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21 Nov 06
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION: Further restrictions but increasing domestic and international criticism
1. World Bank(WB)/International Monetary Fund(IMF) meetings in Singapore in September: The government banned outdoor demonstrations and required foreign participants to apply for a permit for indoor events inside the convention hall lobby. It cited the threat of terrorism and concern that public protests would be disruptive. (14/8 Age) The authorities refused to admit to Singapore 28 foreign activists, judging them to be “characters involved in disruptive activities” in the past and therefore a security concern. (12/9 ST) All were accredited with the WB and IMF and had been invited to attend the annual meetings. Large numbers of foreign critics of WB/IMF policies protested in public — not in Singapore but on the Indonesian island of Batam. (31/8 [email protected]) Leading foreign newspapers were told to steer clear of domestic politics.
CRITICS: Dr Chee Soon Juan staged public protests during the meetings and could face up to six months in prison and/or a fine for organizing an illegal assembly. (30/8 Reuters) (See his speeches, “Empowering Singaporeans”, http://dumpyourtv.blogspot.com/2006/09/videos-from-empowering-singaporeans.html and http://singaporeelection.blogspot.com) The World Bank said that Singapore should allow outdoor protests at its meeting. (22/8, 4/9 Bloomberg) The WB and IMF issued an “unprecedented rebuke” to Singapore in a press release over the ban on accredited activists invited to attend their annual meetings. Some 500 civil society representatives from over 45 countries were accredited. The WB and IMF “strongly urge[d] the Singapore government to act swiftly and reverse their decision”. (7/9 www.imf.org/external/np/sec/pr/2006/pr06193.htm Paul Wolfowitz, President of the WB, commented that “enormous damage” had been done to Singapore’s reputation. (16/9 AFP, 11/9 Age) Sinapan Samydorai, speaking for the Asian Forum on Human Rights and Development, told the press “The world will see the reality of Singapore.” Antonio Tricarrio, coordinator for the Campaign to reform the WB, called it “a major blow…terribly embarrassing”. (dpa 10/9) The European Presidency issued a statement: “These activists have been accredited by the WB and should have the right to participate in the meetings….The Presidency attaches great importance to an open and constructive dialogue between civil society and the World Bank institutions” (13/9 www.eurunion.org) Mark Mobius, a fund manager at Templeton, while declining to comment specifically on Singapore, said to Reuters that “In general, if there is a climate of fear or intimidation, it’s a drag on investments”. The Reuters article (30/8) reported that the moves “highlighted the contradiction between Singapore’s desire to become Asia’s leading business centre and its determination to maintain the tight controls that have given the country decades of stability….[B]ut such steps…did not go unnoticed in the business world”.
2. Further restrictions on foreign press: The government told the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), the International Herald Tribune, Financial Times, Newsweek and Time that they must comply with conditions required of offshore papers under Sect. 23 (3) of the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act. All five were required to post bonds of S$200,000 and to have legal representatives in Singapore to deal with any lawsuits that might arise against the publisher. FEER’s critical article on the treatment of Dr Chee Soon Juan, “Singapore’s ‘Martyr’, Chee Soon Juan”, was followed by defamation suits filed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. The initial demand was that the article be removed from FEER’s website, that an apology be issued and costs be paid to the plaintiffs.(14/7 ST [email protected]) FEER refused and planned to post all the legal correspondence and the offending piece on Dr Chee on its website (www.feer.com). The Ministry of Information, Communicationa and the Arts made it a criminal offence to subscribe to, import or reproduce the journal for distribution. FEER questioned the authority of Singapore to hear the lawsuits and awaited a high court ruling on November 15: FEER has no employees in Singapore, therefore challenges the right of Singapore to enforce damages.
