International for CSJ and democracy in Singapore

March 29, 2006
Singapore Democrats

This post is at least a year old. Some of the links in this post may no longer work correctly.

Below are letters and statements for various international organisations calling on the Singapore Government to stop the harassment of Dr Chee Soon Juan and to respect the democratic rights of Singaporeans.

The SDP also understands that there were behind-the-scenes, diplomatic pressure by some governments calling on the PAP adhere to democratic principles.

From Liberal International

Dear Friends,

Dr. Chee Soon Juan, leader of Singapore Democratic Party is under threat of imprisonment after he was charged with the contempt for court for making critical comments about Singapore Judiciary.

1. Liberal International requests that you table Parliamentary Questions on this matter. Please send a copy of tabled questions to the LI Secretariat. Please find attached some suggested Questions; and

2. Write a letter to the Singapore authorities

3. Please write a courteous letter to your country’s embassy. For your convenience I attach some suggestions, which you can tailor as you wish

I have also attached an Amnesty International backgrounder for your information. Thank you for your support in this most important matter. If you have any queries please contact me.

Yours sincerely,

Jasper Veen
Secretary General
Liberal International

From Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada

March 15, 2006

LRWC is in Special Consultative Status with the Ecomonic and Social Council of the United Nations

The Singapore High Court will hear argument tomorrow on contempt proceedings brought against opposition leader Dr. Chee Soon Juan for criticizing the country’s judicial system as unfair and biased. Dr. Chee has previously been prosecuted in Singapore for defamation and bankruptcy, leading to his inability to seek public office. Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada laments the use of contempt of court proceedings to further penalize Dr. Chee Soon Juan for speaking out against the Singapore government.

Previous proceedings targeted at Dr. Chee

Dr. Chee is secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), an opposition party against the dynastic People’s Action Party (PAP). The PAP has ruled Singapore for the past sixty years and is now headed by founding leader Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Lee Hsien Loong. The party won 82 of 84 seats in the November 2001 general elections and has never lost more than four seats in any other vote (partly through the strategic use of group-representation constituencies).  Dr. Chee’s SDP party has no seats.

Singapore is notorious for wielding civil defamation and bankruptcy laws to silence its critics. Dr. Chee was the target of a defamation lawsuit stemming from his criticism during the 2001 general elections of the government’s use of public funds.  On February 10, 2006, when he had not paid a crippling S$500,000 in damages to two former Singaporean prime ministers, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, Dr. Chee was declared bankrupt by Singapore’s High Court. Bankruptcy, in turn, disqualifies him from running for and holding public office. His disqualification is a particularly harsh blow because an election is slated for later this year in Singapore.

Contempt proceedings

The remarks which led to the current contempt proceedings against Dr. Chee arose during his bankruptcy hearing on February 10, 2006. Dr. Chee read a statement which alleged that the Singapore judiciary was biased and served to further the PAP’s aims in silencing opposition politicians. The statement was later disseminated to the media and posted on the SDP website.

In his statement, Dr. Chee described previous defamation lawsuits against opposition politicians in Singapore. He mentioned J. B. Jeyeretnam, whose case was appealed to England’s Privy Council and found to have been a “grievous injustice” perpetrated by the Singapore state. Dr. Chee quoted publications of international organizations, including Amnesty International, that impugn the impartiality of the Singapore judiciary. The full text of the statement (taken from the SDP website) may be found here.

At the contempt hearing on March 16, 2006, the Attorney General is seeking an order which could lead to Dr. Chee’s imprisonment.

The archaic law of contempt by scandalizing the court

In Dr. Chee’s case, the Singapore Attorney General relies upon a particular branch of the law of contempt: contempt by scandalizing the court. The Attorney General alleges that “the imputations are calculated to: attack and undermine public confidence in the Singapore Judiciary and to lower its authority in the administration of justice in Singapore.”

