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Singapore is gearing up for the most controversial, if not the biggest, trial in its modern history. For when ever have 18 Singaporeans been charged in court for conducting a peaceful protest? For that matter when ever has Singapore seen a peaceful protest in such numbers?
On 15 Mar 08, the group had gathered outside Parliament House to protest against escalating costs wearing Tak Boleh Tahan! t-shirts. They were dragged away by the police and subsequently charged.
The pre-trial conference, fixed for 18 Aug 08, will set the wheels in motion for the trial which will hear whether the activists had participated in an assembly and a procession without a permit.
The matter poses interesting questions such as why was the application for the permit to hold the protest not approved by the police? This question is especially salient when one considers that the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) conducted exactly the same protest on the same occasion, the World Consumers’ Rights Day, only the year before.
In fact the day after the police arrested the TBT activists outside the Funan Centre, it blessed a march of thousands organised by CASE, replete with speech and all.
Don’t we have laws that protect the rights of citizens to conduct such activities? Why is one group allowed to hold a march while another is banned? Who makes these decisions?
These questions will inevitably be raised in court. But who is going to ask them?
The TBT activists have sent out hundreds of emails to law firms asking for legal representation. Only a handful replied and of those who did many said that they were not criminal lawyers or that they were too busy and could not afford the time.
Others were more forthright and said that they were not prepared to take on cases that involved challenging the PAP Government. The ones who were bolder blamed it on their partners whom they said were not comfortable taking on such cases.
One even said that his firm was awaiting to sign a contract with a Government-linked company and couldn’t risk jeopardising the deal.
But all is not lost. A few indicated ̶ tentatively ̶ that they would consider making the representations.
The underwhelming response from the legal community indicates that the matter isn’t about some petty offence being tried in court. Nay, this case goes to the very heart of how the PAP has been keeping its stranglehold on Singapore ̶ by denying citizens the right to protest peacefully against it and its policies.
The difficulty of the activists getting legal representation also attests to the sorry state of affairs in Singapore where even the legal community dares not stand up to the ruling party when it usurps the power of our nation’s Constitution.
Even the Law Society, the body that represents Singaporean lawyers, insists on sitting on the fence. In the fight for the supremacy of the nation versus the supremacy of the PAP, the Society insists that it has “no views”.
Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu once said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Our lawyers seem to have missed the fundamental point of their vocation: Being an advocate and solicitor is not just about getting retainers and fees, it is not just about running a business. It is about a calling ̶ a calling to uphold justice.
It is rare privilege conferred on society’s talented to be an advocate of the law. It is a responsibility that few are called upon to shoulder. But if our nation’s lawyers keep their heads bowed in the face of political intimidation and choose to look away, then the legal profession is brought to shame.
In other countries, lawyers are at the vanguard of protecting the rule of law which necessarily includes a check on the executive arm of the government. When the government applies laws to persecute citizens, lawyers have the bounden duty ̶ the duty they swore to uphold when they became servants of the profession ̶ to defend the Constitution of this nation.
This is not a partisan matter, it is a national one. It is a matter that transcends ethnicity, class, and political persuasion. It is one that celebrates our humanity.
To be absolutely clear, the activists are the ones facing punishment for transgressing PAP laws, not the advocates in court. If we do not fear meeting our accusers and telling them they are wrong, why should lawyers? Should they be afraid for doing their job?
We make this appeal to our lawyers to come forward to help us defend these charges. We appeal to you not for our own sakes, but for the sake of our nation. Please contact us at [email protected].