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I write in the wake of two events in recent weeks that have added during 2005 to more open challenges to, or questions about, Singapore’s human rights and political status quo.
First, the execution of Australian Van Tuong Nguyen, aged 25, and the raw edge that his senseless death leaves. But there is one certainty: Singapore is now recognised internationally as a leader in executions, and other cases (see below) may receive more publicity as a result.
And second, the death in Canada of former Singapore President C V Devan Nair, who became a severe critic of then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, was persecuted and went into exile. Extensive media coverage of his death referred — at least in the international media — to Mr Nair’s continuing criticism of former political ally Mr Lee and their rival libel suits into recent years. Mr Nair was a founder of the independent Singapore and an acknowledged trade union leader. He was buried December 10, Human Rights Day, in Hamilton, Ontario.
In October, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong again called for a more “inclusive” society, while stating that a free-wheeling democracy and gay-[p]ride parades would not work in Singapore. Those engaged in last year’s unprecedented challenges comment that, nevertheless, there is no real movement in that direction by the government.
The Star article on C V Devan Nair wrote that “PAP dissenters like Nair, Ong Teng Cheong and J B Jeyaretnam show how politics is shifting in the minds of the new generation….[T]he PAP will find that governing in the new era isn’t easy at all”. (18/12 http://www.singaporedemocrat.org)
The following information has come to me from reliable sources in recent months, though is not always validated by AI or falls within the context in which AI works. I would appreciate any updating.
For the latest AI documents, please check our website at www.amnesty.org, or www.amnesty.ca, or www.asipacific.amnesty.org The North American academic study group on Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei now regularly summarises relevant AI information. (Editor: Ron Provencher [email protected])
Coordinator for Singapore and Malaysia
Amnesty International Canada
Death penalty and related matters
– Van Tuong Nguyen: The campaign to save the 25-year-old Australian involved a small but growing number of Singaporeans and became a public issue in Australia itself for citizens, government, religious communities, NGOs and media. AI Australia spearheaded the campaign with letter-writing, candle-light vigils, government approaches and other events. AI’s International Secretariat issued worldwide appeals.
But despite widespread and high-level appeals, Van Tuong Nguyen was executed on 2 December under the Misuse of Drugs Act for drug trafficking. AI considered his case met Singapore’s criteria for an expectation of clemency: he had shown remorse, confessed at the earliest opportunity and cooperated fully with the authorities. The Singapore High Commissioner to Australia defended the death penalty as not a breach of international law and claimed it had a deterrent value. ((ST 1/12) AI continues to urge a moratorium on all executions with a view to complete abolition.
For the second time this year, campaigners in Singapore against the death penalty — including the Anti Death Penalty Committee, the Think Centre and opposition leader Dr Chee Soon Juan — spoke publicly at home and abroad and held public events. Dr Chee rejected suggestions that his comments made him a traitor out to undermine Singapore.
Senior nun Sister Susan Chia described the death penalty as cruel and inhumane and a violation of the right to life. The sister asked Singapore’s leaders to seek alternatives. Nuns in her constituency had cared for Van Tuong Nguyen’s mother, Kim Nguyen, and his twin brother, while they were in Singapore. Some Singaporean campaigners stressed the utter cruelty of the death penalty or its lack of deterrent effect.
Others accused the Singapore government of hypocrisy in maintaining a relationship with drug-trafficking in Myanmar. The fairness of trials — especially the presumption of guilt and the mandatory death penalty — were referred to.
The Think Centre highlighted its continuing campaign on Human Rights Day, December 10, saying that no human right was more sacrosanct than the right to life.
The AI Australia campaign, organised by Anti-Death Penalty Coordinator Tim Goodwin, reached many Australians, thousands of whom became participants. Many have now joined the AI Australia Anti-Death Penalty network. Hundreds of Australians sent letters to the Singapore authorities, and some 450, 000 signatures were collected on what was reportedly the biggest petition ever. Australia’s Catholic bishops and the Vatican were among those who called for clemency. Australian government leaders, the UN Special Rapporteur on executions, and human rights organizations within and outside Singapore all appealed.
Among Canadian letter-writers, lawyer Fergus O’Connor wrote: “we have learned that state killing is divisive and not purposive…..[D]rugs are a health problem….To employ the death penalty in a drug case is grossly disproportionate punishment.” The Canadian government assures me that it is active on human rights in Singapore. However, I have been given no information on action on specific cases, and the Canadian government appears to fear that such action could be damaging.
