Mr Alfred Dodwell, counsel for Dr Chee Soon Juan, raised in the on-going trial a constitutional question about discrimination against his client.
Dr Chee is charged with attempting to leave the country without permission. Persons adjudged bankrupt have to apply for permit to the Official Assignee’s (OA) to travel overseas. He had made an application to attend the 4th General Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy held in Istanbul, Turkey in April 2006.
Mr Dodwell asked Judge Aedit Abdullah to rule that the method in which bankrupts are treated in as far as considering their application to travel overseas is both arbitrary and discriminatory.
The OA’s office groups insolvent persons into two categories: Red Zone or Green Zone.
Those in the Green Zone have to fulfill certain conditions such as making regular payments to their creditors, filling up forms promptly, not committing an offence during their bankruptcy, etc. They will likely be allowed to travel.
The remainder fall in the Red Zone and their applications for overseas travel will not be considered favourably. Their bankruptcy will also be discharged less quickly than those in the Green Zone.
Mr Dodwell contended that under the Article 12 in the Constitition, “All persons must be given equal protection under the law…” and that under the law “there shall be no discrimination” of any person.
Mr Dodwell pointed out that, from cross-examination of the prosecution’s first witnesses, not all bankrupts are treated equally by the OA’s office.
For example, Senior Officer Jonathan Chua said he had noticed Dr Chee Soon Juan when the SDP leader walked in to the briefing room which Mr Chua was conducting for about 30 other insolvent persons on 9 Mar 07.
Defence counsel noted that while Mr Chua could not remember what time other bankrupts arrived that morning, he had noted the time which Dr Chee arrived for the briefing.
Mr Dodwell also alerted the Court to the fact that Mr Chua had attended to Dr Chee together with another officer. Other bankrupts were attended to by only one officer.
Mr Dodwell argued that the system of categorization into Red and Green Zones created a “chaotic morass” upon which the criteria for considering a bankrupt’s application for overseas travel rests.
In the present case, Mr Dodwell pointed out, his client had repeatedly applied to leave the country to attend democracy conferences but was turned out every time.
“Dr Chee is the secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party being invited to conferences all over the world,” the lawyer told the Court. It would be important for him to attend these conferences but because he is “impecunious”, he is not allowed to travel.
Dr Chee had repeatedly indicated that he did not have enough funds to pay Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong for the $500,000 in damages the courts awarded to the two former prime ministers in a lawsuit in 2001.
“This denial to allow him to attend the World Movement for Democracy conference was due to the arbitrary categorization of bankrupts,” the lawyer added. “How the permission is granted must not be arbitrary.”
He argued that he should be allowed to apply to the High Court for it to look into this matter as Dr Chee is entitled to equal treatment under the law as guaranteed in the Constitution.
Judge Aedit Abdullah rejected Mr Dodwell’s application but indicate that the lawyer could “revisit” the issue at the close of the case.