Bearding the Lion City

John Berthelsen

Asia Sentinel

Chee Soon Juan dares the International Bar Association to invite Singapore opposition figures to speak at their controversial October conclave in the island republic

Not willing to be deterred, Chee Soon Juan, the oft-jailed head of the beleaguered opposition Singapore Democratic Party, is daring the International Bar Association to take on the Singapore government in its own country when the association holds its annual conference in Singapore in October.

Singapore keeps a tighter rein on the press and parliamentary opposition than arguably any other country in Asia outside of Burma and North Korea. It has sued Chee numerous times, made him bankrupt, driven him from his parliamentary seat and refused to allow him to leave Singapore for human rights conferences.

Chee first tried to get the IBA to cancel its Singapore meeting altogether, charging that the island republic has one of the least independent judicial systems in the world and that for the international law body to hold a convention there was a travesty of justice. 

In a letter to Chee, however, Mark Ellis, the executive director of the IBA, said the meeting in Singapore will “provide the opportunity…for robust discussions among our large and influential membership and all other delegates and media on the rule of law as well as on many other aspects of international and cross-border legal practice.” It would, Ellis added, “give attendees the opportunity to meet with and absorb the range of Singaporean and all other views.

Fat chance, Chee said in a letter back to Ellis. He asked that the IBA adopt a four-plank program for the Singapore meeting, including:

“One, given the serious issue of the abuse of human rights in Singapore, the program on the Rule of Law Day include a session solely dedicated to discussing the situation in the city-state.

“Two, victims of the Singapore Government’s persecution be invited to speak so that your participants can hear first-hand the goings-on that have been occurring in Singapore.

“Three, this particular session be open to the Singaporean public as discussions of this nature hardly ever takes place here. This will be a precious public education service for Singaporeans. 

“Four, more than just a discussion on the problems of the rule of law in Singapore may I also suggest that be some time put aside to consider concrete proposals to improve the rule of law situation here. I hope you will address these four proposals in your next letter.  

Chee was declared bankrupt after he failed to pay two former prime ministers S$500,000 awarded them in a defamation judgment in 2001.

Singapore government officials, including current and former prime ministers Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, have sued Chee and other opposition leaders scores of times for defamation after they made remarks critical of the government. No Singapore leader has ever lost a defamation case in a Singapore courtroom. The Singapore press, while nominally independent, never opposes the government on any issue.

The IBA has come under fire from critics for their decision to hold the conference in Singapore. Besides Chee they include Basil Fernando, the Hong Kong-based executive director of the Asian Human Right Commission, Birgitta Ohlsson, a human rights activist and member of the Swedish Parliament, who wrote Fernando Pombo, the president of the IBA, on Feb. 23,saying “human rights and the rule of law have come under severe attack by the Singapore Government” and “opposition parties and civil society groups have almost no role to play, which leave democracy in a shambolic state in the island nation.”

Nonetheless, the IBA, in its letter to Chee, said the 2007 annual conference was assigned to Asia and Singapore was selected in by a vote of the governing council –  “represented by the 195 member bar associations and law societies.” The IBA, according to the letter to Chee, would for the first time devote an entire day to a “Rule of Law Day,” which would encourage active audience participation to address a variety of issues around the importance of the rule of law including an Asian perspective on the subject.

Although the association said it has held meetings in a variety of countries with less than ideal human rights records, in fact it has never held an annual convention in a country without a multiparty democracy.

“I also hope that at some point in the lead up to the conference, the IBA will make clear its position vis-à-vis Singapore,” Chee wrote in his open letter to the Bar Association. “Given the preponderance of human rights violations in this country, an unequivocal statement calling on the Singapore government to respect the rule of law and stop its persecution of dissidents would not be out of place. In this regard, I am reminded of what Desmond Tutu said: ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.’”

%d bloggers like this: