Singapore's Two-Faced Judiciary

Francis Seow was once the highly-regarded solicitor general of Singapore in the government of Lee Kuan Yew and president of the Singapore Law Society. After leaving the government, Seow made the mistake of defending people the government was prosecuting.

In 1988, Seow was taken in for questioning by the Internal Security Department. After 17 straight hours of invasive interrogation, he collapsed and was rushed to a hospital by officials who feared he had had a heart attack. While he was incarcerated, his law office was raided by authorities who removed all of his records. After he was released from detention, he announced plans to run as an opposition candidate and won a non-constituency parliamentary seat. The government filed six counts of tax evasion against him and ultimately convicted him in absentia after he had fled the country. He was disqualified from sitting in Parliament as a result of his conviction.

To show how far the government pursues its opponents, Seow had earlier won a seat on the board of the Singapore Turf Club, the republic's horse-racing organization. The government abolished the turf club, wiped out the entire board, appointed a new one and took over the newly formed racing club. At the time of his arrest, Seow was involved in a relationship with a Singaporean businesswoman who was financing a business deal through Bank Nationale de Paris. The bank suddenly dropped her line of credit and forced her out of the business deal. Bank officials at the time said the government had nothing to do with aborting the transaction.

While he was in the United States, the government abolished all appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council -- Singapore's last court of appeal in London -- which made him wary of returning to Singapore. Seow obtained a fellowship from Yale University and has lived in the United States since 1988. This is the preface to his book.

Justice in Singapore is Janus-faced.

The Singapore courts—when adjudicating commercial cases between two contending parties where neither the authorities nor the political élite are involved or interested—may be relied upon to administer justice according to the law. In this regard, Singapore judges have an overall reputation for the integrity of their judgments. The enthusiastic reports of international organizations, such as the Geneva-based World Economic Forum or the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, have to be read subject to this important rider.

This book, however, is concerned with the other face of justice in Singapore: where these very same judges, sad to say, in politically-freighted cases have repeatedly demonstrated a singular facility at bending over backwards to render decisions favourable to the Singapore government and its leaders. Their judicial contortions have acquired an international notoriety that concerned human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists, and latterly the Lawyers’ Human Rights Watch Canada, enough to send legal representatives to Singapore to observe the trial proceedings at first hand.

Their observations confirmed what many Singaporeans have known all along: that the political context of such cases invariably influences the judges in their decisions.

And yet, the Singapore judiciary was historically free and independent of the government of the day or of any other controlling legal authority, until the ruling People’s Action Party—with no viable political opposition to keep it balanced and in check—began to entrench itself in the body politic of the nation. In that time, Prime Minister Harry Lee Kuan Yew, now nominally senior minister but still the enduring éminence grise of the People’s Action Party (PAP) government, systematically gained control over the courts, which he exercises currently through his judicial point man and great friend, Yong Pung How, the chief justice.

In addition, Lee appoints only politically correct lawyers as judges whose loyalty he ensures with princely remunerations—well over and above the comparable market rates for judges worldwide.

Corruption oftentimes takes many forms and disguises: paying obscenely high salaries and bonuses to judges is one, for they inevitably assume the gratifying form of monthly retainers by the government for loyal services rendered or to be rendered. Given that he who pays the piper calls the tune, it is virtually impossible for judges to do justice by the citizens when the state or its leaders are involved as litigants, as this narrative will amply demonstrate.

Unlike previous defamation actions, the legal blitzkrieg herein—masterminded by Harry Lee Kuan Yew—was exceptional in the sheer number of PAP plaintiffs who retained in concert disparate law firms of high-priced lawyers and who, against valid objections and normal procedural laws, were allowed by the courts to maintain multiple lawsuits over the same matter against the defendants: lawyer and unsuccessful opposition electoral candidate Tang Liang Hong, his wife, Teo Siew Har, and, ultimately, his defence counsel, J. B. Jeyaretnam, who was also then the secretary general of the opposition Workers’ Party.

The insidious purpose of this unusual legal manoeuvre was intended to overwhelm the resources in personnel and finances of the defendants, and of Tang in particular, and to hamper their defence—a manoeuvre that was patently obvious to the judges but who, however, chose to turn a Nelsonian eye on these legal shenanigans.

Lee used to assert that the judiciary must be protected against “unjust attacks and slurs,” but, in truth, it is he who has not only disfigured the face of justice in Singapore but undermined its very foundation by politicizing it, as well as that of the legal profession. In the ensuing proceedings, counsel for Lee and the Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong—Drew & Napier and Allen & Gledhill respectively—not to mention the lawyers for the other PAP plaintiffs, disgraced themselves and sullied the profession of the law by meekly allowing themselves to be led by their noses by the puppet-meister.

In an attempt to win their case at all costs, they not only suppressed important evidence advantageous to Tang but concealed it from the presiding judge, Justice Chao Hick Tin. Nor did they take any steps to correct the judge’s misconception of the facts at the subsequent judgmental hearing, consequently ensuring that the damages awarded against Tang would be humongous: thus perpetrating a travesty of justice by their studied silence. A classic case of the legal maxim, suppressio veri suggestio falsi—suppression of the truth is suggestion of the false.