CRITICS: The Wall Street Journal called such government moves “absurd”. (6/10 http://online.wsj.com) The Asia Sentinel (29/9) reported that Singapore had made “selling a news magazine a crime….Singapore shot itself in the foot with a crackdown on the press in the run up to the meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund”. The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Executive Director Joel Simon was reported as charging ” Singapore’s senior leaders are once again using the civil courts to silence the media and stifle criticism. This figleaf fools no one”. (3/8 www.channelnewsasia.com, www.todayonline.com, AFP, Kyodo News Agency, http://asia.news.yahoo.com) Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the tightening of restrictions as pressure for self-censorship and referred to government control also of local press. RSF again placed Singapore low down in the Worldwide Press Freedom Index: at 146 out of 168, and in the company of Somalia and Russia.(www.internet.rsf.org, 5/8 AP, [email protected]) The Voice of America commented: “The government is renowned for initiating lawsuits and blocking advertising or circulation to control coverage of the city-state”. (7/8) The Nation wrote that the government “had overreacted” to the FEER article (9/8).
3. Singapore was proposing to tighten the laws governing the Internet and public gatherings. A one-month public consultation was to be undertaken. (10/11 FT) Nineteen new offences were proposed and an expansion of 19 existing offences. At an international conference in Singapore, Digital Terror, concern was expressed over terrorist use of the Internet and the need for governments to deal with such use. (14/11 AP)
CRITICS: The Southeast Asia Press Alliance called the plans a further curtailment of already limited freedoms in Singapore, a country “notorious for its intolerance to basic free expression”. (10/11 http://www.seapabkk.org) The Financial Times reported that prosecutions and higher fines were planned, despite the Prime Minister’s promise of an “open society”.
Dr Chee Soon Juan and colleagues: “This government does not tolerate any protests….We will go ahead to protest and we are prepared to face up to the consequences”
* Dr Chee Soon Juan, Secretary-General of the small opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), continues to call for fundamental human rights and democracy. He publicly opposes government restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, despite possible penalties. The fine for unlawful assembly, for example, is S$1,000 and/or six months in prison. (31/8 Reuters, 11/9 Can) Appeals can cost the defendant S$10,000. A DVD interview with Dr Chee can be accessed at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=8157768553173785296
In organising public street protests during the September World Bank/International Monetary Fund (WB/IMF) meetings in Singapore, Dr Chee stated: “This government does not tolerate any protests….We will go ahead to protest and we are prepared to face up to the consequences”. He was later stopped from handing out leaflets urging an outdoor rally and march, and police blocked his planned march to protest restrictions on freedom of speech. Speaking in public, Dr Chee insisted on knowing why he had not been given a permit to march.”Surely a government as sophisticated as this one, which claims to be a First World government, can give a reason why something cannot be done….As citizens we have rights. Only slaves have no rights”. (16/9 AFP) Dr Chee and other protesters nevertheless held a four-day rally. According to Reuters (19/9), the stand-off was the longest act of disobedience since the 1960s and made headlines worldwide. Later, Dr Chee said “We accomplished far more than we expected” and told the Prime Minister to “open up Singapore…give back the rights to citizens….The people want democracy”. (19/9 S’pore Election Watch http://singaporeelection.blogspot.com) The Singapore Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, assembly and association. (http://statutes.agc.gov.sg). (3/8 http://asia.news.yahoo.com, http://news.morningstar.com); 4/8 [email protected]; 17/8 ST, [email protected]) Videos of Chee Soon Juan speaking to rallies can be seen at http://dumpyourtv.blogspot.com/2006/09/videos-from-empowering-singaporeans.html and at http://singaporeelection.blogspot.com/
* Dr Chee was charged in October for trying to leave Singapore without official permission in April to attend the 4th Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy(WMD) in Turkey. As a bankrupt, he needs permission of the official assignee to travel abroad. (10/10 dpa, www.iht.com, 14/10 AP) His passport was withdrawn.
CRITIC: The WMD stated that “These actions and charges give the appearance of orchestrated efforts to restrain Dr Chee in his efforts to advance democracy in Singapore”. (17/10 http://www.wmd.org)
* Dr Chee and Chee Siok Chin (SDP candidate in the recent election) were found guilty in September of defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in their party newspaper article linking corruption in the National Kidney Foundation to the way the country is run. Dr Chee and Chee Siok Chin, along with their lawyers, had unsuccessfuly challenged the legal process on a number of counts, including the prosecution’s use of a “summary judgment ” (i.e. judgment made without a full court trial), possible bias by two judges, and the absence for reasons of ill-health of their lawyer M Ravi. Dr Chee sent an open letter to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, complaining that he and his sister had to represent themselves in the absence of counsel — Singapore’s lawyers are generally reluctant to take on politically sensitive cases.
