article. I need, however, to deal with the pictorial representations on the cover of the magazine and on the various pages referred to earlier.
The pictorial representations
128.The hooded figures in the magazine are certainly dramatic, and at first sight might appear to be a little excessive. The defence of fair comment does not give people license to vilify others, or to indulge in abuse or invective under the guise of criticism. One must, however, look at the pictures in the context of the article in which they appear as any reasonable reader would do, and also bear in mind that this is a publication of a religious community. Equally importantly, one must also see what the plaintiffs themselves say in their pleadings and submissions about the pictures’ imputations.
129.In regard to the figure with the word “Holy Bible” on its body with two sheep behind him, the plaintiffs say in their pleadings and closing submission that this means the plaintiffs are evil, and that they are Satan leading simple ignorant sheep. I do not think that “evil” or “Satan” is conveyed by these pictures. It seems that they are more like a dramatisation of the view that CCC is a cult, and misleads or is likely to mislead the innocent. The dramatisation may be an exaggeration, but that does not take it beyond the bounds of honest comment.
130.Next, the hooded figures by the MRT station in the main article complained of, “AOG & CCC: They are Not What You Think”. The plaintiffs pleaded, quite implausibly, that they conveyed the imputation that CCC was associated with a secret, violent, and racist organisation like the Ku Klux Khan. I say “quite implausibly”, because even in America the KKK has receded in people’s consciousness. I do not think that it is something with which the ordinary reader in Singapore would readily associate the pictures. Plaintiffs’ counsel contends in his closing submission that they convey the imputation that the plaintiffs practice deception, dishonesty and trickery in the recruitment of members. This was not pleaded. I do not think in any event it is borne out.
131.As I said, one must look at these pictures in the context of the article. The theme of the article, as appears in the title itself is that AOG and CCC are not what they appear to be. They may appear as one thing, but they are something else inside. The pictures, seen in the context, merely dramatise the view that the groups claim to be true Christians but they are not. Here, again, the portrayal might be an exaggeration, but I do not think it exceeds the bounds of honest comment, particularly by a publication of the Impact magazine’s orientation.
132.Finally, the hooded figures in the article “Satan’s Wily Scheme”. The plaintiffs pleaded that “in juxtaposition” with the figures in the article I have just referred to, they refer to the plaintiffs and that they mean that the plaintiffs are evil, they carry out the scheme of Satan, and that they are devil worshippers. The defendants denied that the pictures refer to the plaintiffs.
133.Here, again, one must read the accompanying article. It does not make any reference at all to the CCC. It does not even refer to cults. It is about the forces of evil versus the forces of good; about the evils of rulers, authorities, powers of this dark world, and so forth. If there is any reference to cults, one has to dig very deeply between the lines to find it if one ever finds it. The only connection with the article on the AOG and CCC is the use of similarly garbed>> hooded figures. I think, in the context, it is difficult to say that the plaintiffs have shown that the article refers to them. In any event, if (I must say a long if) Satan here refers to the plaintiffs, the allegory is the sort of polemics that one might expect in internecine religious disputes.
The New Paper and Wan Bao
134.The article in the New Paper was based largely on the Impact magazine article. However, the writer appears to have also interviewed pastors from three mainstream churches and added what the pastors said about the groups – ideological differences, “stretch the truth” “exclusive practices” etc. Although the Wan Bao article appeared on the same day, judging by its contents, it would appear to have been based on the New Paper article rather than on the Impact article. It includes material in the New Paper article (interviews with the pastors) which was not in the Impact article. In any event, apart from this new material, which does not in my view add to the sting of the libel, the two articles are in essence a republication of the Impact article.
135.The author of neither article was called as a witness, the defendants taking the view that since express malice had not been pleaded, there was no need to do so. Mr Cheong, although complaining of their absence, made no further submission as to the effect, if any, of this on the fate of the defence. I do not know whether much turns on it. The point has not been argued, but in the absence of any indication of a lack of bona fide in a publication, it does not seem to be necessarily fatal to the defence if the writer is not called. See Lyon v. Daily Telegraph  2 ALL E.R. 316.
136.In the circumstances, treating the defendants here as largely publishing what had been written in the Impact magazine, I find that the defence of fair comment succeeds in respect of these two articles as it succeeds in respect of the Impact publication. Again no argument has been addressed on the point, but I believe that the following passage from Gatley op cit pars 730 is correct and applicable :
- “Where the defendant has published, or taken part in publishing, the comment of another, he may rely on the defence of fair comment at least to the same extent as the person whose comment it was.”
