Text of Dr Chee Soon Juan’s speech at the
International Bar Association Conference in Dubai
on 4 Nov 2011 (presented via video)
Distinguished guests, IBA delegates, friends, ladies and gentlemen,
I wish I could be with you in Dubai for this conference but, unfortunately, the Singapore Government has banned my attending it. But I assure you that this rather impersonal and less than optimal manner of addressing you will not diminish the significance of what I am about to tell you.
Neither does it lessen my gratitude to the organisers for this privilege of addressing you at this very special Rule of Law Symposium.
It is perhaps appropriate for me to get into the subject of my presentation by way of explaining why the government of Singapore refuses to let me leave the country.
You see, I am a bankrupt. I owe my status to two former prime ministers of Singapore Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong as well as as the current prime minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew’s son, who repeatedly sued me for defamation over remarks that I made about governance in Singapore.
The courts awarded them a total of more than a million dollars in damages over the years. That’s not even the worst part. The plaintiffs were repeatedly awarded summary judgment despite my filing my defence disputing the allegations both in fact and in law. In other words I was denied an open trial where I could state my case and cross-examine my accusers. When I disputed my treatment I was jailed for contempt of court.
And as a result of my inability to pay these huge sums of money, I was declared bankrupt. Because of my bankruptcy I have been prohibited from standing for elections and, as I mentioned, barred from traveling overseas.
In addition to these defamation suits, my party colleagues and I have been repeatedly prosecuted and imprisoned for exercising our right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. I have been imprisoned on more than ten occasions.
In 2009, the Public Order Act was amended to outlaw even one individual from conducting a protest in Singapore.
Then there is the Internal Security Act which allows the government to imprison citizens indefinitely and without trial. Elected opposition members of parliament, journalists, and trade unionists have been detained under this Act over the last half-a-century of one-party rule.
Unbeknownst to many of you, we have a political prisoner by the name of Chia Thye Poh who was detained for 32 years – a period longer than Nelson Mandela’s incarceration.
Your fellow legal professionals have not been exempt from such injustice. In 1986 former solicitor general Francis Seow was elected President of the Singapore Law Society. In his address during the Opening of the Legal Year, Seow signaled that he wanted to see “a more assertive and caring bar, that the Law Society should be consulted on the selection and appointments, promotions, and transfers of subordinate judicial and legal officers by the Legal Service Commission.”
Seow and his colleagues were subsequently arrested and imprisoned without trial. To add insult to injury, Mr Seow was shortly thereafter ousted as president and the Legal Professional Act was as a consequence amended that forbade the Law Society from commenting on legislation unless expressly invited by the government to do so. As you can well-imagine the Law Society here in Singapore is today a rather marginalised organisation.
So how does such repression impact on economic development in Singapore? Some suggest that it is in such an authoritarian state that economic growth can take place unhindered. After all, Singapore’s GDP figures have grown by leaps and bounds.
Herein lies some untruths and untruths, as you know, repeated often and long enough, develop into veritable myths. And the myth goes something like this: Singaporeans have become rich and are therefore contented to let the government rule without regard for their human rights and civil liberties.
The silence that you hear from our island in Southeast Asia is not the sleepiness that comes with being contented but the silence that accompanies fear. Through the years of using defamation lawsuits, criminal prosecution and detention without trial, the government has extinguished any dissenting voice.
But are Singaporeans not well-off ? Some obviously are. But consider the following:
• Millionaires in Singapore continue to grow at an astounding rate. In 2010, we registered the greatest proportion of millionaire households in the world.
• And yet the poorest 20 percent of the population saw their incomes stagnate for the past 10 years.
• Singapore’s gini coefficient which measures income inequality is 42.5 – about the same level as Third World countries like Cambodia, Guyana, and Kenya.
As a result, the number of homeless sleeping on sidewalks and camped out on parks and beaches are increasing.
Because of the socio-political situation, Singaporeans are emigrating to other countries in numbers that have alarmed the country’s rulers. Every month, about 1,000 Singaporeans are seeking permanent residence in another country. In one survey 50 percent of younger Singaporeans say that would like to emigrate to another country if given the chance.