Given their seniority at the bar, they should have known better. Together with the staff of the Supreme Court registry, they manipulated the practice and procedure of the court and its docket to disadvantage the defendants at every turn in their obscene rush to judgment.

In a closed society where the government has a finger in almost every pie of business and commerce and controls every aspect of community life right down to sporting and even kindergarten activities, it makes sound commercial sense, if nothing else, to keep on its good side for its capacity to distribute lucrative contracts and work to the politically correct.

Insofar as the legal profession is concerned, the cornucopia of legal work dispensed by the government and its many linked companies was, and is, immense and lucrative. It is bread-and-butter work. It is understandably the aspiration of many law firms to be the chosen receptacle of such official favors. The defamation case or rather cases against Tang Liang Hong and his wife, Teo Siew Har—and the opposition Workers’ Party then leader, J. B. Jeyaretnam—bring into sharp focus the reluctance of Singapore lawyers to represent clients who are anathema to the puissant Lee and his government. Even so, this is Asian value at its rawest: one does not muddy the source of business or possible business by being a contrarian.

In the related Jeyaretnam case, a self-conscious judge, S. Rajendran—aware of the allegations that the prime minister and the senior minister and their political confrérie were using the courts to smother their political opponents with a blanket of lawsuits and bereft them financially in order to remove them from the political scene—was constrained to stress, inter alia: Underlying questions relating to the independence of the judiciary and the likelihood of a fair hearing inevitably surface when political leaders resort to the courts to pursue their claims.

There are no private directives to a judge from the executive or from anyone else on how a case is to be conducted, how the judgment is to be phrased, how the law is to be applied or what matters of policy are to be considered. The judge is expected to decide each case impartially in accordance with the evidence and in accordance with the law. Indeed, the Singapore Constitution requires every judge, on appointment, to take an oath that he will discharge his judicial duties without fear or favour, affection or ill-will to the best of his ability and in accordance with law.

I would emphasize that what we have in Singapore is an open system of justice. All evidence and all arguments in all writ actions are presented in public. And the records of the courts are public documents available for public perusal. Hearings being in public, and only in public, any ruling and any judgment made by the court, must stand the test of public scrutiny. Any appeal to the court of appeal is also heard in public and must again stand the test of public scrutiny.

This is one of the great strengths of our system of law. Any judgment that does not stand the test of public scrutiny will tend to destroy the integrity of the judiciary—and will be a disservice to the people of Singapore.

The very fact that the judge felt obliged to descend into the obvious speaks volumes for the sorry state of a judiciary in bondage. It requires no special lexicon to interpret this well-known Shakespearean dictum: methinks the judge doth protest too much. With the best will in the world, is it really conceivable for any judge in Singapore to decide a case against Harry Lee Kuan Yew and his PAP cohorts?

Neither a wink nor a nod is necessary for a judge who values his position to decide in a certain way. Even if Lee’s judicial point man has not intimated the correct decision to his judges, Lee has ensured their loyalty with magnanimous monthly salaries and allowances topping them up with generous yearly bonuses. To paraphrase Vladimir I. Denisov, a Gorbachev-era Soviet parliamentarian: given their princely pay, perks and privileges of office, no Singaporean judge would be mad enough to rule against Lee and his political confrères.

The PAP mouthpiece, the Straits Times, in its news coverage of the visit of Lord Woolf, the Master of the Rolls in England to Singapore, bragged that the visiting English judge was reportedly “especially struck how courts here have built a new legal culture which is highly efficient and technology-oriented. For example, he noted that while court cases here could be heard within six months, quite a few lawsuits in his country were still taking more than two years to be resolved.

"It is very impressive how Singapore courts are so efficient in managing cases and using it.’” Lord Woolf was speaking, be it noted, on the mechanics of the courts system and not on the quality of justice! One should be able to separate the wood from the trees. The technology may be impressive but it is the administration of justice between people, and justice between individuals and state, and vice versa, that really matters ultimately.

The draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), Cap 143, which allows the arbitrary and indefinite detention of Lee’s political opponents, dissidents and media critics, among others, is noticeably being relegated to the back burner, as the courts are increasingly being used to suppress critical comments and viewpoints through threats of defamation actions and the payment of huge damages and ultimately bankruptcy.

Singapore has earned the dubious distinction of being a country whose leaders routinely use the libel laws as a weapon of repression. However, the courts cannot be freely resorted to, unless they are first made reliable tools of government: in other words, the judges chosen must be reliable. Tang’s legal predicament with its scads of lawsuits, and by extension to that of his defence counsel and political colleague, J. B. Jeyaretnam, proves their political reliability, beyond peradventure.

The news media, in the rankling words of Harry Lee Kuan Yew, must be subordinated to “the overriding needs of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of [his] government,” a feat he achieved with relative ease but at great cost to his international reputation and stature. The news media was subsequently reshaped into his subservient mouthpiece and that of his pap government. The legal and judicial system is not too far behind.

Once before, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, dreamt of the same system of justice for the Third Reich where “justice must not become the mistress of the state, but must be the servant of state policy.” But where Adolf Hitler and his enthusiastic minister of propaganda failed, Harry Lee Kuan Yew is succeeding. It is not an idle, but a terrifying prospect.