Former University fellow jailed for political protest in Singapore

October 25, 2002
Singapore Democrats

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From: Chicago Maroon

Authorities in Singapore have jailed a former University fellow for the third time for violating a law that bans unlicensed public speech.

Several campus organizations will meet this week to discuss their response to the arrest of Chee Soon Juan, opposition leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and a former visiting activist fellow in the University’s Human Rights Program. Chee was sentenced October 9 to five weeks in jail for staging a May Day workers’ rights rally without a permit.

Singapore’s Public Entertainments and Meetings Act requires a police permit for all public speech and public events like concerts and political rallies.

“I won’t cooperate with unjust laws,” Chee was reported to say outside the court session.

Police rejected Chee’s permit application on grounds that it might disrupt law and order. In addition to the permit violation, Chee was charged with willful trespass. The presidential palace, where the rally was held, is state property and was open to the public on that day.

The judge presiding in the case said that Chee “clearly had no satisfactory excuse to be on the premises.” One of Chee’s colleagues, Ghandi Ambalam, was also arrested and fined for his participation at the rally. The judge indicated “[Ambalam’s] voice was loud and could be clearly heard . . . His shouts cast aspersions on the government and the manner in which the police force was treating Chee.”

After the sentencing, Chee and Ambalam released a joint statement urging other Singaporeans to oppose the speech restrictions with “disciplined and mature civil resistance.”

“We have chosen to go to prison because our consciences dictate that we cannot look the other way when unjust and oppressive laws continue to be wielded against the defenseless and poor in our country,” Chee and Ambalam said in the statement.

The Scholars at Risk Network (SAR) granted Chee’s 2001 fellowship at the University in view of difficulties he had already faced due to his political activities. SAR is hosted within the Human Rights Program and includes 20 other universities offering temporary refuge to academics that have been displaced from or persecuted in their own communities.

In 1992, three months after Chee joined the labor-rights focused SDP, he was forced out of his teaching position at the National University of Singapore and faced charges of defamation when he attempted to dispute his dismissal.

Since then, Chee has been arrested and fined three times for testing the state’s free speech laws. His refusal to pay earlier fines led to his imprisonment for two brief periods in 1999. The current sentence, which followed a six day trial in September, is the most severe he has received.

While on campus with SAR, Chee wrote and held meetings with other scholars, politicians, students, and activists about the political climate in Singapore. The Human Rights Program and SAR have expressed alarm at his arrest and are currently drafting a critical letter to the government of Singapore and its embassy in Washington, D.C.

Student organizations on campus are also voicing concern about the circumstances behind Chee’s arrest. Cristina Moon, a third-year in the College and a human rights activist, is among those spearheading the protests. She believes the University community has a special responsibility to address Chee’s situation, especially since the activities for which he is being prosecuted are the same that led to his fellowship here.

According to Moon, Amnesty International, South Asia Watch, Samahan, Students for Peaceful Justice, and other groups are actively exploring ways to oppose Chee’s imprisonment and Singapore’s politically motivated restrictions on speech.

“The smothering of intelligent political dissent can’t be allowed to go under the international radar,” Moon said. “The democracy movement in Singapore and Dr. Chee have received astonishingly little attention overseas, and the University community may have the only voice that can command attention to his situation.”

Chee had wanted to speak at the rally about “People Against Poverty,” which is a pun on Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Chee’s own party, the SDP, is a sharp critic of the PAP regime. But, under Singapore’s laws, Chee was barred from holding public office until 2004 because of his convictions in 1999. The PAP won all but two of 84 parliamentary seats in the last election, maintaining the stranglehold it has held on Singapore’s parliament since the country attained self-rule in 1959.

At his second trial in 1999, Chee explained his willingness to face the consequences of being a vocal opponent of the government’s free speech policy.

“Prison is one place I do not want to have to step into again,” Chee said. “It is demoralizing and it brutalizes one’s spirit. But if I have to spend time in jail to show that I believe that what I’m doing is good for my country, then consider it done.”

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