The law of contempt by scandalizing the court is archaic, dating back to the politically-charged atmosphere of Britain in the 18th century. This law has reared up throughout history whenever “free comment about judges has become too free for the taste of the bench”.[1] The rationale behind the law is that courts cannot function properly if people do not respect them.[2]

Unfortunately, this branch of contempt has a profound chilling effect on the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression. Some courts have rightly questioned why contempt laws should seek to make citizens “immune from any vacillation in their absolute faith in the plan of the government.”[3] This law of contempt also leaves “the public with a taste that our justice system cannot hold its own when such an individual speaks out, that it is so fragile a thing that sticks and stones will indeed break its bones and that it lacks the confidence to bear criticism from one individual – and so it must retaliate.”[4]

Call to the Singapore High Court on the contempt hearing on March 16, 2006

At Dr. Chee’s contempt hearing on March 16, 2006, LRWC calls upon the Singapore judiciary to strike a proper balance between the competing interests of freedom of speech and the administration of justice. Freedom of expression as a cornerstone of any free and democratic nation must be reasonably shielded from the contempt of court powers.  While LRWC recognizes that the Singapore Constitution contemplates the law of contempt as a limit on freedom of expression, we emphasize that political expression is particularly crucial to the functioning of a democratic society. As one judge has written, “a democracy cannot exist without that freedom to … put forward opinions about the functioning of public institutions.”[5]

LRWC emphasizes that Dr. Chee’s statement was primarily aimed at the PAP government, not at the judiciary itself. He criticized the government’s control of the judiciary, and sympathized with members of the judiciary who may themselves become victims of the government’s vengeance. Far from being calculated to undermine the judiciary, Dr. Chee’s statement addressed the political dominance of the PAP. We call upon the Singapore judiciary to recognize this important distinction at Dr. Chee’s hearing on March 16, 2006.

LRWC further asks the Singapore court to distinguish between criticism which attempts to address some social problem and criticism which merely demonstrates an intention to vilify the court. LRWC feels that Dr. Chee’s statement was a tempered attempt to draw attention to a social problem which has affected many opposition politicians in Singapore. The statement consisted mostly of quotes from other sources, rather than his own words. He recounted indisputable facts about previous cases.  He respectfully expressed regret, saying, “I wish I didn’t have to do this… I hope to make this statement a start to a campaign to pry the country’s judiciary from the clutches of the PAP government.”

LRWC feels that Dr. Chee’s statement was not an act of contempt, but rather an act of courage. One commentator has said that the “history of scandalizing the court suggests that the limit of judicial authority and its degree of immunity from criticism are decided, in the end, neither by the bench nor by the law, but by the readiness of the public to claim the right to speak about its courts, and perhaps especially by the willingness of critics of the judges to risk imprisonment in their assertion of that claim.”[6] D. Hay, supra note 1 at 484

For more information on legal proceedings against Dr. Chee Soon Juan in Singapore, please see: “In the matter of an addendum to the report to Lawyers’ Rights Watch on the trial of J. B. Jeyeretnam as a result of the observations on the trial of Chee Soon Juan”.

CONTACT
[email protected]
Fax: +1 736 1175
Tel: +1 738 0338
March 15, 2005

From World Forum for Democratization in Asia

15 MARCH 2006

The World Forum for Democratization in Asia (WFDA) notes with alarm the escalating judicial persecution of one of our Steering Committee members, Dr. Chee Soon Juan of Singapore. In particular, we are gravely concerned at the new criminal charges laid against him, for which his trial begins tomorrow, 16 March.

The case began as a result of Dr. Chee’s public criticism of Singapore’s strongman Lee Kuan Yew and then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, political speech that would be protected in any democratic state. After a summary procedure in which he was not allowed to retain counsel, he was assessed punitive damages of US$300,000. As a result, on 10 February he was declared bankrupt by the High Court, depriving him of certain civil rights, notably the right to stand for office. This appears to be the purpose of the entire exercise, to remove his ability to lead the opposition Singapore Democratic Party. Furthermore, his state of bankruptcy has created limits on his right to travel abroad, which has already interfered with important regional networking activities, such as the first meeting of the Community of Democracies Non-governmental Process International Steering Committee held last week in Mali, where he was to represent Asia.

