Doctor accused of taking advantage of female patients wins defamatory suit against woman in appeal

Wan Ting Koh
·Reporter
·5-min read
COVID-19 precautionary measures being taken at the Supreme Court building on 26 March 2020. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)
COVID-19 precautionary measures being taken at the Supreme Court building on 26 March 2020. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — The High Court on Friday (2 October) allowed the appeal of a doctor who took a woman to court over defamatory sexual allegations.

Dr Julian Ong Kian Peng, who runs a private practice at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, had taken Serene Tiong to court after she submitted a complaint to the Singapore Medical Council that he and a former senior consultant of psychiatry at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), Dr Chan Herng Nieng, were colluding to take advantage of vulnerable female patients to have sex with them.

Tiong had submitted photographs of offensive WhatsApp messages between the two doctors as part of her complaint. She emailed the complaint to other doctors both in and outside of SGH.

Ong’s case against Tiong was dismissed by District Judge Lynette Yap in April this year. However, Justice See Kee Oon reversed the decision on Friday, stating that Tiong was only partially justified in her statements.

The costs ordered by the lower court were set aside, with Tiong ordered to refund the amount to Ong. Tiong will have to bear $40,000 in costs.

Dr Ong’s damages will be assessed by the District Court and he has been granted an injunction restraining Tiong from publishing or causing to be published the offending words or other words similarly defamatory of him.

The key issue, Justice See said, was whether Tiong had proven “the sting” of her accusation, which was that Dr Ong and Dr Chan had used their positions as medical professionals to take advantage of and to attempt to take advantage of vulnerable woman patients. Apart from herself, Tiong had only named one other female patient, a property agent.

Justice See said that he disagreed with the District Judge’s findings in relation to Tiong as it was not clear that there was any collusion to take advantage of her.

Dr Ong explained that the message about having an alleged foursome involving Tiong was was made in jest, while Dr Chan took him more literally.

It was also not established when Tiong became a patient of Dr Chan, with whom she had an affair.

Tiong had also never complained about being vulnerable or being taken advantage of until her surreptitious finding of messages in April 2018, said Justice See. She was already having an affair with Dr Chan, and there was insufficient evidence to support the claim that she was his patient at the material time, the judge added.

“(Tiong) clearly considered herself to be one such victim, but apparently only when she realised that she was not Dr Chan’s exclusive lover as she thought she might have been.”

While exonerating Dr Ong in relation to Tiong, the judge found that Dr Ong did pass the contact of one of his female patients, a property agent, to Dr Chan so that the latter might try his luck at getting her to have sex with him in a “game”.

The game referred to Dr Chan ostensibly expressing interest in making an offer of a property deal to the woman, then enticing her into having sex with him.

It did not matter that the woman had consented for her number to be given to Dr Chan. It was “unscrupulous” for Dr Ong to try to target the woman in this way knowing that she is a property agent who was willing and ready to meet clients.

In this sense, the woman was vulnerable, given that Dr Ong had interacted with her and assessed that she was susceptible to the meeting and would have been “easy prey” for Dr Chan to have worked his charms on.

As such, there was evidence that Dr Ong and Dr Chan had colluded to try and take advantage of this woman, said Justice See.

However, as Tiong had accused Dr Ong and Dr Chan of taking advantage of more than one woman, there ought to be evidence to such, and there was not, said Justice See.

The judge from the lower courts had wrongly found support in irrelevant evidence in relation to Dr Ong’s colleagues.

At the end of his decision, Justice See noted that even though Dr Ong was successful in his libel suit, he could not be said to be “fully vindicated”.

“What (Dr Ong) and (Dr Chan) have done outside their professional roles with their various sex partners is entirely a matter of their own personal choice. But (they) do not have any reason to hold their heads high, for there is no moral victory that either they or (Tiong) can lay claim to.”

He noted that Dr Ong had been forced towards litigation as a means to protect his reputation, but that in the course of his case had to subject his “private sexual life to the glare of full public scrutiny in the courtroom”.

“No doubt the WhatsApp messages are private exchanges between old friends, but it is often only in private exchanges, where one’s guard is down, that true colours reveal themselves.”

Dr Ong has been forced to come clean on having repeatedly cheated on his spouse, while Dr Chan admitted to touching his colleague inappropriately in the past.

“Dr Ong and Dr Chan’s smug boasts of their trysts with various women, as well as the demeaning terms in which they gloatingly describe their sexual conquests, speak to their true character,” stated Justice See.

“They may be competent doctors and their sex lives are of course private matters. But their blatant treatment of women as sex objects sullies whatever professional reputation they might have built up for themselves.”

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