If this country is as well-run as claimed why are so many locals straining to leave?
Those remaining behind find the system so stressful and expensive that they put off getting married ans having children. With only 1.2 births per person, Singapore is the least fertile country in the world.
These two factors, high emigration and low birthrate, have caused our population to shrink to levels that threaten the economy. What does the Government do? Rather than open up the political system, it opens something else: The immigration floodgates. Over the last decade the government has indiscriminately allowed more than a million foreigners into the country of just 3 million. As a consequence a full 38 percent of the people on this tiny island are not Singapore citizens.
But foreigners are also vulnerable when they come to Singapore because they are exploited for their cheap labour. Many labourers and menial workers from Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, India, Burma and so on come to Singapore and find themselves cheated and abused.
There are no unions, there is no minimum wage and workers, both local and foreign, are routinely exploited. In Singapore it is common to see the elderly – and I’m talking about folks in the 70s and 80s – cleaning tables and washing public toilets just so that they can feed themselves.
But despite all this Singapore has gotten fabulously rich. How is that possible? The International Press Service reported that while Singapore promotes itself as a regional financial center, it is “attracting funds from rich people not only from Indonesia but also China and Russia.” A former chief economic analyst at Morgan Stanley says that much of these funds are illicit and being laundered in Singapore.
The Financial Secrecy Index compiled by the Tax Justice Network is a survey of places that have set up laws and systems to provide legal and financial secrecy that facilitate illicit financial flows. Out of 73 countries surveyed, Singapore was ranked the sixth most secret jurisdiction.
The question is whether such a political-economic arrangement is sustainable. Seeing the situation that is developing across the world with people rising up against income inequality and exploitation, it would take someone very foolhardy to bet on the Singapore government continuing its ways indefinitely.
The danger is that autocratic regimes in Russia, China, and Burma are looking at such an approach and thinking that they too can bypass the practice of the rule of law while making economic progress.
We see these things happening in Singapore and we want to speak up against it, we want to rectify it.
But without the rule of law, without a free media, without the right to free expression and peaceful assembly we have no say in how our country is run and the direction in which we are headed.
What can the IBA do?
The IBA is well-placed to press for the rule of law because it is the pre-eminent legal body of the world. It is for this reason that the Singapore government courts the IBA because the authorities here desire the political and legal legitimacy that an organisation like yours confers.
The government’s strategy is to isolate human rights and the rule of law from the commercial side of international law. This is why it needs to pay lip service to the concept of the rule of law and tell you what you need to hear.
Singapore’s Chief Justice Mr Chan Sek Keong, with whom some of you may be familiar, said:
“The mission of the courts requires that its authority be respected by all. This is so fundamental and critical to the rule of law…”
What he does not understand is that the rule of law encompasses the principle that a government is necessarily limited in its powers and that it cannot pass laws the curtail the fundamental freedoms of citizens.
As the Canada’s Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin succinctly put it: “Judges must resist…making ‘law’ out of what cannot be just, and hence, in a profound sense, cannot be legal. To do otherwise is to allow injustice to hide itself under the cloak of false legality.”
The IBA is uniquely positioned to use your influence to urge the Singapore government and the judiciary to bring the system in line with international norms, norms that form the basis for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Alert your colleagues in the your sister bar associations and law societies to let the Singapore government know that unless it starts to genuinely practice the rule of law and not merely pay it lip service, it cannot play a meaningful role in the international legal world.
Specifically, the government must:
• Abolish the Internal Security Act.
• Stop using defamation suits to stifle dissent.
• Return Singaporeans their right to fundamental freedoms of speech and assembly.
• Ensure that the media operate free from government control.
• Remove the gag on the Law Society of Singapore.
I hope that I have used my time productively to deflate the myth that Singapore practices the rule of law and that economic progress can be sustained in its absence. Did not Edmund Burke once say: “Bad laws are the worst form of tyranny”? Burke might not have known about present-day Singapore, but he might as well have. And until such time that these bad laws are changed so that I can travel again, I can only thank you and bid you goodbye from afar.
Video of Chee Soon Juan’s speech to IBA delegates.