CSJ engages Judges on the rule of law in Singapore

V K RajahDr Chee Soon Juan asked the Court of Appeal today to “right the injustice” that has been done to the SDP in the defamation suit against Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Lee Hsien Loong.

Dr Chee was applying for an extension of time to file an appeal against Judge Belinda Ang’s decision to proceed with the Lees’ application for summary judgment despite the absence of defence counsel, Mr M Ravi.

The Court of Appeal, comprising of Judges Andrew Phang, V K Rajah, and Woo Bih Li, dismissed the application.

The issue involved Mr Ravi’s illness during 11 and 12 Sep 06 when the summary judgment hearing took place.

Andrew PhangAt that time, Mr Davinder Singh, counsel for the Lees, said that Mr Ravi’s absence was a “ploy” to “delay the proceedings of the Order 14 application.”

Dr Chee then produced a medical report stating that Mr Ravi was “unwell and unfit to attend court” on the said dates.

“Fact,” Dr Chee summarized, “our counsel was ill and has since been certified medically unfit to attend court on the days the hearing took place.

“Fact, we told the Judge the situation and asked for a brief adjournment of one to two weeks for our counsel to recover.

“Fact, the Judge refused and proceeded to hear the Order 14 application without our lawyer present.

Woo Bih Li“Tell us how we can remedy this injustice.”

The Judges then queried Dr Chee on why in took such a long time for him to file the application. Court rules state that appeals must be filed within one month.

The SDP secretary-general cited a few factors for the delay, including having to prepare for trials for his prosecutions in the Subordinate Courts.

In Nov 06 there was the trial of his speaking in public without a permit which he served a one month jail term together with Mr Gandhi Ambalam and Mr Yap Keng Ho.

In Feb 07, there was the trial of his attempting to leave the country without a permit.

Belinda AngDr Chee also said that when he found out in the Minute Sheet (which was available to him only in Jan 07) what had transpired between Judge Belinda Ang and Mr Davinder Singh, he decided that it was even more crucial that the matter be brought to light in an appeal.

He cited the instance of Mr Singh telling Judge Ang that he (Singh) was “applying to proceed [with the Order 14 hearing] despite Mr Ravi’s absence.”

When Dr Chee indicated that he would like legal representation in view of Mr Singh’s application, Judge Belinda Ang said: “No, he is not making an application.”

Why was Judge Ang now speaking for Mr Singh and incorrectly for that matter? Worse, Mr Singh did not correct her.

“It was instances such as this that made us feel that Judge Ang was partial to Mr Singh and his arguments and that is why we insisted on having a lawyer present,” Dr Chee told the Appeal Judges.

He reminded the court that unlike Mr Davinder Singh, who has a law firm of more than a hundred lawyers to assist him, and his client, the Prime Minister, who has $3 million a year to play around, the SDP leader had little or no resources: “I am not a lawyer and I have had to do this mostly by myself.”

Judge Andrew Phang persisted: “Are you asking for special treatment?”

“No,” Dr Chee shot back, “I’m asking for protection from the courts. How many cases in the world do you know where the Prime Minister and the Minister Mentor sue their political opponents, bankrupt them and wind up the party?”

Mr Davinder Singh later weighed in on this point and said that if his clients had tried to make this application, they also would not succeed. So Dr Chee should not expect differently.

On the contrary, Dr Chee said, many exceptions have been made for the plaintiffs. He cited the instance of the Courts acceding to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s and Mr Goh Chok Tong’s application to bring the hearing for assessment of damages in 2004 forward when it was clear to all parties that Dr Chee was away on a fellowship in the US and would not be back in time.

At one point, Judge Phang said that there were certain procedures that had to be followed and the rule of law must prevail.

“Don’t get me started on the rule of law in Singapore,” Dr Chee told the Judge. “I seriously doubt you understand the real meaning of the rule of law.”

Dr Chee pointed out that one of the prerequisites for the rule of law is that the executive branch of the government must have its powers checked by another branch such as the Judiciary.

Referring to Judge Rajah, who was seated to the right of Judge Ang, the SDP leader recalled Mr Rajah’s ruling against four citizens who had conducted a silent protested outside the CPF Building in 2005.

The riot squad had ordered the protesters to disperse or face arrest. The activists complied but subsequently applied to the courts to seek a judgment that the government had gone beyond its powers.

Under the Constitution, only five or more persons constituted an unlawful assembly.

Judge Rajah not only threw out the application but also ruled that citizens had no right to criticize Singapore’s public institutions.

The Judge, Dr Chee stated, did not protect the rights of citizens as guaranteed under the Singapore Constitution.

“Is this what you call the rule of law?” he said, turning back to Judge Andrew Phang. “I’ll debate you any time, any place on whether Singapore adheres to the rule of law.”

On another occasion, Judge Rajah pressed Dr Chee on the issue of why he did not appeal within one month after the decision.

Dr Chee asked the Judges not to take the matter in isolation. He pointed out that the plaintiffs in this case were also persons who had the power to prosecute him in criminal cases.

“Please take the matter in its totality instead of dissecting and making my arguments look unreasonable,” Dr Chee said, reminding the Judges that the cases he had to deal with involved criminal convictions and his imprisonment. “I needed time to prepare for them.”

“And then I have to do this lawsuit myself because no lawyer dared to represent us,” he said.

He cited the case where Mr Peter Low, a lawyer with no small means, had even found it difficult to handle a case of a defamation suit (involving the Lees’ and the Far Eastern Economic Review) and had applied for a Queen’s Counsel to take on the case because no other lawyer dared to take on the job.

“What more a layman like myself?”

He added: “And doesn’t it bother you that we are in this state where lawyers dare not represent the opposition in defamation suits? Have you asked yourselves why?

“In your quiet moments just before you go to sleep, maybe your inner voice who tell you why. It is indeed a sorry situation that Singapore is in.”

The exchange between the two Judges, Mr Singh, and Dr Chee lasted for an hour-and-a-half. Judge Woo Bih Li remained silent throughout.

The session was adjourned for 15-minutes following which the Judges returned and dismissed Dr Chee’s application