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Confronted by uncomfortable truths, Minister for Law Mr S Jayakumar resorted to obfuscation to minimize the embarrassment the PAP Government had to face in front of a crowd of international lawyers and legal experts at the IBA conference.
Mr Jayakumar during his speech repeated the tired and discredited argument that the rule of law needed to be “contextualised” to suit the needs of different cultures and societies.
He used the example of the much-criticised Internal Security Act to justify the Government’s crackdown on terrorists.
Dr Chee Soon Juan then rose to challenge Mr Jayakumar’s views. The SDP secretary-general asked why the minister did not tell the audience how opposition leaders were detained without trial. He cited the case of Mr Chia Thye Poh who was imprisoned under the ISA for 32 years.
He also pointed out that he was repeatedly sued for defamation and prosecuted for exercising his right to free speech.
The visibly nervous session chair, Mr Francis Neate, asked Dr Chee to wind up his intervention to which the SDP leader said that the IBA had promised him that there would be a meaningful discussion of the rule of law in Singapore during the symposium.
Dr Chee had no intention of paying $180 just to ask questions so that Mr Jaykumar could spew more propaganda.
“The Government has had its say. Now I’m sure the audience would like to hear the other side of the story,” Dr Chee said, turning to the audience which broke out into a loud and sustained applause.
Seeing this, Mr Neate retreated and allowed Dr Chee to continue.
When it came to Mr Jayakumar’s turn to respond, he evaded the questions and charges by resorting to the time-honoured PAP tactic of attacking the person, saying that Dr Chee was trying to turn the symposium into a theatre of Singapore politics.
There is a saying that it you cannot stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. In choosing to speak at the symposium which was opened to the public, surely the Minister should have been prepared to face questions about the Government’s authoritarian ways, especially at a forum entitled The Rule of Law.
The minister feigned hurt and gave the impression that he was responding to Dr Chee “out of respect to the Chairman and IBA delegates.” The truth is that the audience would not have it any other way.
And when he finished answering, no one applauded.
In fact, the Government had tried to prevent the symposium from being opened to the public. But it could not do so without inflicting more damage to its reputation.
Failing to stop the symposium from being opened to the public, the Government tried to get the foreign speakers to submit a written copy of their speeches. This apparently met with consternation from the some of the invited speakers.
US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s name was originally on the list but was taken off at the last minute.
This was just as well because, as with the other speakers, the subject of his speech would probably have been at variance with Mr Jayakumar’s. Mr Hisashi Owada, a Japanese judge with the International Court of Justice, reiterated that the rule of law should not be confused with the rule by law, a point repeatedly made by the Singapore Democrats.
Another speaker, Ms Ambiga Sreenevasam who was the president of the Malaysian Bar Council (MBC), described how the MBC had defended the independence of the judiciary from interference by the Executive by going to jail if necessary.
Mr Albie Sachs, a judge in South Africa, gave a moving speech that received a standing ovation. Describing his ordeal when he was detained without trial by the South African apartheid government even though he was white, Justice Sachs said that he had struggled with the blacks for equality.
With only a stump protruding from his right shoulder, the judge revealed how he survived a bomb attack that ripped off his right arm. He declared that the rule of law must be in place to protect human dignity, freedom and democracy.
During the breaks, many of the delegates congratulated Dr Chee for his intervention. One of them said: “We didn’t know that it was that bad. Frankly, I’m appalled that the IBA held the conference here.”
Another lawyer from Asia commented: “Your Government looked so bad in there. We all know what’s going on.”
A top government lawyer from Europe whispered: “Great speech! It was important.”