Every Singapore campaigner or observer will be aware of the massive media coverage by Australian and international media, with frequent interviews with Tim Goodwin and references to AI’s 2004 report Singapore: The death penalty — A hidden toll of executions (ASA 36/001/2004) Every day, hard-hitting articles were published to a previously unknown extent. Representative among them was coverage by Eric Ellis, who wrote: “The looming execution has sparked yet another debate over Singapore’s capital punishment program, leading the country’s critics to wonder whether Singapore could become ‘a better place than this’…..The underbelly of this city-state has been exposed by the Nguyen matter and Singapore’s tight leadership coterie — so used to control — is powerless to do much about it….It’s been a bad few months for Singapore’s image abroad”. (Bulletin 30/11) Michael Grattan in The Age writes: “Singapore’s attitude is barbaric, pure and simple.”
– Iwuchu Amara Tochi, 19 and Okele Nelson Malachy, both Nigerians , both facing the death penalty for drug trafficking, along with other foreigners, are highlighted by the Think Centre through its online petition. www.petition.com/TCAction/petition.html
– Briton Michael McCrae, accused of murdering his Singapore driver, has been brought back to Singapore from Australia — prior to the execution of Van Tuong Nguyen — and charged in court. He was accompanied by an official from the British High Commission. He was to undergo a psychiatric test after claiming he was suffering from stress at the time of the alleged offence. (AFP 5/10)
– G. Kirshnasamy Naidu was accused of murdering his wife, Chitrabathy Nanayanasamy in May 2004. He said he was a happy man as his wife “died in my arms”. (ST 6/10, 10/11) )
– The lawyer of Filipina domestic Guen Aguilar, was to consider seeking a lesser charge to save her from the death penalty on the grounds of her psychiatric report. She is accused of murdering a compatriot. (Inquirer News Service 15/10)
– Indonesian maid Barokah, charged with murdering her 75-year-old employer, faces the death penalty if convicted. (ST 21/10)
– Liew Meng Choon, 65, was arrested after the death of his wife, following an argument. (ST 27/10)
– Lim Ah Seng, 37, was charged with the murder of his Indonesian wife, Riana Agustina, 26, after a four-hour stand-off. ([email protected] 4/11) )
– A Chinese national was stabbed to death in December. He was an “overstayer” in his mid-twenties. The owners of the flat in which he was staying could face legal problems for harbouring an illegal immigrant. (ST 10/12)
– Ngu Mei Mei was charged with ordering her Indonesian maid Yanti to climb from a window to hang out laundry December 2003. Yanti fell to her death. Ngu Mei Mei faces a possible three-month jail sentence and/or S$250 fine. (ST 16/12)
Freedom of expression
– The European Union sent a delegation to Singapore in November, which met with Dr Chee Soon Juan and J B Jeyaretnam as well as with government representatives.
– Dr Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, met with the European Union delegation to Singapore in November. He was criticised by the government for his efforts, including media work in Australia, on behalf of Van Tuong Nguyen. He was said to have undermined Singapore by aligning himself with other Western democracies. (ST 24/11). Dr Chee called upon Singapore to end the death penalty and “become a democracy….Drug abuse in rates in countries such as Finland, Japan, Mexico, and Sweden, where there is no death penalty,…are not higher than the rates in Singapore.” (Australian 24/11) Dr Chee protested the Straits Times’ refusal to publish in full his letter regarding attacks on him following his allegations that Singapore has investments with Burmese drug dealer Lo Hsing Han. (www.singapore-democrat 13/12)
Dr Chee is quoted by Reuters as calling for civil disobedience against “unjust laws” and asserting that the coming election will not bring reform. Referring to Gandhi’s non-violent opposition to British colonisers and the US civil rights movement, he said Singapore needed “free speech and a free press”. (Reuters 24/11)
– J B Jeyaretnam: Met with a member of the European Union delegation to Singapore in November. A consensus resolution at the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s 177th session in Geneva in October was adopted:
Deeply regretting that Mr Jeyaretnam, who is now 75 years old, was not granted a discharge [from bankruptcy]…so that he remains debarred from practising as a lawyer and may be debarred from standing in the next elections.
Cannot share the Speaker’s view that this case involves purely private interests without any political connotation.
Deeply regrets having to conclude, as it did in 2002, that the state of affairs in the bankruptcy proceeding clearly suggests that Mr Jeyaretnam was targeted for the purpose of making and keeping him bankrupt, thereby debarring him from politics.
