There are some people you just cannot fool

John Tan
31 Oct 07

When I walked into the room for the break-up discussion on freedom of expression at the recent IBA symposium, the chief moderator, Mr Hans Corell, had already started the session by highlighting his reservations about the human rights situation in Singapore.

Mr Corell, a former UN official, observed that Singapore is signatory to only two of the more than a dozen UN treatises. But it was not a signatory to the most significant of these covenants which is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  

When the session was opened to the floor, the president of the Law Society of Singapore, Mr Philip Jeyaretnam, who was also one of the three moderators, interjected that anyone could of course express his or her disagreement with Mr Corell’s analysis of Singapore.

No one did.

Instead quite a few people, including lawyers from Germany, India and Sri Lanka, expressed their disquiet over the state of freedom in Singapore, and in particular, questioned the character of our defamation laws and the lack of scrutiny our citizenry can exercise over public officials.

In fact, the German lawyer was visibly distressed. She kept muttering, “How can this be? This is unbelievable…” 

At one point, the Assistant Attorney-General, Mr Jeffrey Chan, rose to address the group. After the nicety of saying that as a civil servant he could not side with any political party or its political position, he proceeded to justify our uniquely Singapore experience and to pacify the disparagement expressed by the discussants.

He took an oft-used line of the PAP and asked the group rhetorically, “The thing is this: When you are moving about in Singapore—and you have been in Singapore for at least six days—do you feel any fear?”  

To his shock, several people in the audience nodded their heads vehemently. A lawyer from Indonesia expressed that, compared to being in a bus with a murderer in Jakarta, he actually feel more fearful in Singapore.

In Jakarta, he reasoned, if attacked, he could at least defend himself; whereas in Singapore, he would be powerless since his apprehenders would have to be the authorities themselves.

Another lawyer who had nodded earlier, chimed in to compare the similarity she observed in Cambodia where she practices. There appears to be the rule of law, she offered, but when you have a collision with the establishment, you will know on whose side the judges are. 

To underscore this fear factor, Dr Chee Soon Juan had told me that during the coffee break at least two IBA delegates had asked if the “security men” were watching this conference.

One of them even asked nervously whether he was being photographed talking with Dr Chee. Another had to whisper to Dr Chee in the lavatory that it was good that he had countered Foreign Minister S Jayakumar speech.

In short, these delegates sensed that they were being watched. There are some people you just cannot fool.

Although the moderators had made a couple of appeals to broaden our discussion and not just focus on Singapore, the discussion invariable drifted back to Singapore.

What is striking is that despite my lack of contribution, it was evident that the IBA delegates knew that Singapore is not the beacon of the rule of law it claims to be.

Indeed, they were seeing Singapore for what it really is—a repressive and repressed society where the rule of law remains but mere words.

John Tan is Assistant Secretary-General of the SDP. He recently attended the IBA Rule of Law Symposium that was held in Singapore.

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