AI update on Singapore

March 15, 2005
Singapore Democrats

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Dear friends,

The last few months have been dominated by the threatened deportations and actual arrests in Malaysia of undocumented migrant workers, amongst whom there are asylum seekers and UN-recognised refugees. International concern has been unprecedented and has included a strong protest letter from the Canadian Labour Congress. The the actions of the Malaysian government underscore the importance of the International Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and their Families, which came into force in 2003, but which Malaysia has not ratified.

Human rights campaigners in both Malaysia and Singapore continue their courageous efforts. Despite facing imprisonment, Irene Fernandez speaks up for foreign migrants, and opposition leader Lim Kit Siang seeks answers on ISA detainees and executions. Dr Chee Soon Juan, facing bankruptcy and the failure of his countersuit against Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, refuses to “run on fear”. These are only three among many courageous champions of justice and freedom.

Founder of AI in 1961, British lawyer Peter Benenson has died, aged 83. He is remembered as a modest and self-effacing man, who refused all honours. His mind remained fixed, not on what had been achieved, but on what had not been accomplished and the countless victims still to be rescued: “The candle burns not for us, but for all those whom we failed to rescue from prison, who were shot on the way to prison, who were tortured, who were kidnapped, who were ‘disappeared’. That is what the candle is for.” Please see the tribute to him “The man who decided it was time for a change” written by Canadian Richard Reoch, who was for many years the head of public information at AI’s International Secretariat, and who worked and travelled with Peter in his later years. (www.amnesty.org ORG 10/002/2005)

I regret that my requests to meet the High Commissioners of Malaysia and Singapore to Canada have been ignored. However, AI member Dr Jennifer Wade was able to speak briefly to Singapore’s Consul General in Vancouver in February and raise a number of concerns. And continuing discussions with Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs have resulted in assurances and initiatives on Singapore by Canada’s Minister for Foreign Affairs (see below).

The following notes should be read for the most part as reported information. Details and context are not validated by AI.
Further information on any issue is welcome. AI documentation is available at www.amnesty.org, www.amnesty.ca, and www.asiapacific.amnesty.org

Yours sincerely,

Margaret John
Coordinator for Singapore and Malaysia
Amnesty International Canada

Notes: Singapore, March 2005

1. HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGNERS

Letter from Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew.

Following continuing dialogue between Amnesty International and Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department, particularly in recent months on the situation of Dr Chee Soon Juan, Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew responded, assuring AI of Canada’s concern about, and initiatives on, Singapore. His letter states:

“Mr Chee’s case is well known to us. Representatives from the Canadian High Commission have been following this case for a long time and are active in sharing and exchanging information with like-minded diplomatic missions in Singapore….We believe that it is important that the judicial process be fair and transparent…Should we have concerns about the judicial process, we are prepared to raise them in a constructive manner…The Canadian government will continue its efforts to improve the human rights situation in Singapore and in the region and to raise this issue at every opportunity. Our representatives will also continue to raise human rights concerns with their Singaporean counterparts and to attend political trials whenever feasible…The promotion and protection of human rights are a key aspect of Canadian foreign policy. Freedom of expresson is a particular focus of our efforts, as demonstrated, for instance, by our leading a resolution on this issue at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.”

Canada’s Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, Senator Raynell Andreychuk and other Canadian parliamentarians have been kept informed about Dr Chee’s case and in some cases have met him.

I have also been informed that Canadian High Commission officials continue to meet with a range of political analysts, journalists and representatives of NGOs to keep informed about Dr Chee’s situation and to promote dialogue between government officials and members of civil society. In addition, officials from the Southeast Asia Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs have registered Canadians’ concern regarding freedom of expression and the use of judicial measures to limit it during a meeting with an official of Singapore’s Permanent Mission to the UN, which also acts as High Commission to Canada.