MONITOR: Albert Ho, a Hong Kong legislator, monitored developments on behalf of the Asian Human Rights Commission. Developments were widely reported by the international media.
* Dr Chee and two SDP colleagues, Gandhi Ambalan and Yap Keng Ho, were charged with speaking in public without a permit while selling SDP newspapers before the 2006 election. Dr Chee now faces eight counts and could face a prison sentence. The presiding judge ruled as irrelevant a VCD recording of the incident. In the absence of a lawyer, they defended themselves, asserting that the charges were politically motivated. The court refused to allow Dr Chee to pursue a line of questioning regarding possible political pressure on the police to arrest him. The judge also declared as irrelevant Dr Chee’s argument that it would have been pointless to apply for a licence as permits had never been issued to political parties. (26/10 Reuters, [email protected], 8/11 AP) The defendants walked out of the trial, saying that the court’s rulings hampered their ability to mount a defence. (8/11 AP) REPORTED: widely by the international media.
ACTION: – The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) sent a letter to Canada’s Foreign Minister in October, urging Canada and the international community to take further steps against the abuse of Dr Chee’s human rights. The presence of a Canadian High Commission representative at an earlier trial during 2006 was acknowledged. The CAUT pointed to the discrepancy between the Singapore government’s promises to establish a more inclusive, participatory society and the reality of its treatment of Dr Chee. The letter describes Dr Chee as “an academic and activist who has tirelessly promoted freedom of expression, transparency and democracy…he is recognized internationally as a human rights defender.” (20/10 www.caut.ca)
Amnesty International will shortly step up action on Dr Chee.
5. Chee Siok Chin: is facing bankruptcy after failing to pay S$23,550 for legal costs incurred after challenging the move by the police to disperse a peaceful protest in August involving herself and three others. She intends to challenge the bankruptcy order. As a bankrupt, she would not be allowed to contest an election (she ran unsuccessfully for the SDP in the General Election in 2006.) (26/10, Reuters)
6. M Ravi: The Law Society’s highest disciplinary panel suspended him from practice for a year for reportedly showing disrespect to the judiciary. He was counsel for a number of death penalty cases, Falun Gong practitioners and earlier for Dr Chee Soon Juan and his colleagues. Ravi was one of the very few lawyers willing to act in politically sensitive cases. Dissidents have found Singapore’s lawyers reluctant to act in such cases.
ACTION: Ravi travelled to Europe during July, giving press interviews and meeting parliamentarians and human rights activists. (28/10 Reuters)
7. Former President C V Devan Nair: At a memorial service in Malaysia, writer and human rights defender Fan Yew Teng said of him: “…when he realised his errors he went back to basics…when it came finally to questions of justice and freedom and human rights. That, I think, is the most important message that Devan Nair has left for us and future generations”. (25/6) Late in life, Mr Nair became a strong critic of Lee Kuan Yew, left Singapore and settled in Canada, where he spoke frequently about fundamental freedoms, including his opposition to the death penalty.
8. Falun Gong (FG) practitioners were to be tried for illegal assembly Oct 22-25.
Further information on the outcome would be appreciated. FG is not a banned movement in Singapore, but assemblies without a permit are illegal. (18/8 [email protected])
* Ng Chye Huay (Singaporean) and Cheng Luyin (Chinese) were detained in April 2005 after refusing to pay fines for handing out FG VCDs without a permit. (30/7 www.taipeitimes.com)
*Mdm Chen Oei Yu, a 73-year-old Chinese national, was to be repatriated, after the prosecution dropped its case against her. She was one of three FG members who unfurled a “Stop persecution against Falun Gong in China” banner in front of the Chinese embassy in July. Mdm Chen said that her life “would be greatly endangered” if she were sent back to China. Her then defence lawyer, M Ravi (now suspended from practice) pointed to evidence supporting her fears in a UN report, as well as in a report by former Canadian parliamentarian David Kilgour and prominent Canadian lawyer David Matas, referring to organ harvesting involving FG practitioners. Ravi said that he would ask the courts to allow her to stay in Singapore as a material witness in two other cases.
