Second complaint sent to the UN on CSJ case

March 10, 2006
Singapore Democrats

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Another complaint was sent to United Nations’ Special Rapporteur of the Commission of Human Rights regarding the contempt of court charges brought against Dr Chee Soon Juan by the Attorney-General.

Eleven law-makers and activists from around the world, including Singapore’s Mr Francis Seow, sent the complaint to the UN calling on the body to take action on the matter.

The first complaint was lodged by Mr Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan of Nonviolence International to the Office of the UN Commission for Human Rights which is based in Geneva, Switzerland.

(The hearing will take place on 10 March 06 at 10 am at the Supreme Court. Dr Chee had applied for an adjournment so that he could seek the services of a Queen’s Counsel. The Attorney-General, however, objected to the request.)

COMPLAINT TO THE SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR OF THE

UNITED NATIONS COMMISSION OF HUMAN RIGHTS

We, the undersigned, wish to lodge an urgent complaint regarding Dr Chee Soon Juan who is facing a court hearing on March 16, 2006 for speaking out against defamation lawsuits and the judicial system in Singapore.

Subject of complaint

Dr Chee Soon Juan was sued for defamation in 2001 by former prime ministers of Singapore, Messrs Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong. Chee had raised questions about a US$10 billion loan Singapore had pledged to the Suharto regime in 1997. Chee raised the matter during an election rally in November 2001.

When the case went to court in 2002, the judiciary refused to allow Chee to engage an overseas lawyer to act for him. Singaporean lawyers are fearful of representing opposition leaders. Chee thus went through the case without legal representation.

The courts subsequently awarded the plaintiffs summary judgment and ordered Chee to pay the plaintiffs S$500,000 (approximately US$300,000) in damages. When Chee failed to pay, Lee and Goh applied to the courts to make him a bankrupt.

At the bankruptcy petition hearing on 10 February 2006, Chee said that the judiciary in Singapore was not fair and independent especially when it came to defamation cases involving opposition politicians. He cited previous cases to support his statement (see http://csj.http3.net/CSJ_Bankruptcy_Press_Statement_2.pdf).

On 15 February 2006, the Attorney-General (AG) applied for a hearing to commit Chee to prison for contempt of court. The trial will take place on March 16, 2006.

Background of Chee Soon Juan

Chee Soon Juan is a Singapore citizen. A neuro-psychologist by training, Chee was a lecturer at the National University of Singapore (NUS) until he was sacked in 1993 for “misusing” his research funds. This happened three months after he joined the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and stood in a by-election in December 1992.

When he disputed the dismissal, he was sued by the head of the department who was also a member of parliament of the ruling Peoples’ Action Party (PAP), together with two other members of the university staff. The plaintiffs were ultimately awarded approximately US$300,000 in costs and damages. Chee and his wife had to sell off their house and other possessions to pay the debt. Otherwise he would be declared bankrupt and, as a result, be disqualified from standing for elections.

In November 1995, the Singapore parliament censured Chee for allegedly endorsing attacks on the judiciary made by dissident and former solicitor-general of Singapore, Francis Seow, and academic Christopher Lingle, at a forum held in the United States in September 1995. The government did not attribute any statement attacking the judiciary or endorsing the views of Seow and Lingle directly to Chee. Rather, government parliamentary leaders said that his failure to contradict the attacks made by Seow and Lingle constituted positive assent by “clever omission.”

In 1996, Chee and three other party colleagues were charged by the Parliamentary Committee of Privileges with “deliberately falsifying data and misleading the public” in a debate on health-care costs in Singapore. They were fined a total of US$35,000.

In 1999, Chee was imprisoned on two occasions for making public speeches without a permit. He was also prosecuted for selling his book, To Be Free: Stories of Asia’s Struggle Against Oppression, in public without a permit.

In 2002, Chee was found guilty of defaming Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, and Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, over questions he raised during the 2001 general elections concerning the Singapore government’s US$10-billion loan to Indonesia in 1997.

In August 2002, he was fined S$3,000 for speaking on a religious topic at Singapore’s Speakers’ Corner. He has also been charged for attempting to stage a public rally on Labour Day. He was found guilty under Singapore’s Public Entertainment Acts and fined S$4,500. Chee chose to serve a 5-week jail term instead of paying his fines.

Chee is presently under police investigation for various matters including possessing a video CD (footage of his arrest on May Day 2002) without a permit as well as speaking in public without a permit while selling the SDP’s newspaper The New Democrat.

Presently, Chee is the secretary-general of the SDP. He is also the chairman of the Alliance for Reform and Democracy for Asia (ARDA) a regional NGO dedicated to the promotion of human rights and democracy in Asia. In 2000, Chee co-founded the Open Singapore Centre with J B Jeyaretnam to promote transparency and democratic accountability in Singapore.

