Singapore maneuvers in response to Chee

Garry Rodan
Far Eastern Economic Review

For Singapore, 2008 has been a bumper year for legal actions and decisions against the international media and political opponents of the ruling People’s Action Party, underlining the government’s resolve to keep political comment and expression within tight limits. Yet in his August National Day Rally Speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also announced a watering down of restrictions on political uses of electronic media and outdoor protest rallies. “Our rules governing politics must also keep up to date,” Mr. Lee explained.

While these may seem like divergent patterns, political change around the edges has long been a feature of the PAP’s approach to preserving the political system’s fundamentals. PAP leaders would not likely dispute that. More difficult for them to concede is the extent to which PAP political battles and system tinkering are shaped by the strategies of Singapore Democratic Party leader Chee Soon Juan. Mr. Chee may have been neutralized as an electoral force, but he exerts a growing influence on the political agenda of the PAP.

In the mold of the late J.B. Jeyaretnam, Mr. Chee dares to scrutinize PAP governance claims and underlying premises of authoritarian rule with a determination uncharacteristic of the PAP’s few opponents in parliament. But unlike Jeyaretnam, who spent much of his life fighting legal battles undermining his electoral politics, Mr. Chee incorporates these battles into extraparliamentary campaigns. This partly explains his polarizing effect within Singapore. Many middle-class professionals who like to think of themselves as politically progressive find Mr. Chee’s preparedness to risk everything for his beliefs too confrontational. More than reflecting tactical differences, though, this highlights contrasting depths of opposition to PAP institutions.

Singapore’s authorities already enjoy a reputation as the world’s most litigation prone, but even by local standards this year has been exceptional. Not only was the REVIEW in September found to have defamed Prime Minister Lee and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, with an appeal now pending, but The Wall Street Journal Asia was also fined a record amount for contempt of court in a finding last month.

Meanwhile, three SDP members were given jail sentences in November. Their offence was to wear T-shirts adorned with a kangaroo in a judge’s robe outside the Supreme Court in May during a defamation trial against SDP colleagues Mr. Chee and his sister Chee Siok Chin. The Chees too were sentenced to jail for contempt after the judge in the defamation case contended they had not only accused the court of being biased and pre-judging the case, but also disobeyed orders to cease particular lines of questioning. Comments about the way the presiding judge handled that case also landed blogger Gopalan Nair a three-month jail sentence. There could be more jail terms to come, as another 19 SDP members were charged in October for illegal assembly and participating in an illegal procession in March this year.

An interesting dimension to the flurry of legal actions this year has been the eagerness of the new attorney general, Walter Woon, to instigate contempt of court charges. Mr. Woon took the opportunity of his first public address as attorney general to attack what he described as human-rights “fanatics.” Significantly, he directed these remarks to an audience of lawyers and embassy officials at a Law Society gathering to launch its Public and International Law Committee’s lecture series. The first project of the new committee is to study the relevance of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in Singapore law. In the 1990s, Mr. Woon was, among other things, a nominated member of parliament who some Singaporeans hoped might be a voice for liberal reform.

Under crossexamination by Mr. Chee during his defamation case in June, Minister Mentor Lee depicted the SDP leader as a political failure, contrasting him unfavorably with Singapore’s two elected opposition members of parliament, Singapore People’s Party’s Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang of the Workers’ Party. Yet Mr. Chee’s strategy of challenging—and breaking—what he sees as unjust laws circumscribing political engagement is not just drawing international attention, but inspiring more SDP colleagues not to be intimidated by the threat of legal actions. Mr. Chee also gets to directly confront and question Mr. Lee through the courts.

Examination of the issues behind the surge in court cases and adjustments to electronic media and public demonstration laws underscores the Chee factor. Let us look first at the legal actions against the REVIEW and the Journal. The former centered around a July 2006 article by editor Hugo Restall entitled “Singapore’s Martyr: Chee Soon Juan” that scrutinized PAP governance and afforded Mr. Chee’s views a space not available in Singapore’s government-controlled domestic media.