* Nine were on trial for illegal assembly. Ravi alleged several counts of unfair treatment for his clients Erh Boon Tiong and Ms Ng Chye Huay: the prosecution had failed to provide him with the VCD of the incident; and two prosecution witnesses were present when he revealed that he would cite political motivation in his defence. Ravi was reportedly planning to make a presentation to the UN Human Rights Council but was unable to leave Singapore. (6/9 ET)
* British reporter Mr Jaya Gibson (himself a FG practitioner) was denied entry to Singapore in September. He had previously written about the treatment of FG in Singapore as well as the restrictions relating to World Bank/IMF protests, after which he claimed he had been regularly monitored by the police. The authorities reportedly refused to “reveal the reasons [for his deportation] to outsiders”.
9. Film maker Martyn See: Police closed the case against him regarding his documentary on Dr Chee’s civil disorder campaign. He was given a warning rather than a prosecution under the Films Act, which carries a fine of up to S$100,000 or up to two years in prison. No reason was given. The film had been deemed a party political film by the authorities. Martyn See wrote that the warning came after “16 months investigation, three interrogation sessions, 120 questions, and not discounting a covert round of interviews with some friends and associates”. (7/8 http://singaporerebel.blogspot.com, Reuters) In October, he was in Taipei for the screening of “Singapore Rebel”. The video can be seen at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8157768553173785296
The screening was followed by his new film, “Speakers Cornered”, a 27-minute documentary on Dr Chee’s attempt to hold a protest in front of the WB/IMF meetings. (6/10 Taipei Times) (Likely to be posted to a website fairly soon, but snippets available now at http://singaporerebel.blogspot.com/2006/11/speakers-cornered-teaser-when.html)
10. Roystan Tan’s brief and lively documentary on censorship in Singapore, “Cut”: can be seen at http://gssq.blogspot.com/2006/08/happy-national-day-for-my-national-day.html
11. Former ISA detainees speak out:
* Francis Seow’s much-awaited book, Beyond Suspicion: The Singapore Judiciary, will shortly be published — probably before the end of the year. Information on publication date, price and how to order: see http://www.yale.edu/seas/Monographs pre-publication orders are being taken.
* More testimonies of former ISA detainees are available on DVDs: those of Tan Jing Quee and Michael Fernandez. (please contact me for copies of these or of the taped interview with former prisoner of conscience Said Zahari.)
12. Law Society President Philip Jeyaretnam has called for the body to be given freedom to speak out on issues outside the legal profession. The Law Ministry was seen as unlikely to agree. Following the Law Society’s questions on law and freedom of expression issues in the mid-1980s, its president, Francis Seow, was detained and curbs placed on the Law Society’s freedom to comment.
13. An article by “Mr Brown”‘ (Lee Kin Mun) in Today on living costs in Singapore was deemed cynical and non-constructive. (2/8 ST) The Prime Minister said the government was open to criticism, but would respond to untruths that could undermine the government’s authority to govern. The columns by “Mr Brown” were suspended. (21/8 AFP)
COMMENT: The Financial Times reported that the incident “appeared to contradict promises by Lee Hsien Loong…to promote more political discussion [in his statement] ‘We are building a more open society’ “. (21/8 FT)
14. James Gomez: provided a number of articles relating to the General Election, which he had unsuccessfully contested as an opposition candidate and after which the authorities took restrictive steps against him (http://www.jamesgomeznews.com):
— Democracy and the internet in Singapore: The supply of alternative political content during the general elections
— Politics, Democracy and Human Rights in Singapore: seminar 11 August, The Office of Human Rights StudieS
— Freedom of Expression and the media, by James Gomez
— Stability, Risks and Opposition in Singapore (a special issue of the Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies)
15. Gender: The gay and lesbian community, in planning its second annual Pride fest, claimed there was state discrimination. Homosexual acts are banned.( 30/7 AFP)
DEATH PENALTY: one more execution — after questions about the verdict — reported worldwide
For up-to-date death penalty information, please see http://asiadeathpenalty.blogspot.com
— the website of AI Australia’s death penalty/Asia coordinator, Tim Goodwin.
