SDP writes to International Bar Association about its conference in Singapore

The International Bar Association, an organisation of legal professionals and bodies spanning the globe, is holding is Annual Conference in Singapore in October this year. (see Below is the SDP’s letter to the IBA asking it to reconsider its decision to have its meeting here.

15 February 2007

Fernando Pombo
Mark Ellis
Executive Director
International Bar Association
10th Floor
1 Stephen Street
London W1T 1AT
United Kingdom

Dear Sir,

I am given to understand that the International Bar Association (IBA) will hold its Annual Conference in Singapore from 14-19 October this year. While I would very much like to welcome you to my country, I have to highlight to you some very disturbing developments that I believe would concern the IBA.

It is apparent that human rights feature prominently in the IBA’s mission: “To promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.” This is why it is so perplexing why your organization has chosen to host its next annual meeting in Singapore.

Detention without trial

Let me explain. We note that the IBA’s Human Rights Institute was established under the honorary presidency of Nelson Mandela. Disturbingly, we too have our Nelson Mandela in the person of Chia Thye Poh. Chia was imprisoned for 23 years and placed under city-arrest for another nine. He was released only in 1998.

Unlike Mandela, however, Chia was never charged of any crime and was never allowed to defend himself in a court of law. He was imprisoned without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA) which exists till today. In addition, he was an elected member of parliament. Although freed Chia is still monitored closely by the Singapore Government.

Scores of his compatriots in opposition parties, trade unions, universities and media were similarly locked up for various periods, many for as long as 15 to 20 years and were, according to Amnesty International, tortured and abused.

In 1987, 22 Singaporeans were again detained under the ISA because the Singapore Government accused them of being Marxist conspirators out to violently overthrow it when in fact they were helpers of the opposition Workers’ Party, members of the arts community, social and church workers, and leaders of the Law Society of Singapore. Again, they were tortured and confessions were forcibly extracted.

When the then president of the Law Society and former solicitor-general of Singapore, Mr Francis Seow, moved to represent some of them in court, he found himself detained for more than two months. He was subsequently charged with tax evasion but didn’t wait around to find out the verdict. He now lives in exile in the US.

As president, Seow had indicated that he had wanted the Law Society to take a more active role in contributing towards the process of lawmaking in Singapore and also to speak with greater intensity for lawyers in the country. The upshot was that the Law Society is now barred from commenting on proposed legislation.

The use of defamation suits

The ruling Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) has also resorted to using defamation lawsuits to silence its critics. Opposition leaders have been repeatedly sued and huge sums of money have been awarded in damages. J B Jeyaretnam, Tang Liang Hong and I have been on the receiving end of such lawsuits, ordered to pay millions of dollars to former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues in the party. As a result, we have been declared bankrupts and barred from standing for elections.

In my case I was sued in 2001 by Lee Kuan Yew and another former prime minister Goh Chok Tong. I had applied for a Queen’s Counsel (QC) to represent me because no Singaporean lawyer dared to take up my case. This is not surprising given that president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, Subhas Anandan, had indicated that he would represent murderers, thieves, and even terror suspects, but would avoid acting for dissidents in Singapore.

The courts rejected my repeated applications for QCs, insisting that my case was not “complex enough” thereby leaving me without legal representation. It then awarded summary judgment to the plaintiffs. Thus, not only was I deprived of a lawyer, I was also denied of a trial. I was subsequently ordered to pay US$300,000 in damages. And because I couldn’t meet the demands, I was declared a bankrupt. I had already paid US$300,000 to another set of plaintiffs in another lawsuit in 1993 when I first joined the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).

As a bankrupt I have been barred form traveling overseas and my passport has been impounded. I am now facing charges for attempting to leave the country without permission from the Official Assignee. I was also prevented from campaigning for my colleagues in the elections in 2006 and barred from getting up on the stage for election rallies.

Another suit, the most recent, has been taken by Lee Kuan Yew (now Minister Mentor) and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, this time against the SDP and its executive committee members. Again the case was awarded to the plaintiffs in a summary judgment despite our filing of our defence disputing many of the Lees’ claims of fact and law.