Similarly, at issue in the contempt of court case against the Journal were two editorials—”Democracy in Singapore” (June 26, 2008) and “Judging Singapore’s Judiciary” (July 15, 2008)—and a published letter by Mr. Chee. The first of these editorials centered on the defamation case against Mr. Chee, the latter on a report by the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association critical of Singapore’s standards in the areas of freedom of expression and assembly and in the independence and impartiality of the judiciary. The IBA’s decision to hold its 2007 conference in the city-state had earlier been portrayed by the government as an authoritative endorsement of Singapore’s legal system. However, speaking from the floor as a registered conference participant, Mr. Chee exploited the meeting to turn the IBA’s critical spotlight on that very system.

Increasingly, the PAP is explaining and defending its legal and political systems to audiences aroused by Mr. Chee. Among Mr. Chee’s new supporters is a team of international lawyers headed by Canadian Robert Amsterdam, who defended Mikhail Khodorovsky and other high-profile Russians against the Putin regime, British defamation expert Anthony Julius, who represented Lady Diana, and American law professor William Burke-White. These lawyers have committed to assisting Mr. Chee in future legal cases and to further highlighting his treatment in international fora, including the United Nations. They also intend to register the SDP in their jurisdictions to enable it to continue its activities as a legal entity, even if the unfolding legal cases bankrupt and disqualify the party in Singapore.

Prime Minister Lee’s National Day Rally announcements also concede something to Mr. Chee. Political films were banned in 1998, two years after Mr. Chee applied for a license to sell a videotape on the SDP. A month before the 2006 general election, the government also banned political podcasts and vodcasts by candidates and parties during election campaigns. Again, Mr. Chee and the SDP led the way in harnessing these new technologies for political engagement. Material was consequently restricted to candidate biodata on party Web sites.

However, this official position was defied by bloggers during the 2006 election. Mobile-phone videos of most opposition rallies were uploaded to the video-sharing site YouTube and crossposted on blogs. Given the 2006 election result, the PAP may have concluded that their fears about new media were exaggerated. At the same time, Mr. Nair’s imprisonment serves as a powerful demonstration that Prime Minister Lee’s insistence on “accountability and responsibility” in the use of these media technologies can be imposed where authorities choose.

Meanwhile, the PAP is gearing up its video strategies at each of its 84 branches, including the utilization of the social-networking site Facebook. Liberalizing rules governing these technologies is necessary for the ruling party to better engage younger Singaporeans.

The government’s decision to sanction a designated outdoor space for public demonstrations is surely an attempt to defuse Mr. Chee’s campaign for more expansive freedoms of peaceful public assembly. Being repeatedly unsuccessful in attempts to obtain requisite police permits for outdoor demonstrations led Mr. Chee and his SDP colleagues to deliberately break the law to highlight what they see as a discrepancy between the Constitution and the practice of law on freedom of expression. The global spectacle during the 2006 World Bank/International Monetary Fund conference in 2006 in Singapore of an ugly stand-off between police and SDP activists did Singapore’s image little good.

The Singapore government has since cautiously and conditionally endorsed the concept of outdoor demonstrations at inner city Hong Lim Park. Protest meetings there now require less onerous online registration through an official Web site. A few groups have used the system, protesting transport-fare increases, censorship of university media and investment losses in Lehman Brothers minibonds.

But while Mr. Chee may exert an influence over the PAP’s political agenda, there remain serious obstacles to broad domestic appeal. One is that middle-class professionals enjoying material and social status benefits under the PAP are uncomfortable with Mr. Chee’s modus operandi and unambiguous rejection of PAP values. Another is the effectiveness of the PAP’s character assassination of Mr. Chee through the government-controlled domestic media. This may explain why the international media’s sympathetic treatment especially irritates Singapore’s elite.

Garry Rodan is director of the Asia Research Centre and professor of politics and international studies at Murdoch University, Perth, Australia.