J B Jeyaretnam issued a statement 12 December regarding the government’s portrayal of an earlier Privy Council ruling: “the PAP government is resorting to chicanery to hide the truth from Singaporeans about the Privy Council’s verdict on the ‘convictions’ I suffered at the hands of the Singapore courts….It is completely dishonest”.
A government spokesperson was quoted by The Star in January as asserting that libel law is “what keeps the system clean and honest”. Pointing to libel law used against people voicing concerns about benefits enjoyed by staff of the National Kidney Foundation, The Star posed the question as to whether the defamation law protects wrongdoings by “the rich and powerful”. (1/1)
– Martyn See: announced that a new 49-minute DVD is now available, an interview with former prisoner of conscience Said Zahari, who was arrested in 1963 in Operation Coldstore with more than one hundred people, all allegedly involved in “leftist” or “communist” activities. He was held without charge or trial 17 years under the ISA . Only Chia Thye Poh was held longer. Martyn See writes: “Ex-detainees…are often reluctant to publicise their experiences. Zahari’s 17 Years marks the first time that an ex-political detainee has broken his silence on film.”
A number of Canadian writers and artists have become active about Martyn See’s situation. AI Canada participants in the annual December 10 Human Rights Day Write-a-Thon sent letters to the Singapore authorities about the case and an AI appeal was placed on the website of Singapore Democratic Party. As yet, he has not been prosecuted under the Films Act. The case was also included on the AI Asia Pacific Regional Office website in Chinese, as well as in the AI members’ newsletter. The Films Act was expected to be brought up at a meeting of legal and media professionals at Singapore’s Supreme Court to debate the relationship between the law and the media. (ST 21/10)
– Three of four peaceful demonstrators, who were asked to disperse by police in August, filed a motion in court against the Home Minister and the Police Commissioner. Ms Chee Siok Chin, Ms Monica Kumar and Mr Yap Keng Ho had staged a public protest in the wake of reports of the National Kidney Foundation’s (NKF) spending on luxury items and a S$600,000 salary for its CEO. The organization’s patron, the wife of senior minister Goh Chok Tong, had called the salary “peanuts”.
The three protesters said they were asking for Court guidance on “whether or not the police acted unlawfully” in asking them to disperse. (AP 30/9) High Court judge V K Rajah ruled that Singapore citizens had no right to stage protests because this would undermine the stable and upright stature of Singapore. (www.singaporedemocrat.org)
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) expressed alarm over the court’s ruling, saying it “signals that Singapore citizens cannot express their concerns over the government and its policies even through peaceful protest, even though this right is supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution. ” (www.seapabkk.org) The Singapore Democratic Party will hold a public forum 13 January to discuss the NKF concern and larger issues of government transparency and accountability.
– Outgoing US Ambassador to Singapore Frank Lavin warned that the government “will pay an increasing price for not alllowing full participateion of its citizens”. His successor, Patricia Herbold, a lawyer, said she intended focusing more on openness in Singapore and its political system. (FT 13/10)
– Warwick University, UK, decided not to set up a campus in Singapore due to concerns about limits on academic freedom. (FT 14/10) Journalist Professor Cherian George was accused of advocating support for a civil disobedience campaign after writing an article on the subject. (FT 20/10)
– Singapore government criticised Reporters Without Borders (RSF) for giving it low marks on press freedom. RSF had placed Singapore at 140 out of 167 countries. The Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts claimed “our globalised economy thrives on a free flow of information”. (AFP 24/10)
Former PM Goh Chok Tong defended Singapore’s pro-government media, saying that a liberal press was not necessarily good for every country. (AFP 1/11) RSF requested a meeting with Prime MInister Lee Hsien Loong during his visit to France in order to convey concrete recommendations for the improvement of press freedom in Singapore. (IFEX 29/11 http://.www.rsf.org)
– Bloggers are amongst those Singaporeans who increasingly press for greater freedom of expression. A Straits Times letter from Teh Peijing from Texas, USA, calls for changes to the law, especially with regard to defamation suits. (5/10) Several writers asked whether more needs to be done to promote racial integration and whether the Sedition Act is necessary (referring to two bloggers sentenced for seditious acts) (ST 10?/ 10) Servicemen have been barred from posting unauthorized accounts and pictures on the Internet in what AFP termed “a further tightening of restrictions on the growing blogging community”. (AFP 20/11)
– Journalist Cherian George called attempts by opposition activists to inject civil disobedience into Singapore’s body politic an “intriguing challenge to the PAP’s ideological hold.” (ST 10/10 — article based on an academic paper in Asia Research Institute’s working paper series www.ari.nus.edu.sg)
– Theatre Director Benny Lim of The Fun Stage was ordered to remove all mention of the death penalty in a play shortly to be staged. “Human Lefts”, which dealt with Shanmugam Murugesu’s execution in May, was also barred from referring to any political leader. (Reuters 3/12) An art display featuring nooses had Nguyen’s execution number removed by Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts, which threatened legal action if an Australian newspaper published a picture of the work. (Age 4/12)
Andrew Kuan, who applied unsuccessfully in 2005 to stand as a candidate for the Presidency, withdrew his defamation suit against MP Inderjit Singh, will pay legal costs and provide a written apology, saying “Mr Singh has kindly agreed to forgive me and to reduce the amount of costs he is entltled to recover from me”. (ST and Channel News Asia 10/1)
– Jehovah’s Witnesses: Latest information puts 13 individuals, all under 25, in Singapore’s Armed Forces Detention barracks. Eight expect to be charged a second time after the completion of their first sentence.