The New Paper front page
137.That, however, is not the end of the story as far as the New Paper is concerned. Apart from the article, there is the front page. It has to be treated separately. In Bishop v Latimer  4 L.T. (N.S.) 775, where a paragraph in a newspaper was headed “How Lawyer Bishop Treats His Clients”, it was held that the heading of a report of a court case implying that the plaintiff ill- treated his clients generally was not justified by proof of ill- treatment of one client in that particular case. See also Lewis v. Clement  3 B. & Aid. 702. As headings in a report are treated separately from the report, even more so must the front page of a newspaper be treated separately from an article inside.
138.In this case, the editors of the New Paper chose to use a very prominent banner headline on the front page (“2 CULTS EXPOSED”) in bold 2-inch type, with the full names of AOG and CCC at the masthead in smaller but also bold type. Below the prominent headline and to the side are the following sentences.
- “Christian groups warn of two new cults in Singapore. The Army of God and the Central Christian Church tend to “stretch the truth” and have “exclusive” practices, says on Reverend. One of them is known for practising war cries- members are told to shout and not talk softly to the devil – Page 11″.
139.Although the page reference at the end of these statements leads the reader to the article inside, this front page has, as I said, to be judged on its own. Looking at it in this way, I think the question fairly arises whether, in doing what they did, the editors (who are not called) have exceeded the reasonable limit of fair comment. I think, on the whole, they have. The words “2 Cults Exposed” would suggest to a reader the idea of a clandestine group having been uncovered. This is aggravated by the statement that a reverend said that the groups (AOG & CCC) “tend to stretch the truth”. That would suggest that they are dishonest; it reflects on the character of those in the groups. There is nothing in the context to qualify the imputation. In the article itself, there is a statement in similar terms, but it follows a reference to ideological differences with more established churches. Read in context there, the reader may perhaps draw the inference that “truth” refers to theological or doctrinal truth, rather than truth in the secular sense. But in the front page, there is no such context. Furthermore, attributing the statement to a reverend also serves to add credibility to the statement. There then follows a sentence about war cries. Although it could refer to either group, it is a brush that tends to tarnish both. You have to go to the article itself to see that it refers in fact only to the AOG.
140.The immediate thrust, a powerful one, of the banner headline and all that surrounds it is that both groups are cults, with weird practices like war cries; that they have been operating clandestinely but have now just been uncovered. That is what the word “exposed” immediately suggests. To add to the sensationalism, there is the prominence of the bold banner headline.
141.It seems to me that it is more a statement of fact to say “2 cults exposed” than a comment. But if it is a comment, I think the make-up of the banner headline supported by the tendentious half- true statements indifferently about the two groups, the two being in reality quite different in many respects as the article itself shows, takes the comment well beyond reasonable limits. It is sensationalism not just under the guise of legitimate criticism, but in place of it.
142.To use the hallowed phrase, therefore, I find that in so far as the matters on the front page are statements of fact, they are substantially untrue; in so far as they are expressions of opinion, they exceed the limit of fair comment. The defence of fair comment in respect of the front page publication, therefore, fails.
Paradox – apparent or real?
143.So, all the defendants fail in the defence of justification, but (except in respect of the front page of the New Paper), succeed in the defence of fair comment. Is there any inconsistency in this result? The answer is, no. In a defence of justification, the court has to be satisfied that the libelous statement of fact or comment is true, or correct. It implies that the court agrees with it. In a defence of fair comment, the court does not have to agree with the truth or correctness of the comment. It only needs to answer the question: given the latitude that the law allows, is the comment something that a fair-minded person could honestly have made?
144.The practical result of the decision in this present case may be summed up in this way. Given the national cultural habit of tolerance and acceptance of the multitude of religious faiths in this country, the majority of Singaporeans, particularly those outside the Christian faith, would probably not consider that the CCC is a cult, any more than they would consider any other religious group as a cult. They would hesitate to make any judgment. However, it would not be difficult to find a substantial number of people, particularly those in the mainstream Christian faith, who believe, perhaps quite strongly, that the CCC is a cult. They are entitled to hold such a view, and if they honestly believe it and express it within reasonable bounds, the law will uphold their right to do so.
