Human rights worth fighting for in S’pore: M Ravi

Human rights lawyer, Mr M Ravi, spoke at the luncheon of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association last Friday. In attendance were journalists and diplomats. Below are excerpts of his speech.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

To be honest, I did not start out planning to become Singapore’s leading human rights lawyer. At the beginning of my career, like so many of my colleagues, I saw the practice of law as a fast track to acquiring the five C’s. Most of the cases I handled were in civil litigation, Intellectual Property, family law… I also did a little bit of crime. I mean, I handled a few minor criminal cases.

However, I’m a strong believer in Hindu philosophy which values the sanctity of all life. And I can’t – not since the time I was a teenager have I been able to – reconcile this belief with support for the death penalty. Thus, as a lawyer, it was probably inevitable that I would eventually find myself taking up certain types of cases and ending up with the reputation as a human rights lawyer.

A major turning point in my career came in early September 2003. The third anniversary of my mother’s death was fast approaching, and I was in spiritual preparation for that anniversary, a solemn day in my faith. That’s when ex-lawyer and former opposition MP JB Jeyaretnam brought a distraught middle-aged man to see me in my office. This man’s son, only 23 years old, was facing a date with the hangman within the next weeks, and he was looking for some lawyer who would take the son’s case very late in the eleventh hour. The man’s distress was increased knowing that almost no lawyer here wanted to take the case, as it seemed a hopeless cause. Lawyers don’t like to lose.

But looking at this man’s face, his features twisted with anguish, I felt like I was looking at my own mother asking me to bring heart back into my practice of law.

I requested to see the background of the case, read through it and decided that this young man, facing death on a conviction of peddling heroin, might just well be a victim of a miscarriage of justice. Of course, I took the case, and―as they say―that has made all the difference.

My famous statement about migrating to Australia came at the conclusion of the first hearing on getting a new trial―or at least a delay of execution so that the courts could examine all the facts of the case more thoroughly. Both requests were denied, without much consideration on the part of the court. It was in that atmosphere that I made my statement about emigrating.

Despite all the discouragement I experienced working within the system to save this man’s life, this death penalty case of September 2003 infused me with a new zeal to fight for human rights here in my country. I came to see first-hand how important this struggle is. Since that time, I have defended another high-profile client charged with drug-dealing and facing the gallows. This was Shanmugam Murugesu, arrested at a border checkpoint with roughly 500 grams of cannabis; Shanmugam, a former Singapore sports hero was hanged this past May on that charge.

At the end of this past year, I again stepped up and involved myself in the case of Nguyen Tuong Van, an Australian drug trafficker whom, I’m sure we’ll all remember, was hanged early last month.

In all three of these cases, another problem, endemic to Singapore’s legal system, presents itself – the mandatory death sentence. This law is no doubt responsible for the fact that over the last decade, Singapore can year after year boast one of the highest―if not the highest―per capita rates of execution in the world.

While the authorities do not provide official figures on executions here, it is generally agreed that the vast majority of Singapore’s annual hangings are for drug offences. And it is certain that 100% of these executions are a result of our mandatory death sentence policy. According to this law, our judges must pronounce a death sentence for anyone convicted of having possessed 15 grams of heroin, 20 grams of morphine, 30 grams of cocaine or more than 500 grams of cannabis.

This means that a lawyer defending an accused drug dealer has no room to manoeuvre. Our clients cannot plead guilty and hope that we can arrange a lesser sentence.

But it’s not only death penalty cases that have sparked my zeal and my determination to defend human rights here. Two months ago, I was involved in a controversial free speech and free assembly case, defending 3 protesters who applied to the courts for the right of peaceful assembly. This appeal stemmed from an incident wherein they peaceful demonstration outside the CPF Board calling for greater transparency regarding CPF funds. This demonstration, intentionally restricted to four protestors so as to conform to Singapore’s laws on assembly, was dispersed as unlawful by 30 or so police and riot squad members.

This case has subsequently attracted international attention, thanks largely to journalists such as yourselves. The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) has placed Singapore on its world-wide alert distribution over the court decision by Judge V K Rajah to ban protests in Singapore, including those with four persons or less, which our Constitution specifically allows. IFEX, as you may know, is a international organisation comprising mainly  journalists based in Toronto, Canada. (Its supporters include the UNESCO, Canada, European governments, and other private organisations.) The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) has also expressed alarm over this ruling. And I can only say that I share that sense of alarm.

