Observations at the IBA symposium

At the International Bar Association’s Rule of Law Symposium last week, there was a dichotomy, perhaps not surprisingly, between the speeches made by the Singaporean speakers and those by the non-Singaporeans.

On the Singapore side was Minister for Law S Jayakumar, law lecturer Simon Tay, and Workers’ Party (WP) Chairman Sylvia Lim. The international speakers included Justice Hisashi Owada (Japan), former AG Lord Goldsmith (UK), Justice Albie Sachs (South Africa) and Ms Ambiga Sreenevasen (Malaysia).

Let me start with my fellow Singaporeans. Mr S Jayakumar and Mr Simon Tay, predictably, defended the Government’s approach to the rule of law as it is practiced here.

What was surprising, however, was that WP’s Ms Sylvia Lim did not make a more critical analysis of the situation in Singapore given the decades of human rights violations here. Books and volumes of legal research have been written on this topic.

It was like the proverbial white elephant standing square in the middle of the living room – it takes quite a bit of effort trying to ignore the beast.

The foreign speakers, on the other hand, spoke about how individual rights had to be respected.

An important point to note was that they were not all Westerners. Mr Owada and Ms Ambiga were Asians, and Mr Sachs was from South Africa.

And yet, the most revealing difference between the speakers showed up not during the speeches but in the exchanges during the Q&A sessions.

Mr M Ravi had stood up to make a general comment that the IBA should look into the problem of opposition leaders finding it difficult to engage lawyers to represent them when they faced the PAP Government.

Even though the comment was not directed at her, Ms Sylvia Lim volunteered that “The Workers’ Party has no problems finding lawyers.”

This directly contradicts her predecessor, former WP secretary-general J B Jeyaretnam, who said: “No lawyer in Singapore wants to do political cases.” (see

Even senior criminal lawyer, Mr Subhas Anandan, said that he had no problem defending murderers and even terrorists, but not oppositionists.

Dr Chee Soon Juan too could not find any lawyer to represent him in his 2001 defamation lawsuit.

Perhaps the present WP has no problem finding lawyers to represent it. But it might be important to ask how many court cases, if any, it has had to face since Mr Jeyaretnam’s departure.

I then read out the conclusion of the report made by the Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada that questioned the independence of the judiciary in Singapore and asked the speakers if they considered this as “foreign interference.”

Ms Sylvia Lim restated her position that there were good benchmarks on Singapore’s system but foreigners should not interfere.

At this point the president of the Malaysian Bar Association, Ms Ambiga said, “I don’t agree with my fellow speaker.” She cited how a resolution passed by the IBA in a previous year had helped to create positive developments in the rule of law in Malaysia.

Ms Ambiga had earlier said that fundamental values of judicial independence, press freedom, independence of law societies do not belong to the West only but to us in Asia, too.

As an aside, the courageous Malaysian lawyer is presently under investigation by the Malaysian police for defying the illegal assembly law and conducting a march together with her fellow lawyers in protest of interference of the judicial process by the government.

I came away with this disturbing observation that among our three Singaporean speakers (a cabinet minister, an academician, and an oppositionist) there was one common view – that there were no serious problems with the rule of law in Singapore and that there is no repression here.

This is most unfortunate.

John Tan is the Assistant Secretary-General of The SDP

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