Freedom Forum CEO writes to PM Lee on Chee’s travel ban

Singapore Democrats

Oslo Freedom Forum CEO and President Human Rights Foundation Thor Halvorssen has written to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, asking him to lift the ban on Dr Chee Soon Juan’s travel so that he can make the trip to Oslo, Norway to speak at the Forum.

The letter has been copied to diplomats, NGOs and news agencies around the world. Several online newspapers including Huffington Post, Daily Caller, Washington Post, and The Republic have carried the news. 

April 24, 2012

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Prime Minister’s Office
Orchard Road
Singapore 238832

Dear Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong,

In November of 2011, the Human Rights Foundation invited Dr. Chee Soon Juan—one of your well-known critics and one of Singapore’s most visible opposition leaders—to speak at the 2012 Oslo Freedom Forum, taking place May 7, 8, and 9 in Norway. The forum is an annual gathering for promoting democracy, human rights, and justice.

Yesterday, we learned that Dr. Chee’s application to leave Singapore to participate at the Oslo Freedom Forum was “not approved.” I enclose a copy of an April 10 missive from Lydia Loh of the Insolvency and Public Trustee’s Office—an agency of your government—denying Dr. Chee permission to exit Singapore and travel to Oslo.

Your government’s travel ban on Dr. Chee is but the latest in a series of instances where he has been penalized for criticizing Singapore authorities.

In 1992, Dr. Chee began his political career while still teaching at the National University of Singapore (NUS), joining the opposition Singapore Democracy Party (SDP). In 1993, after running an unsuccessful SDP campaign for a parliamentary seat, he was charged with misuse of research funds and fired by the head of his department at NUS, who was a member of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Dr. Chee argued that the charges were politically motivated. In return, three university officials sued him for defamation, obtaining a judgment of U.S. $350,000 in damages. Instead of declaring for bankruptcy, which would have prevented him from standing for election, Dr. Chee paid the sum by selling his house and possessions.

During the 2001 general elections, Dr. Chee questioned an alleged multi-billion dollar loan offered by the government of Singapore to the Suharto government of Indonesia. In return, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tok brought legal proceedings against Dr. Chee for defamation, as did your father former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, at that time Senior Minister. Dr. Chee was convicted and ordered to pay U.S. $350,000 in damages. Unable to pay this fine, in 2006 he was declared bankrupt, barred from standing for elections, and forced to seek government permission to travel overseas.

During the 2006 general elections, you and your father brought more defamation charges against Dr. Chee, this time for an article printed in the SDP newsletter, implying corruption in your government. Dr. Chee was convicted of libel and ordered to pay you and your father U.S. $416,000 in damages.

These are just three of the most prominent cases where Dr. Chee has been penalized for criticizing the government of Singapore. In the last 20 years he has been jailed for more than 130 days on charges including contempt of Parliament, speaking in public without a permit, selling books improperly, and attempting to leave the country without a permit. Today, your government prevents Dr. Chee from leaving Singapore because of his bankrupt status.

A general travel restriction aimed at preventing a bankrupt individual from defrauding creditors may be legitimate. However, in this case, the travel restriction against Dr. Chee is aimed at further curtailing the freedom of expression of an opposition leader. It is our considered judgment that having already persecuted, prosecuted, bankrupted, and silenced Dr. Chee inside Singapore, you now wish to render him silent beyond your own borders.

Singapore is bound by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is widely regarded as customary international law. Article 19 of the Declaration states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, while this right is subject to legitimate regulation, any restrictions on this right “must be clear, unambiguous as to the specific type of banned expressions, and proved to be necessary and proportionate, so as to prevent abuse for purposes beyond their intended purpose.”

Along those lines, the Special Rapporteur has stated that defamation and libel laws should recognize that public figures have less protection from criticism than do private figures, that these laws should never be used to prevent criticism of governments, and that “the standards applied to defamation law should not be so stringent as to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”

While freedom of expression is theoretically guaranteed by Article 14 of Singapore’s constitution, your government imposes illegitimate restrictions on this right via the systematic and targeted application of the 1957 Defamation Act and Section 499 of the Penal Code against independent media and opposition leaders. In sum, the Singaporean government’s major convictions of Dr. Chee violate international law, and enforcing a travel ban on him further enforces this violation.

We request that your government reconsider its travel ban on Dr. Chee and, in the spirit of human rights, allow him to leave Singapore for four days to participate in the Oslo Freedom Forum.

Dr. Chee would need urgent clearance, as he needs proper travel documentation from you to depart Singapore on May 6. Norway does not require Singaporean citizens to have entry visas. We have booked his return flight to arrive back in Singapore on May 10.

By allowing Dr. Chee to join us, you would send a message that your government is willing to allow its most well-known critic to participate in international dialogue.