1. Took Leng How: Once again, following worldwide action to stop the execution and questions raised about the conviction, another young man was executed in Singapore. President S R Nathan rejected his plea for clemency despite a split decision by judges at the Court of Appeal and a psychiatrist’s opinion that he was mentally disturbed. Took Leng How, aged 24, was executed 3 November. He had been convicted of the murder of eight-year-old Huang Na in 2004. Dissenting judge at the Court of Appeal believed that Huang Na could have died of a fit, as corroborated by the post mortem, and recommended a conviction of “voluntarily causing hurt”, which carries a sentence of one year in jail and a S$1,000 fine. His case had seen extraordinary street campaigning in Singapore, with members of his family collecting tens of thousands of signatures on a petition.
ACTION: – Key AI members took particularly fast late action (in addition to earlier campaigning) to let the Singapore government know of our concern and to call for a last-minute reprieve. AI Canada’s letter to President Nathan urged Singapore to “take a lead amongst the diminishing number of countries that retain the death penalty and move to consider its abolition….A number of countries have taken that courageous step and have been praised worldwide. Surely, Singapore has that level of bravery to do what is right and honourable”. Numerous human rights organizations worldwide had urged an end to all executions, including that of Took Leng How. International news agencies reported the execution.
2. Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi (Nigerian) and Okele Nelson Malachy (believed South African): Nigeria’s largest human rights group, Civic Liberties Organisation, launched an unsuccessful campaign to press for Nigerian government intervention — a parliamentary motion by Representative Abdul Orah was defeated. It was argued that Tochi had damaged Nigeria’s image and should face the consequences of his crime. ( 1/9 http://asiadeathpenalty.blogspot.com/2006/09/nigeria-wont-act-to-s…) Nigeria abolished the death penalty in 1986. (31/7 www.mg.co.za) The two cases were reported in the Mail and Guardian online (MG), Nigeria. MG quoted their lawyer M Ravi as saying that Australians and Westerners get different media treatment from Africans, whose executions go unnoticed. Reportedly Tochi, at age 18, agreed to carry the drugs because he needed the money to get from Pakistan to Dubai, where, as a soccer player himself, he hoped to join a soccer club. As a Roman Catholic, he approached a church for help, and it was there that he met fellow Nigerian “Smith”, who offered him US$2,000 to transport drugs Tochi believed were for stomach problems. The Judge ruled that he had wilfully turned a blind eye to their real nature (diamorphine) and was therefore guilty.
ACTION: Ryan Schlief, acting Singapore researcher at AI’s International Secretariat, said in a press interview that AI had written to President Nathan asking him to intervene to stop the executions of both men. (13/7 AFP, 4/9 http://www/opsnews.asp?idnews=34118) AI and other organizations have issued a number of appeals for both men. Singapore’s Anti Death Penalty Campaign at its August 27 forum highlighted the cases of Tochi and Malachy, and included a debate for and against the death penalty. (http://asiadeathpenalty.blogspot.com/2006/08singapore-forum).
3. Lee Chez Kee: was sentenced to death for murdering a university professor. He had been extradited from Malaysia earlier this year. He claimed that he had watched as his accomplice, Too Yin Sheong, had committed the murder. Too was hanged in 1999, after saying that Lee was the killer. (10/10 AP)
4. Lim Ah Seng: In a rare move in judicial history, the Court of Appeal sent his case back to the High Court for his trial to be re-opened due to new evidence. Lim Ah Seng had been convicted of manslaughter for strangling his abusive wife. (13/10 [email protected])
5. Convicted murderer Michael McCrea: his appeal for a lighter sentence was rejected by the Supreme Court. (23/8, ST). Australia had agreed to his extradition to Singapore on condition that he would not receive the death penalty. A 24-year sentence had been imposed.
