SDP asks IBA to express firm stand on human rights abuses in Singapore

28 February 2007

Mr Fernando Pombo

International Bar Association

Mr Fernando Peláez-Pier


Mr Akira Kawamura


Mr David W Rivkin

Chair, Legal Practice Division

Mr Martin Solc

Chair, Public and Professional Interest Division

Mr Mark Ellis

Executive Director

Dear Sirs,

I thank you for your expeditious and most informative reply.

I am heartened to read that IBA continues to be a steadfast advocate for human rights and the rule of law throughout the world.

It is also noteworthy that the IBA has plans for a Rule of Law Day during your annual conference this year. Unfortunately, this still does not address the appeal that we are making to you. Having a general discussion on the Rule of Law Day does not speak to the issue of the egregious abuse of human rights by the Singapore Government.

In fact, as you will see below in the words of the Philip Jeyaretnam, immediate past president of the Law Society of Singapore (LSS), the Singapore establishment embraces the rhetoric of the rule of law but, in reality, practices exactly the opposite.

Laws are continually introduced, amended, and interpreted to ensure that the rights of Singaporeans remain suppressed. Examples that I cited in my opening letter to you amply illustrate this point.

I would venture to say that the planned Rule of Law Day, with discussion topics like ‘how the rule of law affects economic development’ and ‘the Asian perspective of the rule of law’ (a favourite topic of the Singapore Government), is exactly what the Singapore Government would like to see take place.

Here’s why: These sessions will be opened only to conference attendees which means that Singaporean legal professionals participating in the event who know the reality beyond the rhetoric and who have the temerity to speak up will be few and far in between, whereas those with pro-establishment views will be there in force.

Singaporean lawyers who have been vocal and active in their pursuit of justice and human rights have either been imprisoned without trial, sued by ruling party leaders into bankruptcy, and/or have fled to other countries. Examples are J B Jeyaretnam, Francis Seow, Tang Liang Hong, Teo Soh Lung, Tang Fong Har, Kevin De Souza, Tan Wah Piow, and Gopalan Nair, just to name a few.

There will be few non-Singaporean conference attendees who have an intimate knowledge of human rights Singapore – intimate enough to conduct an intelligent discussion as it specifically relates to the city-state. This inadequacy can and will be easily countered by lawyers from Singapore’s establishment.

In the end, human rights situation in Singapore will be obscured, at best, and ignored, at worst. In the meantime, the Singapore Government will trumpet that if its human rights record was really that bad, the IBA would not have held its annual conference here.

To underscore our concerns, we note in your letter that the host for the conference is the LSS. I don’t know if Philip Jeyaretnam, whom you cite in your letter, has revealed to you the Society’s recent past. In any event allow me to brief you. In 1987, former solicitor-general and then-president of the LSS, Francis Seow, served notice that the Society intended to be a more assertive and caring bar. He also wanted to promote public awareness about impending changes to existing laws.

As a result, the Government roundly attacked the LSS and prohibited it from commenting on existing or proposed legislation, unless its views were expressedly solicited. The Government proceeded to amend the Legal Profession Act with the aim of cracking down on dissent within the profession. Before it could do so, however, the LSS’ leadership unanimously voted to deplore the Government’s intention. The result was that Seow and a couple of other Society officials were imprisoned without trial.

The LSS assumes a very different role today. Nothing is more demonstrative of this than Philip Jeyaretnam’s introductory message in the August 2006 issue of the Law Gazette: “The foundational value of the rule of law is beyond debate, and [Singapore] lawyers must nurture, protect and uphold the rule of law.” There was nary a word, perhaps not surprisingly, about the problem of human rights in Singapore.

More pointedly, Attorney General Chao Hick Tin (and, more significantly, former appellate court judge) said in obvious reference to my fellow activists and I, and our campaign for freedoms of speech and assembly through Nonviolent Action: “Of course, some indefatigable critics have their own agenda to bring into disrepute key public institutions…They are often encouraged by foreigners in the name of human rights. We should be wary of this.” [emphasis mine]

Given all this, it is extremely difficult to see how dissenting views on the topic of the rule of law in Singapore can surface during your conference. The truth of the matter is that the severity of the situation in Singapore warrants more than a general discussion of the rule of law.

It is most discouraging that there have not been any comment by the IBA on the human rights situation in Singapore even though there has been a litany of reports and complaints through the years by international organizations such as the United Nations, Amnesty International, International Commission of Jurists, New York City Bar Association, National Endowment for Democracy, Human Rights Watch, Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, Liberal International, World Movement for Democracy, Reporters Without Borders, Asian Human Rights Commission, World Forum for Democratization in Asia, Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia, the list goes on.

I took pains to enumerate for you in my opening letter the many cases of human rights violations in my country in the hope that you can verify the seriousness and incontrovertibility of the matter for yourselves.

This is why we are appealing to the IBA to take a firm stand on the long list of human rights abuses by the Singapore Government as you have on several countries such as Zimbabwe, Ecuador, Turkey, Malaysia and even Japan. There is no better opportunity than now when the annual conference is slated for Singapore this year. It is imperative that the IBA takes this opportunity to make clearly and directly its concerns about the continued suppression of justice, the rule of law and human rights in Singapore.

Sirs, we hope you do not misunderstand our intentions. We do not for one moment presume to tell the IBA how to conduct its matters. If it has come across that way, please accept our sincere apologies. But when an esteemed organization such as the IBA comes to Singapore and makes no pointed reference to the human rights abuses of the country’s government, it is as good as the IBA honouring the regime with its presence.

I note your point that the IBA has held conferences in countries whose governments have little respect for human rights. But I also note that your annual conferences have been, or will be, staged in countries such as Spain, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, The Netherlands, etc. – countries that, although by no means free of human rights problems, do not have governments that systematically and comprehensively crush their peoples’ human rights.

While Singapore may be “brimming with energy and finesse” and offering “the perfect opportunity for both business and pleasure” as you highlight on your website, I hardly think that those are the only, or even major, considerations that the IBA takes into account when it chooses venues for its annual conferences. While Singapore is designed to seduce the five senses of the unsuspecting conference participants, I would like to think that an organization like the IBA would rise above these and exercise its sixth sense – the sense of justice.

My colleagues and I continue to be imprisoned, fined, sued and made bankrupt but we soldier on because we want justice and freedom for our fellow citizens. To this end, we ask that you lend us a hand. To quote Aung San Suu Kyi: “Please use your liberty to help us gain ours.”

I await, most anxiously, your response.


Chee Soon Juan


Singapore Democratic Party

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