Yours sincerely,

Thor Halvorssen
Human Rights Foundation

cc: Connie Chan, the Prime Minister’s private secretary
cc: Chen Hwai Liang, the Prime Minister’s press secretary
cc: Teo Chee Hean, Deputy Prime Minister
cc: Joan Tan, personal assistant to Minister Hean
cc: K Shanmugam, Minister for Foreign Affairs; Minister for Law
cc: Lee Gek Kim, personal assistant to Minister Shanmugam
cc: Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister of Information, Communications, and the Arts
cc: May Lim, personal secretary to Minister Ibrahim
cc: Masagos Zulkifli Bin Masagos Mohamad, Minister of State, Foreign and Home Affairs
cc: Lui Tuck Yew, Minister for Transport; second Minister for Foreign Affairs
cc: Sam Tan Chin Siong, senior parliamentary secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
cc: Lydia Loh, Insolvency & Public Trustee’s Office
cc: Ng Ser Miang, Singapore’s Ambassador to Norway
cc: Otto Gregard Tidemand, Singapore’s Consulate-General in Norway
cc: Chan Heng Chee, Singapore’s Ambassador to the United States
cc: Doug Chester, Australia’s High Commissioner in Singapore
cc: Ole Harald Lisborg, Denmark’s Ambassador to Singapore
cc: Angelika Viets, Germany’s Ambassador to Singapore
cc: Yoichi Suzuki, Japan’s Ambassador to Singapore
cc: Janne Julsrud, Norway’s Ambassador to Singapore
cc: Oh Joon, Republic of Korea’s Ambassador to Singapore
cc: Bengt Arne Ingemar Dolfe, Sweden’s Ambassador to Singapore
cc: Jörg Alois Reding, Switzerland’s Ambassador to Singapore
cc: Antony John Phillipson, United Kingdom’s High Commissioner in Singapore
cc: David Adelman, United States’s Ambassador to Singapore
cc: T. Kumar, Amnesty International USA
cc: John Peder Egenæs, Amnesty Norway
cc: Robert Amsterdam, Amsterdam & Peroff
cc: Ben Rogers, Christian Solidarity Worldwide
cc: Joel Simon, Committee to Protect Journalists
cc: Antoine Bernard, FIDH
cc: Paula Schriefer, Freedom House
cc: Jared Genser, Freedom Now
cc: Mary Lawlor, Front Line
cc: Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch
cc: Therese Jebsen, The Rafto Foundation for Human Rights
cc: Roberto Coloma, Agence France-Presse
cc: John Fund, The American Spectator
cc: Robert Hetkamper, ARD TV
cc: Vijay Joshi, Associated Press
cc: Furuta Daisuke, The Asahi Shimbun
cc: Kristoffer Rønneberg, Aftenposten
cc: Ben Richardson, BBC
cc: Tengku Noor Shamsiah Tengku Abdullah, Bernama Malaysia
cc: Lars Klemming, Bloomberg News
cc: Tang Pei-Chun, Central News Agency Taiwan
cc: John Casey, CNBC Asia
cc: Amber Lyon, CNN
cc: Juergen Kremb, Der Spiegel
cc: Sophie Muehlmann, Die Welt
cc: Venkat Ramakrishnan, Dow Jones
cc: Bruce Clark, The Economist
cc: Richard Cockett, The Economist
cc: Simon Long, The Economist
cc: Tan Boon Kean, The Edge Singapore
cc: Kevin Brown, The Financial Times
cc: Claudia Rosett, Forbes
cc: Susan Glasser, Foreign Policy
cc: Christoph Hein, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
cc: Rebecca MacKinnon, Global Voices Online
cc: John Gittings, The Guardian
cc: Mark MacKinnon, The Globe and Mail
cc: Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, International Herald Tribune
cc: Yoshio Arima, Japan Broadcasting Corporation
cc: Toyoda Yukiko, Kyodo News
cc: Barbara Demick, The Los Angeles Times
cc: Premesh Chandran, Malaysiakini
cc: Steven Gan, Malaysiakini
cc: Jay Nordlinger, National Review
cc: Marco Kauffmann Bossart, Neue Zuercher Zeitung
cc: Donaldson Tan, New Asia Republic
cc: Edward Wong, The New York Times
cc: Eli Lake, Newsweek/The Daily Beast
cc: Yamato Sato, Nikkei
cc: Paul Steiger, ProPublica
cc: John O’Callaghan, Reuters News
cc: Julian Rake, Reuters TV
cc: Nobuyuki Aoki, The Sankei Shimbun
cc: Editorial team, The Singapore Daily
cc: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star
cc: Jonathan Foreman, Standpoint
cc: Nguyen Thi Thuc, Thanh Nien Vietnam
cc: Gui Qing Koh, Thomson Reuters
cc: Minerva Lau, Thomson Reuters
cc: Karen Leigh, TIME
cc: Hanne Skartveit, Verdens Gang
cc: Michael Moynihan, Vice
cc: Almar Latour, The Wall Street Journal
cc: James Kirchick, World Affairs
cc: Ding Qilin, Xinhua
cc: Deborah Choo, Yahoo! Singapore
cc: Peter Kunz, ZDF German Television
cc: Debra Soon, Channel NewsAsia
cc: Patrick Yong, Mediacorp Press
cc: Mindy Kwok Sin Thang, Singapore National Union of Journalists
cc: Patrick Daniel, Singapore Press Club
cc: Robin Hu Yee Cheng, Singapore Press Holdings
cc: Walter Fernandez, TODAY Singapore

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