6. Krishnasamy Naidu: his murder charge was reduced to culpable homicide, when he was judged to be suffering from morbid jealousy. (21/9) ST)
7. The prescription drug Subutex: Meant for treating addicts, it is reportedly becoming an addiction itself for at least some of the 4,000 people using it. It is therefore being added to the list of banned trafficking substances. (30/7 www.channelnewsasia.com, 4/8 [email protected]) Under the new law, three suspected addicts were arrested in August, who could be jailed up to 20 years and given 15 strokes of the cane. The Straits Times reported that about 3,800 were said to be hooked on Subutex. (15/8 ST) .
“WAR ON TERROR”
Two detainees were released in September:
Said bin Ismail and Munain bin Turry, who had been held without charge since 2002 over suspected links to Jemaah Islamiah, were said to have cooperated with government investigators. Their release was conditional: they are not allowed to leave Singapore without permission. Singapore holds some 34 suspected Muslim militants under security laws for an indefinite period. Amnesty International calls for unconditional release,or for trials that meet international standards for fairness, and has expressed concerns about the risk of ill-treatment in detention. (17/9 Reuters)
TORTURE/ILL-TREATMENT: Canada opposes caning
Sixteen-year-old sentenced to 24 strokes of the cane and five years in jail. Maria Dass Pandi Rasan (m) was considered by the court as not suitable for reformative training, after being convicted of robbing and assaulting three taxi drivers. His lawyer planned to ask for him to be spared caning, as he has below-average intelligence. He had threatened to “beat up” the judge if he met him outside the court. It was reported as extremely rare to sentence a 16-year-old to caning. (8/11 Doha Time) Caning (flogging) is the penalty for some 30 crimes.
CRITICS: Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs states: “Canada is opposed to the use of caning as a form of torture and inhumane punishment”.
AI is opposed to caning as a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.
Domestic workers: Although 55% were not given even one day off per month, Singapore’s Feedback Unit survey found that 90% of foreign domestic workers were happy working in Singapore. The news contrasted with an earlier report by Human Rights Watch. (3/8 CNA http://asian.news.yahoo.com)
CRITICS: question the government’s claims that maids are given full protection. An Indonesian maid fell twelve stories to her death when she was hanging out laundry from her employer’s window. Police termed it an “unnatural death”. More than 100 maids reportedly died in the past six years in the course of their work. According to AP (6/10), employer Ng Siew Luang was sentenced to nine months in jail for scalding her maid’s face with a hot iron. She was released on bail. Employer Fatimah Ismail was sentenced to three weeks for rubbing chillies on her maid’s face, striking her and pushing her head against a wall. (13/10 AP)
“Money talks, silences human rights”: the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Network reported “Singapore’s economic might has allowed it to slip under the international human rights radar” and called on the UN Human Rights Council for action. The Network pointed to the World Bank/IMF meetings in Singapore, which highlighted the jarring contrast of the wealthy city-state, which has affluence and modernity, but also banned public outdoor demonstrations. It charged that the world is reluctant to speak out about repression in Singapore because the “economies of the world’s most powerful voices are tightly intertwined with commercial interests” in the country. (Human Rights Features 31/10 http://www.hrdc.net/sahrdc)
UN Development Program (UNDP) and Asia: “Asia’s economic boom may have generated formidable wealth…but the surge in exports has resulted in a rise in inequality, higher unemployment and persistent food insecurity”. The latest UNDP report states, “jobless growth has been acute…with the worst scenario in high-trade countries such as China and Singapore”. (Wkly Gdn 16-20/7)
Transparency International placed Singapore at a near-perfect 9.4 in its corruption index. (6/11 AFP)
Singapore’s General Household Survey found that the gap between rich and poor — a gap increasingly criticised by social commentators — showed that the top 20% of households in 2005 earned around 31 times that of the bottom 20%, and that the gap was widening. (31/10 Star by Seah Chiang Nee www.littlespeck.com, 27/10 ST [email protected])
Seah Chiang Nee, described as a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com, wrote in his column Insight Down South (24/9) that Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew stated that the rising popularity of the opposition could result in a “freak” election defeat for the PAP and that corrupt opposition leaders could squander the nation’s wealth. The column reported that he hinted that, as a last option, the army would step in to stop it. This was described by Seah as causing a stir among Singaporeans.