At the bankruptcy hearing, Dr. Chee read a public statement of protest at the fact that he has not been able to receive a fair trial, citing the pattern of such cases against numerous opposition figures. This statement has now resulted in criminal charges of contempt of court being filed against him by the attorney-general on 24 February, and his first hearing is scheduled for 16 March. Since there is no maximum penalty stipulated for contempt of court, Dr. Chee faces a clear threat of imprisonment.

We call on the judiciary of Singapore to live up to its proper mission to uphold the rule of law by protecting the basic human rights of all Singaporean citizens, including the right to free speech and participation in public affairs. In particular, it should immediately cease this politically-motivated persecution of Dr. Chee and restore all his civil rights, including the right to stand for office and the unfettered right to international travel.

From the World Movement for Democracy

March 15, 2006

Dr. Chee Soon Juan, leader of Singapore Democratic Party is under threat of imprisonment after he was charged with the contempt for court for making critical comments about Singapore Judiciary. The trial against him will begin on March 16, 2006.

Dr. Chee was sued in 2002 by former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong for defamation. After a summary procedure, in which Dr. Chee was not allowed to retain counsel, the court awarded the case to the plaintiffs, ordering Dr. Chee to pay $300,000 in damages.

In February 2006, he was declared bankrupt and thus deprived of some of his civil rights, in particular the right to stand for office. At the bankruptcy hearing, Dr. Chee made a statement protesting the unfair trial and citing the patterns of such trials against many opposition figures. As a result of this statement, charges of contempt of court have been filed against him. The hearings on the case are due to start on March 16, 2006. Since there is no maximum penalty for charges related to the contempt of court, Dr. Chee could face a long imprisonment.

Dr. Chee is a participant of the World Movement for Democracy. Also, he is a member of Steering Committees of the Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia (ARDA) and of World Forum for Democracy in Asia (WFDA)

For actions you can take, please consult Amnesty International’s Urgent Action Appeal:

* “Singapore: Bankrupt Opposition Leader Now Faces Possible Imprisonment” -www.wmd.org/documents/amnesty-urgentaction-cheesoonjuan.doc

From Amnesty International

14 March 2006

Singapore’s public prosecutor (Attorney General) has filed contempt of court charges against former prisoner of conscience Dr Chee Soon Juan, Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)  The SDP is a small political party with no representation in Parliament, where the ruling Peoples Action Party (PAP) holds 82 out of 84 seats.

Dr Chee was declared bankrupt by Singapore’s High Court on 10 February 2006 for failure to pay former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong approximately US$300,000 in libel damages awarded against him for questioning in 2001 a US$10 billion loan Singapore offered to former President Suharto of Indonesia.

The contempt of court charge followed his refusal to answer the court’s questions during the bankruptcy hearing. Instead, Dr Chee read a prepared statement, in which he said, “After much observation and having personally gone through the judicial process, I cannot but come to the conclusion that my case has not received the justice that it is entitled to; it has been crippled right from the beginning…I wish I could say my country’s judicial system is independent and fair. But I can’t because that would be a lie”.

Amnesty International is concerned about the continuing misuse of civil defamation suits and other laws for political purposes in Singapore to penalise and silence critics of the government. A pattern of politically motivated defamation suits in Singapore has served to maintain a climate of political intimidation and self-censorship which stifles freedom of expression, deters the expression of views alternative to those of the ruling PAP and dissuades many Singaporeans from exercising their right to full and free participation in public life.

The organization believes the application of civil defamation suits against government critics in Singapore have been disproportionate, and have undermined the requisite balance between the right to protection of reputation and the right to free speech

The impositions of a series of large damages awards to PAP leaders have driven prominent opposition members into bankruptcy. As bankrupts, they are automatically expelled from parliament or barred from standing in parliamentary elections.

The contempt charges against Dr Chee will be heard on 16 March 2006.

