Bearding the Lion City
Not willing to be deterred, Chee Soon Juan,
the oft-jailed head of the beleaguered opposition Singapore Democratic Party,
is daring the International Bar Association to take on the Singapore government in its own country when the
association holds its annual conference in Singapore in October.
Singapore keeps a tighter rein on the press and parliamentary opposition than
arguably any other country in Asia outside of Burma
and North Korea.
It has sued Chee numerous times, made him bankrupt, driven him from his
parliamentary seat and refused to allow him to leave Singapore for human rights
Chee first tried to get the IBA to cancel
meeting altogether, charging that the island republic has one of the least
independent judicial systems in the world and that for the international law
body to hold a convention there was a travesty of justice.
In a letter to Chee, however, Mark Ellis,
the executive director of the IBA, said the meeting in Singapore will “provide the
opportunity…for robust discussions among our large and influential membership
and all other delegates and media on the rule of law as well as on many other
aspects of international and cross-border legal practice.” It would, Ellis
added, “give attendees the opportunity to meet with and absorb the range of Singaporean
and all other views.
Fat chance, Chee said in a letter back to
Ellis. He asked that the IBA adopt a four-plank program for the Singapore
“One, given the serious issue of the abuse
of human rights in Singapore,
the program on the Rule of Law Day include a session solely dedicated to
discussing the situation in the city-state.
“Two, victims of the Singapore Government's
persecution be invited to speak so that your participants can hear first-hand
the goings-on that have been occurring in Singapore.
“Three, this particular session be open to
the Singaporean public as discussions of this nature hardly ever takes place
here. This will be a precious public education service for Singaporeans.
“Four, more than just a discussion on the
problems of the rule of law in Singapore
may I also suggest that be some time put aside to consider concrete proposals
to improve the rule of law situation here. I hope you will address these four
proposals in your next letter.
Chee was declared bankrupt after he failed
to pay two former prime ministers S$500,000 awarded them in a defamation
judgment in 2001.
government officials, including current and former prime ministers Lee Hsien
Loong, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, have sued Chee and other opposition
leaders scores of times for defamation after they made remarks critical of the
government. No Singapore
leader has ever lost a defamation case in a Singapore courtroom. The Singapore
press, while nominally independent, never opposes the government on any issue.
The IBA has come under fire from critics
for their decision to hold the conference in Singapore. Besides Chee they include
Basil Fernando, the Hong Kong-based executive director of the Asian Human Right
Commission, Birgitta Ohlsson, a human rights activist and member of the Swedish
Parliament, who wrote Fernando Pombo, the president of the IBA, on Feb.
23,saying “human rights and the rule of law have come under severe attack by
the Singapore Government” and “opposition parties and civil society groups have
almost no role to play, which leave democracy in a shambolic state in the
Nonetheless, the IBA, in its letter to
Chee, said the 2007 annual conference was assigned to Asia and Singapore
was selected in by a vote of the governing council – “represented by the 195 member bar
associations and law societies.” The IBA, according to the letter to Chee, would
for the first time devote an entire day to a “Rule of Law Day,” which would encourage
active audience participation to address a variety of issues around the
importance of the rule of law including an Asian perspective on the subject.
Although the association said it has held
meetings in a variety of countries with less than ideal human rights records, in
fact it has never held an annual convention in a country without a multiparty
“I also hope that at some point in the lead
up to the conference, the IBA will make clear its position vis-à-vis Singapore,”
Chee wrote in his open letter to the Bar Association. “Given the preponderance
of human rights violations in this country, an unequivocal statement calling on
government to respect the rule of law and stop its persecution of dissidents
would not be out of place. In this regard, I am reminded of what Desmond Tutu
said: ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side
of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you
say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.’”