He was an Honorary Research Associate at Monash Asia Institute, Melbourne, Australia (1997), Human Rights Fellow at University of Chicago, US (2001), and the Reagan-Fascell Human Rights Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, Washington DC, US (2004). Chee was given the Defender of Democracy Award in 2003 by Parliamentarians for Global Action. In 2005 he was awarded the Hellman-Hammett grant for persecuted writers by Human Rights Watch. Chee is also the author of five books.

In all, since he became politically active Chee has served three prison sentences for holding unlicensed political meetings, is currently disbarred from political office as a result of his conviction for violating Speakers’ Corner rules, has been fined for speaking on issues beyond the prescribed limits for Speakers’ Corner, has been made a bankrupt as a result of repeated defamation suits brought by ruling party officials, and has been both censured and fined by the PAP-controlled parliament.

Details of the complaint

At an election rally in November 2001, Chee raised questions about Singapore’s secretive loan to the Suharto regime in 1997 just before the Indonesian dictator was toppled. Days later former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew (now Mentor Minister) and Goh Chok Tong (now Senior Minister) said that by making the statements, Chee had defamed them.

When the matter went before the courts, a high court judge refused to allow Chee to engage the services of Stuart Littlemore, an Australian Queen’s Counsel (QC) who specializes in defamation law, even though Chee had indicated that he could not find a local lawyer to represent him because they were afraid of government reprisal. The judge ruled that Littlemore was “unfit” to practice in Singapore because Littlemore had criticized Singapore’s judiciary in an earlier case where he was an observer for the International Commission of Jurists in a matter involving Lee Kuan Yew’s lawsuit against another opposition leader J. B. Jeyaretnam. In the meantime, Lee and Goh had engaged a Senior Counsel (Singapore’s equivalent of the QC).

Unable to engage Littlemore, Chee then made a second application to admit Hong Kong’s Martin Lee and another Australian, William Nicholas, both of whom were QCs.  This time around, the courts said that the case “was not complex enough” to warrant the admission of Lee and Nicholas despite the fact that Chee had said that without the QCs, he would not have legal representation because no Singaporean lawyer would defend him.

In the meantime, the plaintiffs applied for Order 14 or Summary Judgment whereby the matter would be decided in chambers without it going to trial. The courts allowed the plaintiffs’ application and subsequently awarded the case to Lee and Goh. In other words, not only did Chee not have a lawyer, he was also not given a trial.

The two former prime ministers were subsequently awarded approximately US$300,000 in damages.

On February 10, 2006, the hearing for Chee’s bankruptcy petition took place during which Chee read out his statement before the assistant registrar. She declared Chee a bankrupt because he could not pay Lee and Goh the S$500,000. As a result Chee is barred from standing for future elections.

The New York City-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (renamed Human Rights First) sent two observers to attend Chee’s appeal and reported: “Neither at the hearing, on February 7 [2003], nor in the course of his judgment, did Justice Rubin display the least concern that Dr. Chee was unrepresented. The Lawyers Committee considers that this apparent lack of concern, coupled with the considerable latitude extended to Mr. Singh in his submissions to the Court, resulted in manifest unfairness in the course of the hearing and, specifically, the denial to Dr. Chee of a fair hearing that met the international norms to which we have referred.”

On 15 February 2006, the AG applied for an Originating Summons to commit Chee to prison for “scandalizing” the Singapore courts (see http://csj.http3.net/summon.pdf).

The hearing is set for March 16, 2006.

Background of judicial independence in Singapore

The following is a brief description of two prominent defamation cases that occurred in the recent past that demonstrate the lack of independence of the judiciary in Singapore.

The case of Tang Liang Hong

Tang Liang Hong, a Singaporean lawyer with an established legal practice, had contested in the 1997 general elections. During the elections 11 PAP leaders, including Lee Kuan Yew, issued a writ for defamation against Tang. They accused Tang of being a Chinese chauvinist who was anti-Christianity and anti-Islam. This accusation resulted in Tang receiving many threats and abuse from the public which prompted him to lodge a complaint with the police. A PAP minister then obtained a copy Tang’s report, gave it to Lee Kuan Yew who then called for a press conference to release the contents of Tang’s report. When Tang’s words were subsequently published, they became the basis for the PAP’s lawsuit.

Following the conclusion of the elections Tang left Singapore, fearing for his safety. The plaintiffs then quickly named Tang’s wife as the co-defendant even though she had nothing to do with the matter at hand. One evening when she and their daughter wanted to visit Malaysia, the Singapore immigration authorities stopped the two women, searched Mrs Tang’s handbag and impounded their passports. The PAP plaintiffs asked the courts to issue a host of Mareva Injunctions against Tang and his wife. The Mareva Injunction is a legal procedure where the courts order all of the subject’s bank accounts frozen. The judge agreed. It must be pointed out that this freezing of the Tangs’ assets were made even before Tang was found guilty of defamation. Tang countered that the move “was nothing more than just…to freeze all our financial source to paralyse our financial strength to resist their attacks by way of legal actions.”

