SDP writes to American Bar Association about conference in Singapore

30 August 2007

Mr William H. Neukom
American Bar Association

Dear Sir,

I have just come to learn that the American Bar Association, together with Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is organising the World Justice Project’s (WJP) International Multidisciplinary Outreach Conference on September 20, 2007, in Singapore.

I note that the Conference is an initiative that “recognizes that the rule of law is an essential foundation for communities of opportunity and equity.” This being the case, it is difficult to understand why the Singapore Government is the co-organiser/co-sponsor of this event.

As I understand, the rule of law is based on at least two principles: One, that the legal order regulates the power of the government and, two, it ensures equality before the law. Neither of these tenets are respected nor practiced by the Singapore Government. Let me elaborate.

Detention without trial

Scores of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) opponents have been jailed and, according to Amnesty International reports, tortured under the Internal Security Act (ISA) which allows detention without trial. I cite you the three longest serving political prisoners in Singapore.

1. Mr Chia Thye Poh, Member of Parliament with the now-defunct opposition Barisan Sosialis, imprisoned for 32 years from 1966-1998.

2. Dr Lim Hock Siew, medical doctor and leader of the Barisan Sosialis, imprisoned for nearly 20 years from 1963-1982.

3. Mr Said Zahari, Journalist and chairman of the Partai Rakyat, imprisoned for 17 years from 1963-1980.

Dozens more are being held without trial under the ISA today.

In 1987 the president of the Law Society of Singapore (LSS), Mr Francis Seow, who was also the former solicitor-general of Singapore, was detained without trial for 72 days because he had tried to represent some of his fellow lawyers who were under ISA detention. Mr Seow had during his tenure as president of the LSS criticized proposed legislation by the cabinet and wanted the LSS to take a more active role in contributing towards the process of lawmaking. Because of this the Singapore Government banned the LSS from commenting on proposed legislation unless invited.

During his detention, a confession was extracted from Mr Seow that he had colluded with American diplomats to set up an opposition in Singapore. He now resides in exile in Boston.

The use of defamation suits

The PAP has also resorted to using defamation lawsuits to silence its critics. Opposition leader Mr J B Jeyaretnam has been sued repeatedly and ordered to pay costs and damages amounting to more than a million dollars. He was made bankrupt and only recently managed to get himself discharged from his bankruptcy.

Mr Tang Liang Hong, another leading opposition figure was sued and ordered to pay US$3 million of dollars in damages by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues. Like Mr Jeyaretnam he too was declared bankrupt when he couldn’t pay the amounts and now lives in exile in Australia.

I was sued in 1993 and 2001. To date I have been ordered to pay the Mr Lee Kuan Yew and other PAP leaders US$600,000. I was sued again in 2006 together with my party, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). The SDP stands to be made bankrupt and wound up.

In the recent two cases, the courts awarded summary judgment denying the SDP and I of open trials. As a result of these suits, I too have been made bankrupt.

As bankrupts, we are barred from standing for elections. We are also banned from traveling overseas. My passport has been impounded. I was convicted of attempting to leave Singapore in April 2005 to attend the World Movement for Democracy in Istanbul, Turkey. My appeal will be heard next week on 4 September and I fully expect to serve the three-week jail sentence imposed by the trial judge. Since my bankruptcy in 2005 I have made 16 applications to the Singapore Government to attend democracy and human rights conferences overseas. All of them have been rejected.

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.

The media

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.

The foreign media have also been sued and/or prosecuted. The Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) is the latest case. Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, sued FEER for publishing an interview it did with me. Because it refused to apologise, the journal was banned in Singapore. 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.”

Crushing human rights

Singaporeans are banned 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 law 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. When they could not afford to do so, the Singapore Courts declared them bankrupt.

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. I have already served five prison terms in the last few years.

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.

On the academic front, 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. 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. The Imperial College of London and the London School of Economics had previously also rejected similar invitations from Singapore.

I have had to omit much more information because of space constraints. But even from this brief presentation, you can see that the rule of law in Singapore has been under severe and sustained attack by the PAP Government. It is therefore quite incomprehensible why it is a co-sponsor of the WPJ initiative when so many other governments in Asia have a much better record as far as the respect for the rule of law and human rights are concerned.

With your permission, I would like to attend your Conference on 20 September and perhaps get an opportunity to enlighten your participants about the real situation in Singapore. This is, of course, with the caveat that I am released in time from prison.
Otherwise, I would be grateful if you could extend an invitation to my colleagues.

As in my other letters to international organizations, I would like to make this one public in the interest of transparency and openness.

Thank you and I look forward to your reply.


Chee Soon Juan
Singapore Democratic Party

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