145.It has been said, rightly of course, that the defence of fair comment is an essential part of the greater right of free speech. Kemsley v. Ford  2 KB 34 at 46-47 per Birkett L.J. The right, however, is not absolute. In this country, apart from the limits placed on it by the law of defamation, the criminal law provides sanctions against writing or saying things that insult another person’s religion or hurts his religious feelings. The more recently enacted Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act also provides mechanisms to prevent people from saying or doing things concerning religion which would arouse ill-will or hatred. I speak, of course, generally now, and not in reference to the facts of the instant case.
Qualified Privilege : limit in press publications
146.The defence of qualified privilege applies to statements made in pursuance of what in the cases is referred to as a legal, social or moral duty on the part of one person to another person who has a corresponding duty or interest to receive them. A classic example where such a correspondence of duty and interest arises so as to give rise to the defence is where a prospective employer asks a prospective employee’s former employer for a character reference and defamatory statements are made in the course of such a reference. The party that makes such defamatory statement is protected by this defence, provided that he made them bona fide, i.e. honestly and without malice. The privilege is qualified, as opposed to absolute. Unlike absolute privilege, which attaches, for example, to a remark made by a judge in the course of judicial proceedings, this privilege, when it arises, is qualified in the sense that the person who makes a defamatory statement loses its protection if it is shown that he made it out of malice, for example, if he made it out of ill-will or spite.
147.The mass media are accorded privilege, absolute or qualified, in relation to reports of judicial, parliamentary and other proceedings, but in relation to other matters, enjoy no absolute privilege, and they enjoy qualified privilege to no greater an extent than that enjoyed by any ordinary citizen. The same requirement of correspondence of duty and interest is required. As Thean JA in Aaron v. Cheong Yip Seng E1996] 1 SLR 623 said :
- “… the duty must be to publish to the public at large and the interest must exist in the public at large to receive the publication. ”
148.The mass media have the right to make fair comment on a matter of public interest within the parameters I have referred to earlier, but this right is to be distinguished from a duty to publish so as to attract the defence of qualified privilege in the event that defamatory statements are published. Banks. v. The Globe and Mail Ltd  S.C.R. 474 per Cartwright J.
149.Journalists no doubt regard it as their professional duty to report on any matter of public interest. That, after all, is one of the main functions of the media. However, if in the course of discharging their professional duty, they unfortunately say something which is found to be libelous, then, if they wish to avail themselves of the defence of qualified privilege, the fact that the libel is published in the performance of such professional duty alone is not sufficient. The sort of duty that is required by this defence is of a much narrower kind. It is not easy to define, but some examples may serve to illustrate.
150.In Adam v. Ward  A.C. 309, it was held that the Army Council owed a duty to publish to the whole world a letter indicating a general who had been falsely accused before the same audience of discreditable conduct, and that publication in the press was therefore privileged. In Allbutt v. General Council of Medical Education and Registration [18893 28 QBD 400, it was held that publication in the press of an accurate report of proceedings within the jurisdiction of the General Medical Council erasing the name of the plaintiff from the medical register was privileged on the ground, inter alia, that it was the duty of the Council to give the public accurate information as to who is on the register, and, if a person’s name is erased, accurate information of the reason for the erasure. Similarly, in Camporese v. Barton  159 DLR 205 the publication of an article in a newspaper about the poor quality of the plaintiffs’ products was held to be privileged on the ground that the same newspaper had earlier published an article which, it had turned out unjustifiably, was laudatory of their products. In contrast, in the Banks case, on the assumed fact that the activities of a trade unionist had resulted in strikes and the withdrawals of ships from the Canadian registry it was held that no special circumstances had been shown to give rise to qualified privilege even though the matter was of general public interest.
151.In general, there must be special circumstances which necessitate the publication for the duty within the meaning of this defence to arise. There must be an occasion or reason for it apart from just the newspaper-reader relationship. Thean JA in the Aaron case sums it up thus : ” The relevant factors are by whom and to whom, when, why and in what circumstances the publication is made, and whether these things establish a relation between the parties which gives rise to a social or moral duty, and the consideration of these things may involve the consideration of questions of public policy.
152.Finally, again as Thean JA pointed out, another requirement for the defence is that the matter published must be of interest to the public at large. It is not sufficient if only a section of the public is concerned with the subject matter of the publication.
153.I now turn to consider the position of the three publications before me in the light of these principles.
Qualified privilege : Impact publication
154.The Impact magazine, a publication of the evangelical community, is targeted at people who attend churches. It is distributed mainly at churches and Christian book rooms. Non- Christians would not come into contact with it, unless they are receptive to the faith and perhaps get the magazine from friends. At the time of the publication of the issue complained of, it had a print run of about 6,000 copies, 3,000 of which were for subscribers and the balance sold at churches and book rooms, the actual sale being about 1,000 copies. So, in short, it is a publication of the evangelical community; it is intended to be circulated, and is circulated, among members of that community.