Not only was Tang denied access to his own finances to pay for the mounting legal costs, he was also not given the time necessary to prepare for such a massive case. Shortly thereafter, the courts awarded the case to the 11 plaintiffs and ordered Tang to pay them a total of $3.63 million in damages. Unable to make good the payment, Tang was subsequently declared bankrupt by the courts.

The case of Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam was repeatedly sued and prosecuted by PAP officials. Jeyaretnam had served as a district court judge prior to his entry into politics in 1971. In 1981 he entered Parliament when he won a by-election, the only opposition member after more than ten opposition-free years in the House.

Three years later, Jeyaretnam and a party colleague were charged with four counts of making false statements and fraud. The trial judge, Michael Khoo, acquitted the accused on three of the charges and convicted them of one. A year later, the Chief Justice reversed the acquittals and ordered a retrial for one of the charges, and transferred Judge Khoo from the bench to the Attorney General’s Chambers. Lee Kuan Yew justified the transfer by pointing out that Khoo had made “a series of misfindings of fact and two misfindings of law in one simple case.” Jeyaretnam was fined and jailed. Following more fines imposed on him, Jeyaretnam lost his seat in Parliament.

Jeyaretnam then appealed to the Privy Council in London in 1988. The Council was then Singapore’s highest court of appeal. The Council opined that the Singapore’s Chief Justice had

patently exceeded the proper function of an appellate court and wholly ignored the advantage enjoyed by the trial judge [Khoo] who had heard and seen the witnesses. This amount to a serious error of law which vitiated the Chief Justice’s decision.

The Council also registered its “deep disquiet that by a series of misjudgments, [Jeyaretnam] and [Wong] suffered grievous offences of which they were not guilty.” Within months the Singapore Government abolished the right of appeal to the Privy Council.

As a result of the convictions, Jeyaretnam was disqualified from elections. It wasn’t until 1997 that the oppositionist could stand for elections again. During the 1997 elections Jeyaretnam was sued again together with Tang. Jeyaretnam had held up a sheath of paper at an election rally and told the crowd that Tang had just handed him a copy of the police report that Tang had made. The PAP leaders said that this act was defamatory of them and sued Jeyaretnam, who was, of course, found guilty. The question of damages became academic because by that time Jeyaretnam had already been declared a bankrupt from another lawsuit brought against him by another group of PAP leaders and other grassroots officials.

Below is a list of the defamation cases that have involved Lee Kuan Yew and other PAP leaders against opposition politicians:

1979 Lee Kwan Yew v J. B. Jeyaretnam S$130,000 awarded

1988 Lee Kwan Yew v Seow Khee Leng S$250,000 awarded

1989 Lee Kwan Yew v J. B. Jeyaretnam S$230,000 awarded

1990 Lee Kwan Yew, Lee Hsien Loong, & Goh Chok Tong v International Herald Tribune S$650,000 awarded

1994 Lee Kwan Yew v International Herald Tribune S$400,000 awarded

1996 Lee Kwan Yew & Lee Hsien Loong v Tang Liang Hong S$1,050,000 awarded

1997 Lee Kuan Yew et al v Tang Liang Hong S$3,630,000 awarded

1997 Goh Chok Tong v J. B. Jeyaretnam S$100,000 awarded

2005 Lee Kuan Yew & Goh Chok Tong v Chee Soon Juan S$500,000 awarded

The above cases are those that went to trial where the damages were awarded by judges. There were several other cases that were settled out of court where opposition defendants agreed to pay PAP plaintiffs hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages because they felt that going to trial was a futile exercise and served only to increase damages and costs that would be ultimately awarded. News organizations such as the Bloomberg and the Asian Weekly Magazine (Yazhou Zhoukan), a Chinese-language news weekly, have also chosen to pay PAP litigants damages instead of going to trial.

In view of the above, we would like to lodge a complaint against Singapore’s AG for violating Chee’s right to defend himself against the political and judicial system in Singapore.

Yours sincerely,

Mr. Francis T. Seow
Former Solicitor General, Singapore
Former Judge Advocate General, Singapore Armed Forces
Former District Judge and Magistrate
Former President, Law Society of Singapore
Now in exile in the U.S.

Ms. Hsiao Bi-khim
Member of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan
Treasurer, Liberal International

Ms. Emily Lau
Member of the Legislative Council, Hong Kong
Member, Steering Committee, Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia

Mr. Lars Leijonborg
Member of Parliament, Sweden
Leader, Liberal Party of Sweden

Ms. Birgitta Ohlsson
Member of Parliament, Sweden

Mr. Axel Darvik
Member of Parliament, Sweden

Ms. Cecilia Malmstrom
Member of Parliament, Sweden

Mr. Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan
Member, International Council. Nonviolence International

Dr. Paul Scott
Professor, Kansai Gaidai University, Japan
Member, Steering Committee, Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia

Mr. Bo Tedards
Co-ordinator, World Forum for Democratisation in Asia

Mr. Wang Dan
Student leader in Tiananmen Square in 1989
Member, Steering Committee, Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia
Now in exile in the U.S.