Democracy in Singapore

June 26, 2008
Singapore Democrats

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Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore can rightly be proud of many achievements, but full democracy is not one of them. The city-state he founded in 1965 and led as Prime Minister until 1990 is economically prosperous and its citizens enjoy a range of freedoms. Political dissent is not among them.

Which makes a recent David vs. Goliath exchange between one of the country’s few opposition politicians and Mr. Lee worth noting. The dialogue took place in a courtroom and is therefore privileged – which means we can report on it without risking a lawsuit, which Mr. Lee often files against critics.

Audio files are available on the Singapore Democratic Party’s Web site, and a partial transcript is available at Singapore Rebel, an independent blog.The setting was a hearing to assess damages against Chee Soon Juan, head of the Singapore Democratic Party, and his sister and colleague, Chee Siok Chin. In 2006, the Chees lost a defamation suit brought by Mr. Lee and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, over an article they published in their party newsletter that was interpreted by the court to imply corruption on the part of the government. In last month’s hearing, the elder Mr. Lee, who holds the title of Minister Mentor, was cross-examined by Mr. Chee, who was representing himself.

Mr. Chee is no orator, and on one level the dissident was no match for the eloquent Mr. Lee. But when the subject turned to the moral underpinnings of democracy – freedoms of speech, assembly and association – the debate went game, set and match to Mr. Chee.

Mr. Chee set out his philosophy while questioning Mr. Lee: “What I’m interested in is justice, the rule of law, because ultimately it is not about you, Mr. Lee. It is not about me. It’s about the people of Singapore, it is about this country and everything we stand for. You and I will pass on, but I can tell you, the practice of the rule of law, the entire concept of justice, democracy – that is going to last for all eternity.”

Mr. Lee didn’t respond directly to those assertions, choosing instead to cite the International Bar Association’s decision to “honor” Singapore by holding its annual conference there last year and noted a letter from the association’s president saying “how impressed they were by the standards they found to obtain in the judiciary.”

Elsewhere in the hearing, Mr. Lee defended his string of defamation suits against opposition politicians and the press: “They know me by now,” Mr. Lee said, referring to the people of Singapore, “that if anybody impugns the integrity of the government, of which I was the prime minister, I must sue.”

He went on: “There are various parts of this government which do not comply with Western practices, including the law of libel. But it is a system that has worked.” Mr. Lee has never lost a libel suit. He and his son are currently suing the Far Eastern Economic Review, a sister publication of this newspaper, and its editor, Hugo Restall.

Our reading is that the Minister Mentor sounded more than a tad defensive – no less so than in his characterization of Mr. Chee, who has been bankrupted as a result of lawsuits by Mr. Lee and other politicians. He called Mr. Chee, a “liar, a cheat and altogether an unscrupulous man.” Not to mention “a near-psychopath.” Mr. Chee, for his part, referred to Mr. Lee as a “pitiable figure.”

It’s hard to know what Singaporeans make of all this. Mr. Lee is widely revered as the father of their country, and Mr. Chee is often scorned for his aggressive tactics. But at least, thanks to the Internet, they are able to read the exchange and make up their own minds.

So, too, in the case of Gopalan Nair, which is making its way through the courts now. Mr. Nair is a former Workers’ Party candidate. He is now a U.S. citizen and online advocate for media freedom in Singapore. He traveled to the city-state to attend Mr. Chee’s hearing last month and recorded his thoughts on his blog, where he expressed his contempt for the court proceedings and challenged Mr. Lee to sue him.

On May 31, he was arrested and interrogated. On June 2, he was charged with insulting Judge Belinda Ang, who presided over the Chee hearing, by email. He was released on June 5, six days after his initial arrest, and charged on June 12 with insulting another judge in a separate, 2006 email. Last week, the court changed the first charge and specified that the offending remarks about Judge Ang were made on a blog, not by email.

Mr. Nair’s case is scheduled to go to court in mid-July. Meanwhile, Mr. Chee was just released from jail, where he served 11 days for “scandalizing” the court during his questioning of Mr. Lee. His sister served 10 days. The court has yet to set the amount of monetary damages in the defamation case. When it does, we’ll know the price of political dissent these days in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore.