Double standards of rule of law in Singapore

Singapore Democrats

Below is the text of Dr Chee Soon Juan’s speech at the International Bar Association’s Rule of Law Symposium in Tokyo in October 2014 where the theme was Freedom of Expression:$CUT$

Your excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

My participation in this Symposium is rather convoluted. In 2007, when the IBA held its annual conference in Singapore, I could not attend as I was not a member then. I had attended the rule of law symposium back then, but even that was fraught with difficulties.

The Singaporean authorities had tried to prevent the symposium from being open to the public thus preventing people like me from participating. But to its credit the IBA, with the support of several international legal and human rights NGOs, stood firm and allowed non IBA members to attend.

Rule by law

At that symposium, I spoke from the floor and rebutted then minister for law, Mr S Jayakumar, whom some of you may have met had defended the government’s abuses of power including detaining citizens without trial. He essentially repeated the tired and discredited argument that the rule of law needed to be “contextualised” to suit the needs of different cultures and societies.

Even the Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, in a speech to the New York State Bar Association in 2009, said that public law in Singapore “is quite different since this body of law must reflect the political, social and cultural values of the people.”

But it wasn’t just terrorists that the government had detained. Dozens of its political opponents were held for years under the dreaded Internal Security Act. One of them is Mr Chia Thye Poh, an opposition member of parliament, who was imprisoned for 32 years – a period longer than Nelson Mandela’s. But unlike Mandela, Chia was never charged with a crime and, till today, he is still forbidden to participate Singapore’s politics.

Following the conference, the IBA Human Rights Institute published a report expressing concern about limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly, and the press as well as the judicial system in Singapore.

In 2011, I was invited to speak at the IBA conference in Dubai but cold not attend because I was banned from traveling out of Singapore due to my bankruptcy. I have the dubious honour of having been sued repeatedly by three prime ministers of Singapore, both former and present, and ordered by the courts to pay more than a million dollars in damages which I could not afford to do, and hence my bankruptcy. I only recently managed to raise funds through the sale of my books to pay off a reduced amount of the damages.

On two of the lawsuits, I could not defend myself in court because the plaintiffs had asked for and were given summary judgments. This is in spite of the fact that I had filed my defence disputing the plaintiffs’ cases in fact and in law.

In one of those cases, I couldn’t find a lawyer to take up my case and had to apply for a Queen’s Counsel from outside of the jurisdiction. I was turned down because, according to the judge, my case was not complex enough – a case, may I remind you, was on defamation law.

And so I had to contend with acting in person while the plaintiffs engaged a local senior counsel, Singapore’s equivalent of the Queens Counsel.

I have also been imprisoned and fined for scandalising the Singapore judiciary, conducting protests, distributing flyers, and speaking in public without permit during elections.

Repression expanded

This sedulous use of the law to undermine justice and thwart democratic freedoms has always been the modus operandi of the ruling party.

The Legal Profession Act was amended to make it an offence for the Law Society of Singapore to comment on statutes passed by parliament. Needless to say the Law Society, compared to its counterparts in other countries, play no role of any significance or relevance to the Singaporean community.

In 2009, the government introduced the Public Order Act where the police can stop even a single-person protest.

Bloggers, filmmakers, activists, and students continue to be threatened with lawsuits and criminal prosecution for their activities.

Workers are convicted and jailed for going on strike for better wages.

There are several Singaporeans presently living in exile some for decades. They are not allowed to return. When a filmmaker made a documentary about them, the government banned it.

Currently, several activists are under investigation for conducting protests at our Speaker’s Corner.

Larger online news sites are made to put up a bond of $50,000 which can be confiscated if the sites are adjudged to have compromised the standards of public order and security in Singapore.

International lawyers, such as yourselves, are not exempt. One of your peers Mr Robert Amsterdam who represented me on the international stage when I could not travel was stopped at the Singapore airport when he tried to visit me and put on the next flight home. And yet, you may be interested to know, Mr Robert Mugabe, regularly comes into Singapore for his famed shopping sprees.

If there is rule of law in Singapore, will someone please educate me?

An international legal centre

But despite such a dismal record of the rule of law, the Singapore government wants to be a major player in the international legal system.

It covets the role of being the arbitration centre of Asia, if not the world. It recently moved to even allow foreign judges to hear cases in the jurisdiction – but, of course, only for commercial cases in cross-border disputes.

Such a move is motivated by the irresistible lure of big money. Between 2007 and 2012, legal services in Singapore expanded 46 percent from S$1.5 billion to S$1.9 billion.

But even more disturbingly, it has founded suitors from around the world. Legal practitioners from jurisdictions with proud traditions of upholding justice and human rights are drawn to such ventures. Many are willing to excuse the Singapore government’s violations of the rule of law just to do business in the country.

Listen to what Mr Peter Goldsmith, former attorney-general of the UK, said: “Singapore, which had a reputation for being conservative and somewhat closed, having laws which many outside the country viewed as oppressive, is changing. It demonstrates Singapore’s maturity.”

Where did he get his information? As I’ve pointed out earlier, the Singapore government has not relented on its crackdown on activists and those who present a dissenting view.

To give you an idea of the enduring nature of the system, every TV and radio station, every newspaper in Singapore is run by the government and has been for the last half-a-century. Is it any wonder that in its World Press Freedom Survey Reporters Sans Frontieres ranks Singapore 150th out of 180 countries – that’s even below Myanmar. The only thing that’s changing is the system getting more sophisticated in its repression. These resultant effects are no less severe.

It seems that there are many – even those who are charged with upholding justice – will go to great lengths to square a circle just to do business in Singapore.

It is this contortion of jurisprudence that has enabled the ruling party in Singapore to maintain its unjust hold on power and its violations of the rule of law for more than half-a-century.

The international legal community

It is perhaps trite to say that the global community is now more inter-reliant and inter-connected than any point in the history of human civilisation. As we go about trying to craft a global legal system, let it be one that has, at its very core, respect for the rule of law. Let it be one that promotes human rights, including the right to free expression, as a universal value.

The international legal community, especially organisations like the IBA, have a unique responsibility to ensure that legal systems uphold the fundamental tenets of the rule of law.

I may not be trained in the legal profession but you don’t need to be a lawyer to see that it strains credulity to partition the practice of law in places like Singapore where, on the one side, you have the international business community for which commercial law remains unmolested and another for which the law is repeatedly manipulated to strengthen the power of the ruling party.

For in the ultimately analysis, one cannot separate the rule of law from the political process. Listen to what one of your compatriots, former Chief Justice of India P N Bagawathie, said:

There are a few institutions which are vital to the maintenance of democracy and the rule of law. They constitute the life breath of the democratic way of life and the supremacy of law. Drain away this life breath, and democracy will perish, the rule of law will end. Inevitably authoritarianism will take their place. History shows that the first step which a ruler takes when he assumes authoritarian power is to impair the integrity and independence of these institutions.


I want nothing more than for my country to become truly the beacon of justice for Asia, if not the world. But, ironically, it is legal practitioners – practitioners who don’t allow the lack of freedom of expression to get in their way of doing business in Singapore – who are the biggest obstacles to my country joining the ranks of democratic nations where the rule of law reigns supreme.

To them I have this reminder: Where you come to conduct your business is where I bring up my children. Like you, I want them to know what justice, in its most profound sense, is. I want to impart to them the values of a just society – a society where the strong take care of the weak, the powerful of the powerless; where when we see pain, we ease it; when we see injustice, we prosecute it; where we see suffering, we alleviate it.

After all, isn’t this what life is all about? Isn’t this what law is all about?

Thank you.

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