Amnesty International update on Singapore

February 26, 2006
Singapore Democrats

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James Gomez, Workers’ Party (WP)  candidate in the May 6 General Election, wrongly  claimed he had filed a minority candidate certificate and was deemed to have possibly committed a “serious offence” or even a crime, if found guilty of “framing the elections office”. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew reportedly called him a liar.  Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Kuan Yew challenged the WP to take legal action if it found their remarks libellous. Gomez was stopped at the Singapore airport as he prepared to return to Sweden, where he now works, and was questioned for eight hours.  No charge ensued and he was allowed to leave the country after a stern warning.  

In response to a media enquiry concerning James Gomez, AI’s International Secretariat stated its concern about “the continuing misuse of civil defamation suits and other laws for political purposes in Singapore to penalise and silence critics of the government, including those which preceded the recent election. A pattern of politically motivated suits in Singapore has served to maintain a climate of political intimidation and self-censorship which stifles freedom of expression, deters the expression of views alternative to those of the ruling Peoples’ Action Party (PAP)  and dissuades many Singaporeans from exercising their right to full and free participation in public life”.

In early June, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, won their defamation suit against the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), of which Dr Chee Soon Juan is Secretary-General, after the court ruled that SDP had failed to file its defence.  The suit was filed against the party’s Executive after the January issue of the party’s newspaper, The New Democrat, criticised the government’s handling of a situation involving Singapore’s largest charity, the  National Kidney Fourndation (NKF).  

All defendants except Dr Chee and his sister Chee Siok Chin apologised and agreed to pay damages.  Dr Chee and Ms Chee have applied to the court to stop the summary judgment applied for by the plaintiffs i.e. a ruling not in open court, but instead determined by the Assistant Registrar, thus disallowing the defendants the right to call witnesses, as intended, from the PAP, the NKF, government agencies, international experts, and  individuals such as former prisoners of conscience Francis Seow and Said Zahari. Should the SDP be unable to pay the designated damages, the party could be closed down.

Dr Chee and SDP colleagues Yap Keng Ho and Gandhi Ambalan have now been charged with violating the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act for speaking without a permit on several occasions in the run-up to the General Election, according to their lawyer, M Ravi.

These developments regarding Dr Chee add to the penalties and restrictions faced by him since he joined the small opposition SDP some twelve years ago and became an open critic of the government: he was fired from his university position, charged under various restrictive laws, imprisoned three times, made bankrupt and barred from seeking election.  He has also been recognised internationally as a human rights defender and received the prestigious Defender of Democracy award from Parliamentarians for Global Action.  His latest book, The Power of Courage — Effecting political change in Singapore through Nonviolence, has been described as focusing on “the moral imperative of breaking unjust laws to bring about social uplift, as was advocated by…MK Gandhi and Martin Luther King” (Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, Nonviolence International).  Recently commenting on his imprisonment following the exercise of his right to freedom of expression, he said that the government “can jail me, but they can’t jail democracy”. 

Singapore’s Attorney General asked the High Court to dismiss Chee Siok Chin’s application to invalidate the results of the General Election, because she had failed to pay the required S$5,000 court deposit on time.  She alleged that the PAP secured its 66.6% victory through intimidation, bribery and censorship. Main international media, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Asian Network for Free Elections and others were critical of government restrictions on the opposition during the election.   Canada’s Globe and Mail editorial spoke of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as paying “lip service to the need for more openness in a political system that is democratic in name but authoritarian in practice”, referred to intensified harassment of the opposition and alleged Lee Kuan Yew’s influence over his son’s leadership of Singapore.  The Age (Australia) published a series of articles by Michael Backman, in which he charged that “Increasingly, people around the world are beginning to laugh at Singapore…too often alternative viewpoints are responded to with public humiliation, threats, defamation writs and detention”, and he warned business to “consider these aspects and not just competitiveness when assessing Singapore as a place for investment”.