Background

The example of Dr Chee Soon Juan’s political career has deepened concerns that the Singaporean authorities use a variety of means to curb and deter the free expression of peaceful dissenting opinion – including the application of restrictive legislation and defamation suits. After Dr Chee ran unsuccessfully as an opposition party candidate in 1993, he was dismissed from his post in the Psychology Department of the National University of Singapore for alleged irregularities involving the use of his research funds. He was sued by the Department’s chair, a ruling PAP parliamentarian, for making allegedly defamatory remarks. Ultimately, the plaintiffs were awarded approximately US$300,000 in costs and damages.

In November 1995, Dr Chee was censured by Parliament for not contradicting criticisms or statements by fellow panellists at a forum in the United States, who allegedly criticized the judiciary in Singapore. In December 1996, Dr Chee and other party members were fined by Parliament for perjury, after they were accused of fabricating statistics in a parliamentary committee.  In 1999 Dr Chee was imprisoned twice for making public speeches without a permit.

Lawyers in Singapore generally have been reluctant to represent opposition critics. When the defamation case brought by former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong against him went to court in 2002, the judiciary refused to allow Chee to engage an overseas lawyer to act for him and he was therefore unrepresented.

Dr Chee is recognised internationally as a leading human rights campaigner. He is the 2003 recipient of the prestigious Defender of Democracy award by Parliamentarians for Global Action, chairs the Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia and is a member of the Directors for Democratic Leaders in Asia-Pacific.

¹ Watch the documentary by Martyn See about Dr Chee Soon Juan online at:
http://asiapacific.amnesty.org/apro/aproweb.nsf/pages/appeal_singaporeMartynSee

Take action

AI considers the use of defamation and other laws against government critics, such as Dr Chee, a restriction on peaceful political activity and an erosion of the right to free speech and expression.

1. Write a letter to the Singapore authorities (please fax if possible):

* Express concern about the misuse of defamation suits and other laws against government critics, including Dr Chee Soon Juan, which contribute to a climate of self-censorship in Singapore and restrict the right of those Singaporeans with dissenting opinions to participate fully and freely in public life;

* State that defamation suits against government critics have been disproportionate and have undermined the requisite balance between the right to protection of reputation and the right to free speech;

* State that freedom of _expression is a fundamental right guaranteed by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;

* Express concern that Dr Chee Soon Juan should have a legal representation; and

* Call for an end to the misuse of defamation and other laws, which are being used to penalize political opponents.

To: His Excellency President S R Nathan

Salutation: Your Excellency

Office of the President
Istana Annexe
Singapore 238823
Fax: +65 6738 4673
Telegrams: President S R Nathan, Singapore

copy to

Professor S Jayakumar

Salutation: Dear Minister

Minister of Law
Ministry of Law
100 High Street
The Treasury #08-02
Singapore 179434
Fax: +65 6332 8842

2. Please write (fax if possible) a courteous letter to your country’s embassy in Singapore and copy to your Ministry of Foreign Affairs., enclosing a copy of your letter to the Singapore authorities and asking for a diplomatic initiative in this case.

Embassy contact information is available at: http://www.embassiesabroad.com/embassies-in/Singapore.cfm

For Canada: His Excellency Alan Virtue, High Commissioner, Canadian High Commission, 1 George Street #11 – 01, Singapore 049 145 Fax +65 6854-5930

cc The Honourable Peter MacKay, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lester B Pearson Building, 125 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0G2 Fax 613 996 3443)

Please send copies of articles published, responses received and any other relevant information to Margaret John ([email protected]) Amnesty International Canada (English speaking), 312 Laurier Ave East, Ottawa, Ontario K1N 1H9, Canada, and to Ryan Schlief ([email protected]), Southeast Asia Team, Amnesty International International Secretariat, 1 Easton Street, London WC1X 0DW, United Kingdom Fax +44 (0) 20 7946 1157

From the Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia

The Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia (ARDA) is dismayed that the former prime ministers of Singapore Goh Chok Tong and Lee Kuan Yew have bankrupted yet another opposition leader, Chee Soon Juan.

