Amnesty voices censorship fear over Singapore jailings

October 13, 2002
Singapore Democrats

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South China Morning Post

In a move sure to rile Singapore authorities, Amnesty International has expressed serious concern about the jailing of two opposition activists for attempting to hold a public meeting without an official permit.

The human rights group said this week’s detentions – which came after the pair had refused to pay fines for the offence – “typify a pattern of unreasonable restriction on public gatherings and on the free expression of opinion”.

Margaret John, co-ordinator for Singapore and Malaysia in Amnesty’s Canadian section, said: “This is not a simple procedural dispute, but an unusual display of protest against the restrictive laws which deter the expression of dissenting views and encourage a climate of self-censorship.”

Singapore law requires that people holding public gatherings need a permit from the police.

On Wednesday, a Singapore court jailed Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), for five weeks, and party colleague Gandhi Ambalam for four weeks for trying to hold a workers’ rights rally on May 1 without official sanction.

Chee was fined S$4,500 (HK$19,585), of which S$4,000 was for failing to have a meeting licence. Ambalam was fined S$3,000, of which S$2,000 was for breaching the licensing rules. Both refused to pay.

The police had refused permission for the SDP’s meeting at the gates of the president’s official residence, citing potential law and order problems. Chee and Ambalam proceeded regardless, setting up the inevitable clash with authorities.

Officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs declined to comment on the Amnesty statement yesterday but have routinely defended Singapore’s tough regime as a necessary bulwark to prevent social disorder.

The tone of Amnesty’s concerns echoes that of other foreign observers, including the United States’ State Department. In its latest annual human-rights report, Amnesty said: “The government’s authoritarian style significantly restricts freedom of speech.”

The US State Department said the ruling People’s Action Party “maintains its complete control over the political process” with tactics including “restrictions on opposition political activities”. It added: “Often these means are fully consistent with the law.”

Chee and Ambalam said they tried to hold the rally “as our consciences dictate that we cannot look the other way when unjust and oppressive laws continue to be wielded against the defenceless and poor in our country”.