What is especially alarming is that the Singapore government has in recent years been trumpeting the advent of a more open atmosphere here, frequently raising the banner of  ‘remaking Singapore‘. Then Education Minister Teo Chee Hean spoke several years ago of the Lion City becoming the “Boston of the East”, a bastion of higher education, scientific and educational achievement. They authorities are inviting high-end foreign talent to come here and set up in the new, open, remade Singapore. Yet, in important areas of civil rights, Singapore is actually becoming less, not more open. And the courts seem increasingly unwilling to reverse this trend and stand up for civil rights.

So where can we turn to? To the Law Society, which supposedly represents the interests of all lawyers practicing here in Singapore? Well, let me let you in on a little secret: There is a significant difference between the Law Society and lawyers. In many ways, the Law Society serves to burden lawyers rather than to protect their interests. One pertinent example of this: A judge can make a complaint to the Law Society, but we as lawyers can’t make a complaint about a judge.

Thus, when a judge makes a complaint about me, I have no recourse but to defend myself, at whatever cost. We Singapore-based lawyers cannot expect our own Law Society to stand up and defend us. Are we not supposed to be two wheels of the carriage of just with one no higher than the other.

Thus, the system encourages us to just go along and not really mount an impassioned fight for basic rights. How, then, can you ensure independence of the bar when lawyers themselves are deprived of their rights and yet we are then expected to go forth and defend the rights of our clients?

The Law Society too often sits silent while civil rights are being diluted here in the Lion City―for instance, while the originating motion was abolished in January 2006 there is no civil procedure available for a constitutional motion to determine the liberties of citizens. The Law Society just sat back and allowed this happen.

But my work as a human rights activist does not stop at Singapore’s borders. Human rights work in the region has brought me greater strength and inspiration to continue the fight here. It has shown me that things can change for the better when there are enough people out there with heart to push for that change. Many of these people pushing for change are not lawyers―they’re journalists, students, housewives, IT and other office workers, etc. But to assure that these changes take hold, they need someone inside the system fighting the same fight on the legal level. That’s where human rights lawyers such as myself come in.

Perhaps the biggest problem for lawyers here who choose to engage actively in civil rights issues and cases is the marginalization they face as a result of their work. You definitely run the risk of being cast into the wilderness, where many people suddenly don’t want to have much to do with you, or to be seen with you. Luckily, this is a penalty I have not suffered much of, as I do have a large network which in some way buffets me from this process.

But this commitment to human rights does not come without a price, particularly for someone practicing law here in the Lion City. For instance, a number of my better-paying clients, in particular the corporate clients, started fading away as I became more involved in this human rights issues and controversial cases. Some clients and potential clients have even expressed fear; they ask me, “Are you fighting the government? I always see you clashing with the government.” I have lost clients, and many of the human rights cases I take on are pro bono.

And there have certainly been attempts, conscious or otherwise, to marginalize me. A number of my fellow lawyers have criticised me in the press, referring to some of my actions in the cause of human rights as mere “publicity stunts”. I would respectfully suggest that these so-called “publicity stunts” are necessary attempts to break down walls of silence and ignorance and get people to take notice of what goes on here.

Publicity in the service of human rights is no vice; it’s, in fact, necessary when the vast drone of publicity is controlled by the government and the establishment who are trying to maintain the status quo on human rights, as faulty as that status quo may be.

And To those who call me an activist lawyer, I would plead “guilty as charged”.

Currently, if you say something negative about this country in a foreign context, you are viewed as something akin to a traitor. As a society, we still need to grow, to recognise that disagreement is not betrayal, dissent is not treason, difference is not decadence and protest is not mutiny. We also desperately need to realise that human rights is not a luxury that we can think about acquiring when we reach some still undefined level of wealth. (emphasis author’s)

Human rights is not some fashion accessory you can put on and take off as the mood strikes you, or to fit some special occasion. Neither are human rights a phrase from some foreign tongue that can’t really be translated into the Singapore context because of its incompatibilty with our ‘Asian values‘. Human rights is simply the language of the heart, the lingua franca of all us sharing this earth and hoping to live the richest, fullest lives we can.

I’ve spoke a few times here about prime the Singapore government’s  wish that Singapore become the Boston of the East. I would like to end this talk with a quote from a famous Bostonian who spoke to issues that were relevant not only to his country, but to all peoples who share these ideals. So, these are the words of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy:

The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American Society.

Singaporean society, like America in so many ways, is also built on a commitment to ideals and great enterprises. If we wish to continue our pursuit of new ideas and bold projects, we have to realise that such a pursuit can only be fully successful when we blend vision, reason, courage and heart―a commitment to human rights for all of our citizens and residents. That’s the fight I’m engaged in; it’s not a campaign against Singapore―it’s very much a campaign for Singapore. (emphasis author’s)

Thank you.