The world’s lawyers come to Singapore

John Berthelsen
Asia Sentinel
23 Feb 07

International Bar Association draws fire for choosing the rigid city state as the venue for its annual conference

The little publicized decision of the International Bar Association, perhaps the world’s pre-eminent legal confederation, to hold its 2007 annual convention in Singapore is drawing fire from critics who say the island state’s courts are among the least independent in the world.

In a Feb. 13 letter protesting the IBA’s decision to take its convention to Singapore, Chee Soon Juan, the head of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party , who has been repeatedly sued for defamation, bankrupted and driven from politics by former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong in the Singapore courts, quoted Subhas Anand, the president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, as saying that “he would represent murderers, thieves and even terror suspects but would avoid acting for dissidents in Singapore.”

On its website, the bar association says it “believes in the fundamental right of the world’s citizens to have disputes heard and determined by an independent judiciary and for judges and lawyers to practice freely and without interference.” The IBA’s Human Rights Institute was established under the honorary presidency of former South African President Nelson Mandela, once the world’s longest-serving political prisoner.

Chee added that “scores of (members of) opposition parties, trade unions, universities and media were…locked up for various periods, many for as long as 15 to 20 years and were, according to Amnesty International, tortured and abused.”

The Lee family and other officials have repeatedly used the Singapore courts to go after political opponents and the international press in cases that most observers believe would be laughed out of almost any other court in the free world.

“I can’t believe these people could be going there,” said Basil Fernando, the Hong Kong-based executive director of the Asian Human Right Commission, noting in an interview the worrying fact that increasing numbers of countries across Asia are taking their cues from Singapore to sue reporters for defamation in an attempt to prevent them from reporting independently.

The IBA represents some 30,000 individual lawyers and more than 195 Bar Associations through a dual membership structure. It professes to “influence the development of international law reform and shapes the future of the legal profession,” according to its website.

It has also undertaken advocacy missions including one to Malaysia in 1997 in which it investigated threats to the “independence of the judiciary,” the web site says. In a 2000 report on Malaysia available on its website, the IBA criticizes that country’s use of defamation suits to restrict free speech. “We recommend that courts should not allow claims for or awards of damages in defamation cases to be of such magnitude so as to be a means of stifling free speech and expression,” states the report, titled “Justice in Jeopardy.”

Romana St. Matthew-Daniel, a spokeswoman for the IBA in London, first appeared unaware of the repressive nature of Singapore’s courts in a brief telephone exchange. Then she said bringing a large number of the world’s lawyers to Singapore would serve to highlight the government’s shortcomings. St. Matthew-Daniel said she would provide a further response later, but didn’t do so.

“That is an absurdity,” said Fernando, who is also a lawyer and former law professor. “There is no independence of any sort in this court. There is a long history. This is a country where there is no separation of powers. Singapore in fact has been used as a model in places like Sri Lanka to amend their constitution to undermine the independence of their judiciary.”

Some 3,000 lawyers are expected to attend the conference, with as many as 150 working sessions. On its website, the association said it is “delighted to announce Singapore as the destination of its Annual Conference 2007. Singapore is a unique and dynamic city, filled with culture and brimming with energy and finesse. It is where urban meets traditional offering the modern and cosmopolitan whilst retaining its local flavor. Voted 5th best business meeting city, it offers the perfect opportunity for both business and pleasure.”

Singapore is one of the region’s most energetic governments at luring conferences, conventions and trade shows – everything from the Asia Apparel Machinery & Accessories Exhibition to the International Conference on the Computer Processing of Oriental Languages to the World Bank/International Monetary Fund annual board of governors meetings held there in September, which drew 6,000 delegates. The city-state is regularly named the top convention city in Asia and one of the top ones in the world.

The government considers the number of conventions and conferences held on the city-state’s soil to be a vindication of its strait-laced policies towards the press and protesters. That backfired when the government’s crackdown on demonstrators at the World Bank/IMF meetings was so complete that officials of the two organizations had to demand that officials lighten up and allow some protesters at the meetings.

The projected visit of the world’s lawyers also comes as Singapore for the first time in 22 years is revamping its penal code to stiffen its already draconian laws against protest. Any proposed Singapore government revamp of laws is tantamount to passage, since there is virtually no opposition party.

Among other things is a series of proposals to provide much harsher penalties for what the government regards as offences governing the internet and public gatherings. The government would have broader authority to prosecute offenders and punish them with higher fines, increasing the imprisonment term for 109 offences. The definition of an unlawful assembly is broadened to include any gathering of five or more persons whose common objective is to commit any offence whatsoever.

In a letter to the Straits Times newspaper, Ong-Chew Peck Wan, director of the Corporate Communications Division of the Singapore government, said the decision to revise upwards the penalties for unlawful assembly “must be seen in the context of this being a fairly prevalent offence related to the offence of rioting…Between 1984 and 2005, there were 3,604 convictions of rioting, and 4,465 convictions of unlawful assembly. These offences remain a serious concern today. Therefore, we propose to increase the maximum imprisonment term for unlawful assembly from six months to two years, and for rioting from five years to seven years.”

Singapore Democratic Party letter to International Bar Association about its conference in Singapore

%d bloggers like this: