IFEX issues worldwide alert on Judge Rajah’s comments

December 27, 2005
Singapore Democrats

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The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) has placed Singapore on its world-wide alert distribution following an email sent out by the Singapore Democrats over the court decision by Judge V K Rajah to ban protests in Singapore, including those with four persons or less which the Constitution allows.

IFEX is a international organisation comprising mainly of journalists based in Toronto, Canada. Its supporters include the UNESCO, Canada, European governments, and other private organisations.

A statement in its website (www.ifex.org) states: “The risks and obstacles faced by people who attempt to start up free expression groups in countries plagued by human rights abuses or censorship can be overwhelming, and IFEX offers vital transfusions of information, financial and technical resources, expertise, and international support and recognition.”

The report below was prepared by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), an affiliate of IFEX.

ALERT – SINGAPORE: High court judge dismisses lawsuit charging government with suppressing free speech
Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)
23 December 2005

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) has expressed alarm over the recent ruling by a Singaporean High Court judge to dismiss a lawsuit which charged the country’s public institutions with trampling the rights of their citizens to free assembly and free speech.

SEAPA is concerned that “this ruling will have implications for the rights of Singaporean citizens to free assembly and free speech, as the ruling signals that Singaporean citizens cannot express their concerns over the government and its policies even through peaceful protest, though this right is supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution,” SEAPA noted.

According to the opposition Social (sic) Democratic Party’s E-newsletter of 21 December, Judge V. K. Rajah said in the ruling, delivered two weeks earlier, that Singaporean citizens cannot stage public protests because these undermine “the singularly stable and upright stature Singapore has managed to uphold.”

In dismissing the case, Judge Rajah described the protest as “incendiary,” and stated that it amounted “to a grave attack on the financial integrity of key public institutions.” The judge further concluded that Singaporean citizens would be held accountable and personally responsible by the state for their actions: “In Singapore, Parliament has, through legislation, placed a premium on public order, accountability and personal responsibility.”

The decision was made after four protesters sued the minister for Home Affairs and the commissioner of police for unlawfully dispersing their peaceful protest in August 2005, held outside a government building in downtown Singapore. The four had argued that they had the right to stage the protest under the Constitution, which allows a group of four people or fewer to assemble in public. But the police sent the anti-riot squad to disperse the four protesters.

According to the SDP newsletter, the peaceful protest, with the words “CPF, NKF, HDB, GIC: Be transparent now!” painted on the four protesters’ t-shirts, urged the government to be transparent and accountable in its handling of public funds in the wake of a scandal that involved the National Kidney Foundation.

The SDP said the foundation was reportedly found to have spent donated money on luxury items like gold taps and expensive cars, and paid the CEO $600,000 (approx. US $400,000) in annual salary. But Mrs. Goh Chok Tong, wife of Singapore’s former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, who was patron of the foundation, said the CEO’s salary was justified as the amount was “peanuts.”

According to SDP, the judge’s decision confirms that the judiciary has no interest in protecting the democratic rights of the people, who are now at the complete mercy of the dictatorial Singaporean government.

SEAPA stated its belief “that to legitimise Singapore’s claim to be a country of world-class public governance, the government and the judiciary should first protect the right of citizens to address their concerns about public institutions, and that these authorities should not regard peaceful protest as a public nuisance.”

“The rights of the citizens to address their concerns over the government policies through public protest is to be upheld as a freedom enjoyed by civilised and open communities all over the world,” SEAPA said.

SEAPA is a regional NGO formed in 1998 to bring together journalists and news organizations promote free expression in Southeast Asia and encourage civil participation in the promotion and protection of press freedom. http://www.seapabkk.org

SDP e-newsletter: Singapore judge says citizens cannot hold protests

21 Dec 05

A High Court Judge in Singapore, Mr V K Rajah, recently ruled that Singaporean citizens had no right to stage protests because this would undermine “the singularly stable and upright stature Singapore has managed to uphold.”

The judgment, delivered two weeks ago, was made after protesters had taken the Minister for Home Affairs and the Commissioner of Police to court for unlawfully dispersing a peaceful protest. In August 2005, four protesters had staged a silent protest outside a Government building in downtown Singapore, calling on the Government to be transparent and accountable in its handling of public funds.

This action came in the wake of a scandal that involved the National Kidney Foundation which was found to have spent donated money on luxury items like gold taps and expensive cars, and paying the CEO $600,000 (US$400,000) in annual salaries. Mrs Goh Chok Tong, wife of Singapore’s former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, was the patron of the charity and had said that the CEO’s salary was justified as the amount was “peanuts”. 

The police had sent the riot squad to arrest the four protesters unless they dispersed immediately. Under Singapore’s Constitution, five or more people gathered in public to protest is considered an illegal assembly and are subject to imprisonment. The four had argued that under the Constitution, they had the right to stage the protest.

The judge dismissed their application saying the protest was “incendiary” and amounted “to a grave attack on the financial integrity of key public institutions.” The judge launched into an amazing tirade, which was more akin to partisan demagoguery than studied legal opinion:

“The integrity of public institutions and more specifically of the persons entrusted with these institutions, forms an integral part of the foundation that grounds Singapore. It accounts in no small measure for the singularly stable and upright stature Singapore has managed to uphold. Undermining confidence in these institutions and/or the persons responsible for them without any justification, apparent or otherwise, can hardly be described as a “peaceful protest”. Domestically as well as internationally, public governance in Singapore has been equated with integrity. To spuriously cast doubt on that would be to improperly undermine both a hard-won national dignity and a reputable international identity.

To all intents and purposes, what the applicants are in fact contending that under present legislation they are at liberty in groups of four or less to picket public institutions, question their integrity and cast a slur on their reputation without any restraint and/or responsibility for what they may wish to say. This is premised on a fundamental misapprehension of their rights. They can certainly voice criticism if they have a veritable factual or other legitimate basis to do so. This must however be done within the parameters of the law. Public conduct cannot be transmuted at will into public nuisances.”

The judge also revisited the argument that the discredited Asian-values propaganda had tried to advance: That different (Asian) societies had different views of human rights and democracy. While not mentioning the words “Asian values”, Mr Rajah left no doubt what he was referring to: “Standards of public order and conduct do reflect differing and at times greatly varying value judgments as to what may be tolerable or acceptable in different and diverse societies.”

He made the astonishing conclusion that Singapore citizens would be held accountable and personally responsible by the State for their actions: “In Singapore, Parliament has through legislation placed a premium on public order, accountability and personal responsibility.”

This confirms the worst nightmare that the Singapore judiciary has no interest in protecting the democratic rights of the people. Citizens are left at the complete mercy of the dictatorial Singapore Government.

For the complete version of the judge’s comments, go to http://singaporedemocrat.org/articleOM7.html