The foreign media has also come in for such action. The Far Eastern Economic Review was recently sued by the Lees for publishing an interview it did with me. Because it refused to apologise, the journal was banned. Other publications that were targeted over the years include Time, Newsweek, Asiaweek (defunct), Asian Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Economist, and Bloomberg News, leading the Committee to Protect Journalists to comment:

State control of the media in Singapore is so complete that few dare to challenge the system and there is no longer much need to arrest or even harass journalists. Even foreign correspondents have learned to be cautious when reporting on Singapore, since the government has frequently hauled the international press into court to face lengthy and expensive libel suits.

The entire local media in Singapore is owned and run by the Government. In its latest
annual survey, Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 146th out of 168 countries, one spot below countries like Somalia and Sudan.

Because of such defamation cases Singapore’s legal system has been repeatedly and strongly condemned by organizations such as the New York City Bar Association, Amnesty International, International Commission of Jurists as well as by legal experts and senior judges across the world.

Crushing human rights

The UN has repeatedly raised questions about Singapore’s legal system especially when it comes to the mandatory death sentence for drug peddlers. UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, stated that the mandatory death sentences in Singapore “violate international legal standards” and are “inconsistent with international human rights standards.” In the recent case of a young Nigerian man, Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi, Alston said that the Singapore Government “failed to ensure respect for the relevant legal safeguards. Under the circumstances, the execution should not proceed.” The Singapore Government ignored the plea and hanged Tochi on 26 January 2007.

As far as citizens are concerned, we are barred from gathering and speaking in public places. When a group of four persons staged a silent protest outside a government building in August 2005, they were met with the riot squad and ordered to disperse.

The four protesters then filed a legal action taking the Minister for Home Affairs and Police Commissioner to court for overstepping their powers (under the Constitution only five or more people gathered in a public place with common intent constitute an illegal assembly). High Court Judge V K Rajah not only dismissed the protesters’ application but also warned them that they did not have the right to “picket public institutions” because to do so would be to “question the [institutions’] integrity and cast a slur on their reputation.” The protesters were then ordered to pay the Attorney-General’s costs amounting to US$15,000.

My colleagues and I have been repeatedly convicted and imprisoned for “speaking in public without a permit” even though the Minister for Home Affairs openly declared that “The government does not authorise protests and demonstrations of any nature.”

There are seven outstanding charges against me and another activist for speaking in public. We will be tried over the next few months.

During the World Bank-IMF meeting in Singapore in September last year, 12 activists were deported and another 28 who had accreditation with the World Bank were banned from entering the country. One activist, Wilfred D’Costa, general secretary of the Indian Social Action Forum, was even interrogated for several hours before he was deported. The Singapore Government banned all outdoor protests at the meeting.

Practitioners of the Falungong faith have likewise faced these repressive curbs on freedom of speech and assembly in Singapore. Several of them have been, and continue to be, prosecuted for illegal assembly when they gathered in parks to exercise their faiths. Jehovah’s Witnesses remain banned.

Homosexuality in Singapore continues to be criminalised and their efforts to hold functions have been repeatedly denied by the Government.

If all this is not enough, the Singapore Government announced in December 2006 that it was amending the Penal Code to increase the penalty for various offences including unlawful assemblies.

Academic freedom remains elusive in Singapore. This was the primary reason the University of Warwick rejected the Singapore Government’s invitation to set up a campus here. The university had written to the Government asking that its students in Singapore campus be exempt from laws limiting freedom of assembly, speech and the press, and to remove bans on homosexuality and certain religious practices on campus. It also wanted its staff and students not to be punished for making academic-related comments that might be seen “as being outside the boundaries of political debate”. The Government turned this down. Imperial College, London and the London School of Economics had previously also rejected similar invitations from Singapore.

I apologise for the length of this letter but I wanted to give you a comprehensive picture of the human rights situation and the abysmal lack of the rule of law in Singapore. Even so I have had to omit much more information because of space constraints. But as you can see, much of what is happening in Singapore goes against many, if not most, of what the IBA stands and works for.

For this reason and for the sake of the rule of law in Singapore I would like to ask the IBA to re-consider its decision to hold its 2007 Annual Conference here.

My colleagues and I would be happy to discuss this matter with you in greater detail. We invite you to send a fact-finding mission to Singapore in the near future to ascertain for yourselves the validity of the issues that I’ve raised in this letter.

As Singaporeans are so starved of news that runs contrary to the official stand, it would be remiss of me if I did not make the contents of this letter available to them. I would also be most grateful if you could highlight this letter to your members and associates.

Thank you and I look forward to a meaningful discussion over this matter with you and your colleagues.


Chee Soon Juan
Singapore Democratic Party