– Suspected Islamic militants: 36 alleged terrorists are reported detained indefinitely under the ISA. Mohammad Sharif bin Rahmat was detained under the ISA in November. Ali Ridhan bin Abdullah was released after reportedly responding positively to religious counselling. Seventeen others are under Restriction Orders, which ban them from leaving Singapore without permission. (AFP 4/11)
– The 1987 detainees: In his book The Justice Game, Geoffrey Robertson QC, who acted for the 1987 ISA detainees, quotes then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew as saying “It is not the practice, nor will I allow such subversives to get away by insisting that I produce evidence that will stand up in a court of law”. Robertson comments: “Never have I acted for such good people….The struggle to free the detainees was a game which Lee Kuan Yew, himself an able lawyer, regularly played and always won.” The Justice Game, with its many references to Robertson’s missions for AI and to injustice in Singapore, is described as “an attempt to explain why justice matters…because we have an elemental need for reassurance that there is some chance of winning a legal contest against the powers that be”. (Vintage, 1999 ISBN 0099581914)
– Said Zahari will shortly publish the second part of his memoirs as one of Singapore’s longest-held prisoners of conscience — 17 years — under Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew without charge or trial. In the book, he refers to now Minister mentor as an “Anglo-American pawn” acting on behalf of “neo-colonial political, economic and strategic interests of Britain and the USA during the Cold War. He relates the physical and psychological tortures inflicted on fellow detaines such as Lim Chin Siong and his resulting mental illnesses, and calls for the abolition of the Internal Security Act. Said Zahari has lived in Malaysia since 1994. (www.Malaysiakini.com 9/1)
– Human Rights Watch issued a 124-page report on foreign domestic employees: Domestic Workers Suffer Grave Abuses. HRW reports on physical and sexual violence, food deprivation and confinement, listing 147 individuals who had died from workplace accidents or suicide since 1999. The report points to payment of only half the wages received by Singaporeans in similar occupations. Contracts for the 150,000 workers (primarily from Indonesia, Philippines and Sri Lanka) will in January allow them one day off each month (http://hrw.org/reports/2005/Singapore1205/). Singapore authorities told the BBC that the report was a “gross exaggeration”. (7/12)
– Police are now allowed to carry Taser X26 stun guns, which are imported from the USA. The guns send a 50,000-volt electric current through the body in five seconds. (ST 28/9)
– A clemency petition was submitted in October to the President to spare mentally-impaired teenager Iskandar Muhamad Nordin from the cane. He had been sentenced to two years in prison and nine strokes of the cane for molesting a woman, and had tried to represent himself in court. (2 /10 [email protected]) Deputy Prime Minister and Law Minister S. Jayakumar commented that it was “neither desirable nor practical….” for the law to go easier on offenders with a low IQ. (ST 19/10)
– Mohamad Yazid Gani was sentenced to the maximum 24 strokes of the cane and 13 years’ jail, after attacking an apparently drunk woman who later died. He had been previously imprisoned for heroin possession. (ST 11/10 )
– Chua Beng Hin, 42, found guilty of paying three teenagers to kill his former girl-friend, was sentenced to five years and six strokes. (AFP 18/11)
– Canadian company EnerNorth Industries Inc. applied to an Ontario (Canada) court to dismiss a US $5.4 million judgment against it by a Singapore court, payable to Singapore company Oakwell Engineering Ltd. EnerNorth claimed that the Singapore justice system is corrupt and unlawful: “Singapore is ruled by a small oligarchy who control all facets of the Singapore state including the judiciary, which is utterly politicised.” (Edmonton Journal 16/11)