* Dr Chee Soon Juan: Singapore’s High Court ordered him in January to pay former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong S$500,000 in defamation damages. He was found guilty of defaming them in August 2002 for questioning their use of public funds to lend then-President Suharto of Indonesia US$10 billion at the height of Asia’s financial crisis in 1998. Although Dr Chee later retracted the statement, he was charged and convicted of defamation. The fine means financial ruin for him, effectively bankrupting him. As a bankrupt, he is barred from seeking election to Parliament. He has issued a statement denouncing the court’s decision, vowing not to be silenced. He says the court’s decision “comes as no surprise. I am merely the latest in a long line of opposition politicians who have been sued and bankrupted by PAP leaders…The tactic of the PAP is two-fold — to terrorize Singaporeans so they keep their heads bowed and mouths shut. And to make critics bankrupt so they cannot stand for elections.” Dr Chee says he refuses to “run on fear” and will continue to work for political and human rights. www.singaporedemocrat.org)

Dr Chee’s countersuit against former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was dismissed in early March by the court, on the grounds that he had refused to “come clean on the fundings and support he has been receiving from foreigners out to damage Singapore and its leaders”. The suit had been filed in December 2001 because Mr Lee called him a “political gangster, a liar and a cheat” who was being manipulated and funded by foreigners. (ST2/3)

AI Canada’s appeal for Dr Chee is available from me at [email protected] Further action is planned.

* The Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia (ARDA) is to study the election system in Singapore. Their visit to the country, scheduled for 8 – 9 January, has on its committee:

– Dr Paul Scott, Professor of Modern Chinese and Japanese Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan;
– Mr Herman Vermeer, European MP 2001- 2004, from the Netherlands;
– Martin Lee QC, former chair of the Hong Kong Democratic Party and prominent human rights champion;
– Earl Parreno, senior journalist in the Philippines;
– Michael J. Mitchell, partner at Orion Strategies in Washington, USA, a consulting group specialising in strategic communications and political advocacy.

A public forum, moderated by J B Jeyaretnam, was planned for Singaporeans to meet the ARDA team.
(www.asiademocracy.biz/content_view.php?)

* Think Centre – In November, called for citizenship education to be formalised: “Everyone is born with equal human rights…In Asia and other parts of the world, in the past, the peoples were denied their human rights…Today, people suffer when they are tortured, discriminated…Many countries, including Singapore, have enshrined the UDHR in the constitution…”
– Its Forum to celebrate International Human Rights Day 10 December 2004 presented Ron Chandran-Dudley with its Human Rights award. “In the aftermath of the September 11 business of terror and counter-terror measures, the world is experiencing an unprecedented erosion of human rights.” Thus “respect for human dignity, and justice and peace among communities” are being undermined. It was noted that Singapore had made “small steps” but not giant leaps in improving human rights. Non-Constituency MP Steve Chia spoke of the need for more alternative voices in Parliament. J B Jeyaretnam expressed concern that people were fearful of asserting their human rights.
(www.thinkcentre.org/article.cfm?Article1D-2502

Dr Jennifer Wade speaks to Consul General: My earlier requests for a meeting with Singapore’s High Commissioner have not been answered. However, longterm AI member Dr Wade had the opportunity to raise a number of concerns with Singapore’s Consul General Foo Chin Kwok in Vancouver, following her attendance at a lunch he sponsored. She reports: “When I asked about the high number of executions in Singapore…I was told I was obviously unable to understand how unique and individual Singapore was. I said I was a longtime AI member, and he said ‘Oh believe me, we know lots about your organization!’ He went on to say that few Westerners know drugs are absolutely not permitted and drug-carrying will call for the death penalty. I pointed out that those being executed are often the poor migrants and the impoverished. His answer was, ‘These are often dirty miserable murderers and such people’…I had to mention how strange it was that in the forty-year existence of the country, only one party had been in power…eminent critics had suffered from defamation and even bankruptcy. When I mentioned the names of people, he said some people had been crazy and told lies.”

2. DEATH PENALTY: “world leader”

* Members of Amnesty International Canada marked Human Rights Day 10 December 2004 by a massive letter-writing effort. Among the letters written were those protesting executions in Singapore. www.amnesty.ca/write-a-thon/guide.php

* Journalists continue to highlight Singapore’s “world record” in executions: Writing in The Age (9/11), Michael Backman describes “Asia’s killing machinery” as “still running hot”. Focussing on the impending execution of Australian Nguyen Tuong Van in Singapore, he states that “per capita, it is Singapore that is world leader in executions….Singapore’s rule of law is not all that it should be. There is no trial by jury. Judges decide cases, usually acting alone…Grumblings are heard that the law is not applied equally among the races…it’s sometimes said non-Chinese get harsher punishments.” Hopes are fading for Nguyen Tuong Van, convicted of drug trafficking, despite a clemency appeal from Australian Prime Minister John Howard. His only hope now is an appeal to President S R Nathan. (SMH 2/2)

* Briton Michael McCrae, wanted in Singapore for a double murder in 2002, but who had fled to Australia, has requested deportation for trial in Britain instead of Singapore. Australian laws do not permit extradition to a country to face charges that carry the death penalty. Singapore has, however, given a guarantee that he will not be executed if found guilty. (ST 25/2)

* Indonesian maid Sumyati, 24, originally charged with the murder of a two-year-old boy, pleaded guilty to culpable homicide and was sentenced to four years. (ST 27/11)

* Four commando officers were jailed over a trainee’s “inhumane death”. Hu Enhuai, 19, died in 2003 after his head was repeatedly held under water as part of a survival course. The four officers were given sentences of two to nine months each.

