Singapore to Dissident Leader: Shut Up

The much-jailed head of the Singapore opposition, Chee Soon Juan, appears about to go back to jail after having been found guilty of speaking in public without a permit.

Chee, the head of the Singapore Democratic Party, and Yap Keng Ho, another party official, were convicted Wednesday in the court of District Court Judge Jasvender Kaur, who postponed sentencing to give the prosecution time to state its position on six other charges. The two are to be sentenced on May 30.

Chee and Yap were charged with eight counts under the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act for selling their newspaper, the New Democrat, to raise funds during the 2006 election campaign, in which the ruling People’s Action Party won 82 out of 84 seats but only 66.6 percent of the overall vote.

Chee has been sent to jail six times already in Singapore, four for speaking in public without a permit, once for attempting to leave the country without a permit and once for “scandalizing the judiciary.” He has also been driven into bankruptcy by repeated lawsuits by government leaders. In 1993, after Chee, a neuropsychologist, joined the SDP and contested a local election, his position with the National University of Singapore was terminated, allegedly for misappropriation of research funds. Chee later staged a hunger strike, saying the charges were fabricated. He didn’t get his position back.

At the same time, Chee and his sister, Chee Siok Chin, are being sued in another court for aggravated damages by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, Singapore patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, allegedly for defaming the two in articles published in the New Democrat in 2006. The Lees are also suing the Far Eastern Economic Review for defamation and the government has banned the publication over a 2006 interview in which Chee said the authoritarian city-state would only change direction after the elder Lee’s death.

The senior Lee, now the “minister mentor,” who served as Singaporean prime minister from 1959 to 1990, once won extra damages from a Singaporean judge for what the judge considered too rigorous a cross-examination by a defense lawyer.

As an example of how prickly the 84-year-old Lee and his government can be, last Saturday, officials from the Media Development Authority, which regulates the media and censors films for public broadcast, descended on a room in the Peninsula-Excelsior Hotel where about 70 opposition figures were holding a fundraising event and private screening of a 45-minute film of titled “One Nation Under Lee,” which is critical of the former premier’s rise to power and subsequent crackdown on his opponents. The officials seized the DVD.

Among other things, the film features interviews by opposition leaders Joshua B Jeyaretnam and Frances Seow, both of whom have staged decades-long opposition battles with the Lee family. Seow fled the country in 1987 and now resides in the United States. The film also calls attention to the large salaries paid to Singaporean officials by the country’s taxpayers.

According to an account of the affair on the Singapore Democratic Party website, halfway through the screening, the three officials burst into the room and said the screening broke the law. The three, assistant MDA director Tan Chiu Kee, Ahmad Kasbari and an official named Padmamuthu, cited the Films Act which states that "it is an offence to have in your possession or to exhibit or distribute any film without a valid certificate."

The audience pointed out that, since vast numbers of Singaporeans make private films with digital cameras, that would make most of them violators of the act. After a lengthy exchange Chia Ti Lik, the master of ceremonies at the screening, allowed the three into the room to sarcastic applause. With the DVD in hand the officers left. Later, they came back and demanded that the projector for the screening be handed over as well. The organizers refused to turn it over, and the officers left.

Later, Tan Chi Kee, a board official, issued a statement saying that "After investigation, the Board of Film Censors proceeded to serve a notice to the appropriate person that it would be an offence to screen a film that has not been submitted to the (board) for classification and that is not approved for exhibition."

Singapore, which has come under repeated fire from human rights and press freedom organizatins, bans the production and screening of all political films, imposing a maximum fine of S$100,000 ($73,260) or a jail term of two years on those caught making such films.