“What is your plea?” the Judge asked Dr Chee Soon Juan as the charge was read out to the SDP leader.
“My plea is for the Judiciary to start protecting the rights of the people of Singapore,” Dr Chee answered, “rights that are enshrined in Article 14 of our Constitution.
“There is such a thing as the rule of law and under this concept, the constitutional rights of the people are to be protected and the Judiciary is one such body to protect them.”
Dr Chee was in court yesterday to face a fresh new charge of assembly without a permit together with ten of his colleagues: Gandhi Ambalam, Chee Siok Chin, Chia Ti Lik, Chong Kai Xiong, Jeffrey George, Jaslyn Go, Sylvester Lim, Seelan Palay, John Tan and Francis Yong. All the defendants entered a not-guilty plea.
They had gathered at Toa Payoh Central on National Day in 2008. This charge comes on top of a series of prosecutions in the past two years including charges for distibuting flyers, walking down Orchard Road, protesting during the WB-IMF meeting, and protesting outside Parliament House where CASE (Consumers’ Association of Singapore) did the same.
The funny thing is that members of other opposition parties were also out and about on 9 Aug 08. One of the party leaders had even approached the group to say that they had just finished their activity. Only SDP members and activists were charged, however.
Mr Ambalam, Dr Chee and Ms Chee have already served three prison sentences this year. Dr Chee himself has been to prison ten times since 1999, fighting for the right of Singaporeans to speak and assemble openly. These cases are all waiting appeal even though the sentences have been served.
The charge is one of assembly without a permit and carries a maximum fine of $1,000.
So why is the SDP fighting so hard for the freedom of assembly in Singapore? Is it of any concern to Singaporeans especially during the elections? Before you answer the question, take a look at the two videos below:
UK opposition leaders, Mr David Cameron (Conservatives) and Mr Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats), have been pounding the streets throughout the country and having public meetings with voters in their general elections. Voters get to hear and question their candidates and party leaders up close and direct before they go to the polls later today.
And there has not been a single report of chaos and violence in the thousands of such meetings held throughout the UK in the past month since the campaign period started.
Without these assemblies Messrs Cameron and Clegg would not have been able to reach out more effectively to voters and to explain their policies and positions.
If they were Singaporeans they would be convicted of illegal assembly because the PAP insists that such gatherings cause public disorder.
Are Singaporeans somehow less civilised than our British counterparts when it comes to gathering in public to hear opposition politicians’ views? Are we more predisposed to behaving in a disorderly manner than the Brits in a public gathering?
The truth is not that the PAP fears public disorder. It knows that the only way that it can continue to “win” elections is to keep Singaporeans ill-informed about the opposition by preventing the SDP from directly reaching out to the public.
For example, we could not address Bukit Panjang residents over the Sheng Siong saga even though the residents and stallholders were severely affected. As a result, PAP MP Dr Teo Ho Pin has remained silent throughout the whole episode.
The day Singaporeans can exercise their freedoms like the Brits do is the day the PAP will start paying attention to voters’ anguish about issues like foreign workers flooding the island, HDB allowing prices to skyrocket, and Temasek and GIC squandering away our hard-earned billions.
So the next time anyone thinks that freedom of speech and assembly, human rights in other words, have nothing to do with your rice bowls, think again.