Singapore opposition leader blocked from holding protest march

Yoolim Lee and Linus Chua
16 Sep 06

Singapore police barred opposition party leader Chee Soon Juan and four of his supporters from marching through the city to protest restrictions on freedom of speech.

Chee, the 44-year-old secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party, addressed supporters today at Speakers’ Corner, a government-designated area for free speech. He then attempted to lead a protest march to Parliament and a convention center where the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are being held. About 30 police blocked Chee from leaving the park in a standoff that lasted more than six hours.

”This is the day all of you here will be part of the historic event to claim freedom of speech,” Chee told a crowd of mostly journalists. ”We have to exercise our right to speak freely and don’t let the government intimidate us.”

Singapore, which forbids the public outdoor assembly of more than four people without permits, has faced criticism from the IMF, World Bank and civil society groups for barring some accredited activists from entering the country to attend the meetings. The government has said it has a duty to maintain law and order in the city-state.

Today’s protest by Chee was timed to coincide with the 83rd birthday of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, said Gandhi Ambalam, a member of the opposition party. The ruling People’s Action Party, started by a group including Lee, has ruled the city-state since its independence in 1965.

‘Birthday of Democracy’

”Today we will mark a birthday of democracy,” Chee said. ”Only slaves don’t have the right. Only slaves are afraid of government.”

”Police are at the scene and are engaging Chee Soon Juan and his associates,” Singapore Police Force spokeswoman Audrey Ang said in an e-mailed response to questions. ”We advised them not to commit any offenses or pose a threat to public order.”

Singapore requires permission for public assemblies and speeches under laws that the government says maintain social stability and which critics say curb freedom of expression. Chee, a former psychology lecturer, told police he had requested a permit to speak in front of Parliament, though he hadn’t received a response.

The opposition politician was charged on June 20 with making public speeches without permission. The government filed eight charges against Chee under the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act for alleged offenses between Nov. 13 and April 22. Each charge carries a maximum fine of S$10,000 ($6,330).

Speakers’ Corner

Article 14 of Singapore’s Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, association and assembly, though the constitution provides exceptions to the freedoms if the exercise of those rights affects the security of the city-state, relations with other countries, contempt of court and public order.

At Speakers’ Corner, created by the government in 2000, citizens are free to speak on the condition that they register with police and avoid topics that might inflame religious or racial hostility or threaten national security and public order.

Chee and his sister, Chee Siok Chin, last week lost a defamation case brought against them by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Chee and his sister defamed the Lees in statements made in the opposition party newspaper in February, according to the High Court ruling. In January, Chee was ordered to pay S$500,000 in damages for defaming former prime ministers Goh Chok Tong and Lee Kuan Yew. He was declared bankrupt after failing to make the payments.

Police today also stopped Chee’s sister from marching to Parliament. A police assistant superintendent, who identified herself as Eliza Soon, told Chee’s sister that the police were preventing her ”from committing an offense.”

”They’re worried that if I were to move on, the people will follow,” said Chee Siok Chin, who was surrounded by five police officers. ”But it’s still illegal detention.”

The police statement didn’t say what action may be taken against Chee or his sister.