155.As stated above, the article in the Impact magazine was written as a result of concerns expressed by pastors and other leaders of the evangelical community regarding the beliefs and practices of the CCC, which were at variance with those of the mainstream. The intense recruiting activities of the CCC extended to members of existing churches. Some of the witnesses here in this case were in fact members of mainstream churches before they were recruited into the CCC. So, I think that the editor of Impact was right if she saw it her duty to write and publish an article on the group. I have no doubt that the general readership of the magazine, on the other hand, also had an interest in being informed about it. It seems to me that in these circumstances, there was a sufficient mutuality of duty and interest to found a defence of qualified privilege.
“Section of the public” point
156.In the Aaron case, the defence of qualified privilege failed because the publication was in a national newspaper intended for general circulation. The subject matter was found to be of interest only to a section of the public, i.e. Christian community, and the defence of qualified privilege failed. In the instant case, however, the Impact magazine is not one for general circulation. It is meant to be circulated to practising Christians of the mainstream churches. This particular class of persons, therefore, constitutes the relevant public for the purpose of this defence. In this connection, the statement of Thean JA in the Aaron case that one must consider the people by and to whom a publication is made, is of particular relevance.
157.Mr Cheong for the plaintiffs points out that since the magazine is available in Christian book rooms, the general public could have access to it. He also points out that under the relevant legislation, publishers are required to deposit copies in the National Library, so the magazine would have been accessible to the general public in this way. I am unable to accept Mr Cheong’s submission. In regard to this, I believe that the following passage from Gatley’s op. cit para 554 sets out the law correctly:
- “Where the occasion on which a libel is published is otherwise privileged, the person exercising that privilege is entitled to take all necessary or reasonable means of so doing and, provided the publication does not go beyond the exigency of the occasion, the mere fact that the defamatory matter is communicated to persons who have no legitimate interest in its subject matter will not avoid the privilege.”
Qualified privilege : The New Paper and Wan Bao publications
158.Unlike the Impact magazine, the New Paper and Wan Bao are for general, public, circulation. It is argued by the defence that the activities of the CCC affect not only Christians; they affect the general public also, as can be seen from their aggressive recruitment of young people. Their activities not only affect those that CCC targets for recruitment, but their families and friends also.
159.I am sure CCC’s activities are of public interest. I am sure also that the journalists and editors of the two newspapers concerned saw it as their professional duty to publish something about them. But, as I pointed out, that duty is not to be confused with the duty that is required for the purpose of the defence of qualified privilege in the event that any defamatory statements are made.
160.In respect of the New Paper and the Wan Bao, I do not think, therefore, that there are special circumstances giving rise to a duty for the purpose of the defence of qualified privilege. The defence fails on qualified privilege.
161.In the result, the defendants in all the suits fail on the defence of justification. The defendants in the suits arising from the Impact magazine publication succeed both on the defence of fair comment and qualified privilege. Those in the suit arising from the Wan Bao publication succeed on the defence of fair comment, but fail on qualified privilege. Those in the suit arising from the New Paper publication succeed in the defence of fair comment in respect of the main article, but fail in respect of the front page. They fail on qualified privilege.
162.CCC is the plaintiff in Suit 848 of 1992 in respect of the New Paper publication and is the party referred to in the front page. CCC is therefore entitled to judgment in that suit. John Louis is the plaintiff in Suit No. 850 of 1992 in respect of the New Paper publication, but he was not referred to in the front page. So this suit and all the other suits are dismissed because the defendants succeed in their defence of fair comment and, in respect of the Impact publication, in the defence of qualified privilege as well.
163.As far as costs are concerned, I have to consider whether any special order might be appropriate in view of the duplication of matters in and about the suits. Counsel are requested to address me on the matter on a date to be tired. Damages for CCC in Suit 848 will be assessed at the same time. Any evidence on that is to be filed within 2 weeks.
Dated this 7th day of November, 1997.
Warren L H Khoo J [Judge]
Messrs Bridges & Partners for plaintiffs;
Messrs Harry Elias & Partners for defendants in Suits 846, 848 and 850 of 1992
Messrs Lim Ang & Wong for 1st and 2nd defendants in Suits 847 and 849 of 1992
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