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Wall Street Journal
Lee Kuan Yew recently noted the International Bar Association’s decision to “honor” Singapore by holding its annual conference there last year. We hope the former Prime Minister, now Minister Mentor, takes equal note of the IBA’s latest assessment of the judiciary in Singapore.
The IBA’s human-rights institute issued a report last week on “human rights, democracy and the rule of law” in the city-state. Like numerous past observers, the IBA finds that Singapore limits political speech and assembly and exercises strict controls on the media.
The 72-page report also describes “concerns about the objective and subjective independence and impartiality” of the judiciary. In cases involving litigants from the ruling People’s Action Party or PAP interests, the IBA finds “concerns about an actual or apparent lack of impartiality and/or independence, which casts doubt on the decisions made in such cases.”
The IBA report is a good primer on Singapore’s use of defamation cases against opposition politicians and the foreign press. It summarizes high-profile cases over the past 25 years against J. B. Jeyaretnam, Tang Liang Hong and Chee Soon Juan. And it reviews defamation cases against foreign publications, including this newspaper and our sister publication, the Far Eastern Economic Review, which currently is fighting defamation charges brought by Mr. Lee and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
In a statement last week in response to the IBA report, the Law Ministry defended Singapore’s legal system. “The cases brought by PAP members usually relate to scurrilous and completely untrue allegations of corruption made against them,” it said. And, “It is also absurd to suggest that honorable and upright judges in commercial cases become compliant and dishonorable when dealing with defamation cases involving government ministers.”
The IBA report concludes with 18 recommendations, including abolishing defamation as a criminal offense and urging government officials to “stop initiating defamation claims for criticisms made in the course of political debate.” It also calls for “security of tenure” for all judges and an end to the transfer of judges between executive and judicial roles.
Singapore is unlikely to reform its political or judicial system anytime soon. But when the country is ready to join the ranks of modern democracies, the IBA’s recommendations provide a good checklist of how to do so.