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Singapore’s legal system, praised by foreign investors for its efficiency, came under attack on Friday at an international lawyers’ conference for being repressive and silencing dissent.
Thousands of International Bar Association (IBA) delegates began meeting on Sunday in Singapore, a country that the group’s president, Fernando Pombo of Spain, said has an “outstanding judiciary.”
But Timothy Cooper, head of Washington-based human rights group Worldrights, challenged that notion. He questioned why political defendants in the city-state had never won libel suits brought against them by government officials.
He also asked why permits for gatherings “are routinely denied” to political opponents of the government – and received applause from hundreds of the conference attendees.
It is illegal to hold a public gathering of five or more people in Singapore without a permit, meaning demonstrations seldom occur.
Chee Soon Juan, one of a few to challenge the ruling People’s Action Party, also drew strong applause when he told delegates about his arrest and imprisonment six times, mainly for speaking in public without a permit.
Chee, secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party, and another opposition figure, lawyer J.B. Jeyaretnam, were declared bankrupt in recent years after failing to pay libel damages to members of the ruling party – effectively barring them from holding public office under Singapore law.
Addressing the gathering, Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar said that if Singapore’s leaders did not vigorously defend their reputations against those who questioned their integrity, “an insidious creeping effect” could lead people to believe the allegations.
He noted that London’s Financial Times had on Wednesday unreservedly apologised “for having published something which suggested nepotism” in Singapore.
Chee took a break from a five-day long solo protest over Singapore’s ties with military-run Myanmar to attend the IBA meeting. He said police told him his protest was illegal.
“I have no doubt that I’ll be charged and convicted again,” he said.
In his earlier speech, Jayakumar said Singapore’s legal system allowed the country’s different ethnic groups to live peacefully together, while international commerce thrived.
“Internationally our legal system and judiciary have been held in high esteem by the World Bank as an example of how a former British colony has been able to maintain its integrity and efficiency,” he said.
Singapore’s influential founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew earlier told the conference that other international groups have also given top ratings to the city-state’s legal framework.
Responding to Cooper’s comments, Jayakumar noted the city-state was densely populated and said “law and order considerations” are pre-eminent when permits for public gatherings are considered.
He said authorities are “particularly careful” about political gatherings and those based on race, language or religion.
The city-state has bitter memories of past racial incidents in its early years and clamps down hard on anyone inciting communal tensions.
“We are not saying that our answers are the best answers, but they are simply what has worked for us,” Jayakumar said.
Before leaving to resume his one-man protest, Chee urged the lawyers to heed the words of Myanmar’s detained pro-democracy leader.
“In the words of Aung San Suu Kyi, please, use your liberty to help promote ours,” he said.
“Mr Jayakumar, this one thing I tell you, the human spirit can only be suppressed, never crushed.”