ARDA deplores the use of defamation suits by governments against politicians and activists as a way of silencing dissenting views. As a bankrupt, Dr. Chee Soon Juan is unable to contest in the upcoming elections.

Messrs Goh, Lee and other ruling-party leaders have successfully used the defamation laws in Singapore to ensure that the government’s authoritarian rule remains unchallenged.

The government’s repressive laws have severely stifled the civil and political space in Singapore. The Alliance also notes with alarm that Cambodia’s Hun Sen seems to be modeling their anti-democratic stance after Singapore. The democratization process in the city-state cannot move forward if the government and its leaders continue to resort to such autocratic measures to cripple its opponents.

Singapore is reputed to have one of the freest economies in the world, but yet is one of the most tightly controlled societies in Asia.

ARDA calls on the Singapore Government to respect the freedom of expression and assembly of its citizens. The Alliance will continue to support and help democrats in Singapore and the region in demanding for the authorities to respect and uphold democratic principles and freedoms.

Dr. Oyun Sanjaasuren
Speaker, Mongolian Parliament
Vice Chair, ARDA

From the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats

23 March 2006

CALD Resolution No. 2, Series of 2006

“I want to be free but freedom is nothing when one cannot speak the truth”

– Dr. Chee Soon Juan

CALD resolution expressing concern over the conviction and incarceration of Dr. Chee Soon Juan and relaying its support to Dr. Chee and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)

Aware that Dr. Chee Soon Juan, SDP Secretary General, was imprisoned last March 17, 2006 after being sentenced by High Court Justice Lai Siu Chiu for contempt in court to one day in jail and was fined $ 6,000 or seven days jail if he does not pay the fine;

Noting that the contempt charges stemmed from the defamation suits filed by Messrs. Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong against Dr. Chee in 2001;

Saddened that Dr. Chee was declared bankrupt after failing to pay Messrs. Lee and Goh S$ 500,000 in libel damages and that, prior to this, Dr. Chee had already paid S $ 400,000 in costs and damages in another defamation lawsuit involving his dismissal from the National University of Singapore after he joined the opposition;

Knowing that as a result of his bankruptcy Dr. Chee is effectively disqualified from running for any public office

Concerned that civil suits are being utilized against the opposition and that, as observed by the International Commission of Jurists, defamation suits “have done little to overcome the courts’ reputation as improperly compliant to the interests of the country’s ruling People’s Action Party”;

Citing that Dr. Chee had previously been jailed thrice for refusing to pay the fine, once for seven days, another time for twelve days and another time for as long as five weeks;

Believing that Dr. Chee, an outspoken critic of the Singapore government, is motivated by nothing more than a sincere desire to institute democratic reforms in Singapore—especially with regard to upholding the freedom of speech and peaceful assembly;

Convinced that Singapore’s interests are best served by adhering to its own Constitutional provision regarding “freedom of speech and freedom of assembly” as set out in Article 14 and to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, further, that such adherence will ultimately benefit Southeast Asia as a region of peace, prosperity, progress, justice and democracy;

The Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats hereby express concern over the conviction and incarceration of Dr. Chee Soon Juan of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and relay its support to Dr. Chee and the Singapore Democratic Party

For the Council of Asian Liberals & Democrats:

Senator Franklin M. Drilon
President of the Philippine Senate
Chairman of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats


[1] D. Hay, “Contempt by Scandalizing the Court: A Political History of the First Hundred Years” (1987), 25 Osgoode Hall L.J. 431 at 433.

[2] J. Watson, “Badmouthing the Bench: Is There a Clear and Present Danger? To What?” (1992), 56 Sask. L. Rev. 113.

[3] J. Watson, supra note 2.

[4] E. Levy, Ontario Criminal Lawyers’ Association Newsletter, Vol. 8, no. 3, pg. 2 (January 1987).

[5] Edmonton Journal v. Alberta (Attorney General), [1989] 2 S.C.R. 1326 per Cory J. at 1336.