* Twenty-three people, many of them high-profile, were arrested in October on drug charges. Three escaped the gallows after police chemists extracted impurities from the drugs and thus reduced the amount of drugs for which there is a mandatory death penalty. Instead, they face 20 to 30 years in jail and up to 15 strokes of the cane. The three have now absconded and their whereabouts are unknown. Interpol is searching for them. Seven others have been given jail terms of from 11 months to 2 1/4 years. (ST 19/11, 10/12, 19/12, 21/12, 22/12, 26/12. 24/2. ; Reuters 6/12; AFP 17/1)

* The government is to show anti-cocaine advertisements in the Singapore Tatler and The Peak that will target the rich and the powerful, illustrating the ruin that drug abuse can do to careers and the pain caused to families. (ST 21/2)

* Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng reported a sharp drop in drug consumption and major criminal activities during 2004. The number of people arrested for drug abuse was nearly halved to 950 from 1,809 the previous year. (AFP 3/2) Singapore’s narcotics agency reported a fall of nearly 50% in the number of drug abusers arrested last year — but said synthetic drugs were a continuing source of concern. (ST 16/2)

3. ALLEGED ISLAMIC MILITANTS

* Some 36 alleged Islamic militants reportedly remain detained, eighteen others having been conditionally released. In January, the government announced the release of Othman bin Mohamed, who had been detained three years, sa ying he had “responded positively to counselling”. Mohamed Agus bin Ahmad Selani was again detained in January after he had “repeatedly violated” restrictions imposed after his release in January 2002 by allegedly continuing to associate with members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines. Mohamed Aslam bin Yar Ali Khan, detained since January 2003, faced a two-year extension of his detention. (AFP 13/1)

4. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

* Reporteurs Sans Fronti?es (RSF) ranked Singapore as being the lowest developed country in terms of press freedom. The ST (19/11) said Singapore’s reputation as a global city will not be affected. According to Malaysia’s reform movement ALIRAN (November), Freedom House ranks Singapore higher than Malaysia, while RSF ranks Singapore 25 places below Malaysia. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew reportedly dismissed the RSF ranking at the Singapore Foreign Correspondents Association dinner, saying “You are not going to tell us how to run our country.”

* A Media Watch on Singapore is under consideration by human rights campaigners. No further information is currently available.

* Southeast Asia Press Association’s Executive Director in Bangkok informed James Gomez that Singapore is likely to be included in future regional projects.

* Pranay Gupta, a USA-based writer, was dismissed from the Straits Times in November after writing an article on information given to him alleging racism in Singapore. In an open letter to the Prime Minister, he asserts that the episode “reinforces the stereotype that many outsiders have of Singapore as an intolerant place.”

* Ross Worthington’s book Governance in Singapore is out of print and unavailable. I understand that publisher Routledge’s plans to re-print have been shelved. It has been highly acclaimed by human rights campaigners.

* Roystan Tan’s film Cut was shown at Bristol (UK) Brief Encounters film festival in November. Time Magazine named him an “Asian Hero”. (Gdn 3-9/12/04)

* Organisers of a gay Christmas party criticised the authorities for banning it. The police termed the party immoral and against the public interest. (AFP 15/12)

5. TORTURE/ILL-TREATMENT

* TV presenter Vidya Shankar Aiyun was not caned as sentenced because prison doctors found he had a slipped disc. He had been convicted of molesting a female colleague. He was to return to his native India on his release. (AFP 23/12)

6. UNDOCUMENTED MIGRANTS

* Thirty-three illegal immigrants from India and Bangladesh were caught in February. They face possible jail sentences up to six months and a minimum three strokes. (ST 18/2)

* Two illegal migrants from Myanmar were caught trying to swim out of Singapore. If convicted, they can be sentenced to up to six months in jail and at least three strokes. (AFP 24/12)