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Dr Chee Soon Juan’s appeal against his conviction for attempting to travel without a permit will be heard tomorrow at the Supreme Court at 10 am before Judge Choo Han Teck.
In March 2006, the SDP secretary-general had applied to travel to Turkey to attend a conference of the World Movement for Democracy. He was stopped at the airport and his passport was seized.
He was made a bankrupt following a defamation suit that former prime ministers Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong made against him in 2001. Since then, the Singapore Government has refused to allow him to travel overseas, rejecting all 17 applications to travel.
Mr Alfred Dodwell, representing Dr Chee at the appeal, will argue that the existing system of categorising bankrupts into the “green” and “red” zones, where only those in the former group are allowed to travel out of Singapore, constitutes discriminatory and/or unequal treatment of insolvent persons. This is a violation of Article 12, of Singapore’s Constitution.
Mr Dodwell contends that: “If we draw upon an example of a person being of lowly income or for that matter is a volunteer or involved in charity works, and is a bankrupt…but is otherwise involved in work that benefits society at large, – should he or she be penalised and subjected to such unequal treatment?
“This categorization is not just unjust in its application, it is unjust as a policy…Are some bankrupts better than others? Is it not the very nature of their impecuniosities that caused them to become bankrupts? So, why is it some can travel, and some cannot travel based on their financial distributions?”
Mr Dodwell argues that the Constitution “cannot and must not take a back-seat to the internal policies of IPTO (Insolvent Persons and Trustees Office)” and urged the Courts to exercise its role of being “the conscience of society, to speak with one accord with the Constitution of Singapore.”
Another point to be raised is that during the course of the trial, it was discovered that the Prosecution and its key witness had admitted to communicating with each other.
During a break in the trial the witness had handed the Prosecutor a crucial email correspondence while she was still giving evidence. The lawyer contends that “it was obviously planned between the both of them that they will seek to tender [the email] during re-examination.”
This clearly goes against the judges order that whilst the witness is on the stand she is not to discuss her evidence or the case with anyone else.
In the circumstances, there should have been a mistrial and the conviction quashed.
Another point of contention is the fact that IPTO rejected Dr Chee’s application to travel only two weeks after his due date of travel. Dr Chee’s application was made on 20th March 2006.
“The conference comes and goes, and there is still no rejection of the application to travel,” Mr Dodwell states. “The height of bureaucracy and unchecked powers is where the applicant is left with no real answers,…seeks to find out if permission was granted by presenting himself at the airport, only to have his passport taken away (which is not a crime in itself) but later to be charged with attempt to leave Singapore.
“This is most unfair, most unjust and most unsound of treatment that can be levied upon a person.”
Mr Dodwell also submits that IPTO used the situation of Dr Chee’s application to arm-twist him into giving a proposal for monthly instalments to his creditors, Messrs Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong.
“He has a wife and 3 very young children to support. He earns approximately $1,200.00. His expense exceeds his income, and these are not extravagant expenses. Yet, they want to have this issue resolved by forcing the bankrupt to give a proposal.”
And when none was forthcoming, IPTO said that it would decide the amount Dr Chee had to pay Mr Lee and Mr Goh. Strangely, however, IPTO didn’t tell Dr Chee how much money he had to pay every month but instead prosecuted him.
Dr Chee was fined $4,000 and sentenced to three weeks imprisonment in default by the trial judge.
Mr Dodwell’s Skeletal Arguments of the Appeal can be read here.