The World’s Lawyers Come to Singapore

The little publicized decision of the International Bar Association, perhaps the world’s pre-eminent legal confederation, to hold its 2007 annual convention in Singapore is drawing fire from critics who say the island state’s courts are among the least independent in the world.

In a Feb. 13 letter protesting the IBA’s decision to take its convention to Singapore, Chee Soon Juan, the head of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party , who has been repeatedly sued for defamation, bankrupted and driven from politics by former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong in the Singapore courts, quoted Subhas Anand, the president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, as saying that “he would represent murderers, thieves and even terror suspects but would avoid acting for dissidents in Singapore.”

On its website, the bar association says it “believes in the fundamental right of the world’s citizens to have disputes heard and determined by an independent judiciary and for judges and lawyers to practice freely and without interference.” The IBA’s Human Rights Institute was established under the honorary presidency of former South African President Nelson Mandela, once the world’s longest-serving political prisoner.

Chee added that “scores of (members of) opposition parties, trade unions, universities and media were…locked up for various periods, many for as long as 15 to 20 years and were, according to Amnesty International, tortured and abused.”

The Lee family and other officials have repeatedly used the Singapore courts to go after political opponents and the international press in cases that most observers believe would be laughed out of almost any other court in the free world.

“I can’t believe these people could be going there,” said Basil Fernando, the Hong Kong-based executive director of the Asian Human Right Commission, noting in an interview the worrying fact that increasing numbers of countries across Asia are taking their cues from Singapore to sue reporters for defamation in an attempt to prevent them from reporting independently.

The IBA represents some 30,000 individual lawyers and more than 195 Bar Associations through a dual membership structure. It professes to “influence the development of international law reform and shapes the future of the legal profession,” according to its website.

It has also undertaken advocacy missions including one to Malaysia in 1997 in which it investigated threats to the “independence of the judiciary,” the web site says. In a 2000 report on Malaysia available on its website, the IBA criticizes that country’s use of defamation suits to restrict free speech. “We recommend that courts should not allow claims for or awards of damages in defamation cases to be of such magnitude so as to be a means of stifling free speech and expression,” states the report, titled “Justice in Jeopardy.”

Romana St. Matthew-Daniel, a spokeswoman for the IBA in London, first appeared unaware of the repressive nature of Singapore’s courts in a brief telephone exchange. Then she said bringing a large number of the world’s lawyers to Singapore would serve to highlight the government’s shortcomings. St. Matthew-Daniel said she would provide a further response later, but didn’t do so.

“That is an absurdity,” said Fernando, who is also a lawyer and former law professor. “There is no independence of any sort in this court. There is a long history. This is a country where there is no separation of powers. Singapore in fact has been used as a model in places like Sri Lanka to amend their constitution to undermine the independence of their judiciary.”

Some 3,000 lawyers are expected to attend the conference, with as many as 150 working sessions. On its website, the association said it is “delighted to announce Singapore as the destination of its Annual Conference 2007. Singapore is a unique and dynamic city, filled with culture and brimming with energy and finesse. It is where urban meets traditional offering the modern and cosmopolitan whilst retaining its local flavor. Voted 5th best business meeting city, it offers the perfect opportunity for both business and pleasure.”

Singapore is one of the region’s most energetic governments at luring conferences, conventions and trade shows ‑ everything from the Asia Apparel Machinery & Accessories Exhibition to the International Conference on the Computer Processing of Oriental Languages to the World Bank/International Monetary Fund annual board of governors meetings held there in September, which drew 6,000 delegates. The city-state is regularly named the top convention city in Asia and one of the top ones in the world.

The government considers the number of conventions and conferences held on the city-state’s soil to be a vindication of its strait-laced policies towards the press and protesters. That backfired when the government’s crackdown on demonstrators at the World Bank/IMF meetings was so complete that officials of the two organizations had to demand that officials lighten up and allow some protesters at the meetings.

The projected visit of the world’s lawyers also comes as Singapore for the first time in 22 years is revamping its penal code to stiffen its already draconian laws against protest. Any proposed Singapore government revamp of laws is tantamount to passage, since there is virtually no opposition party.

Among other things is a series of proposals to provide much harsher penalties for what the government regards as offences governing the internet and public gatherings. The government would have broader authority to prosecute offenders and punish them with higher fines, increasing the imprisonment term for 109 offences. The definition of an unlawful assembly is broadened to include any gathering of five or more persons whose common objective is to commit any offence whatsoever.

In a letter to the Straits Times newspaper, Ong-Chew Peck Wan, director of the Corporate Communications Division of the Singapore government, said the decision to revise upwards the penalties for unlawful assembly “must be seen in the context of this being a fairly prevalent offence related to the offence of rioting…Between 1984 and 2005, there were 3,604 convictions of rioting, and 4,465 convictions of unlawful assembly. These offences remain a serious concern today. Therefore, we propose to increase the maximum imprisonment term for unlawful assembly from six months to two years, and for rioting from five years to seven years.”

Singapore Democratic Party letter to International Bar Association about its conference in Singapore

15 February 2007

Dear Sirs,

I am given to understand that the International Bar Association (IBA) will hold its Annual Conference in Singapore from 14-19 October this year. While I would very much like to welcome you to my country, I have to highlight to you some very disturbing developments that I believe would concern the IBA.

It is apparent that human rights feature prominently in the IBA's mission: "To promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide." This is why it is so perplexing why your organization has chosen to host its next annual meeting in Singapore.

Detention without trial

Let me explain. We note that the IBA's Human Rights Institute was established under the honorary presidency of Nelson Mandela. Disturbingly, we too have our Nelson Mandela in the person of Chia Thye Poh. Chia was imprisoned for 23 years and placed under city-arrest for another nine. He was released only in 1998.

Unlike Mandela, however, Chia was never charged of any crime and was never allowed to defend himself in a court of law. He was imprisoned without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA) which exists till today. In addition, he was an elected member of parliament. Although freed Chia is still monitored closely by the Singapore Government.

Scores of his compatriots in opposition parties, trade unions, universities and media were similarly locked up for various periods, many for as long as 15 to 20 years and were, according to Amnesty International, tortured and abused.

In 1987, 22 Singaporeans were again detained under the ISA because the Singapore Government accused them of being Marxist conspirators out to violently overthrow it when in fact they were helpers of the opposition Workers' Party, members of the arts community, social and church workers, and leaders of the Law Society of Singapore. Again, they were tortured and confessions were forcibly extracted.

When the then president of the Law Society and former solicitor-general of Singapore, Mr Francis Seow, moved to represent some of them in court, he found himself detained for more than two months. He was subsequently charged with tax evasion but didn't wait around to find out the verdict. He now lives in exile in the US.

As president, Seow had indicated that he had wanted the Law Society to take a more active role in contributing towards the process of lawmaking in Singapore and also to speak with greater intensity for lawyers in the country. The upshot was that the Law Society is now barred from commenting on proposed legislation.

The use of defamation suits

The ruling Peoples' Action Party (PAP) has also resorted to using defamation lawsuits to silence its critics. Opposition leaders have been repeatedly sued and huge sums of money have been awarded in damages. J B Jeyaretnam, Tang Liang Hong and I have been on the receiving end of such lawsuits, ordered to pay millions of dollars to former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues in the party. As a result, we have been declared bankrupts and barred from standing for elections.

In my case I was sued in 2001 by Lee Kuan Yew and another former prime minister Goh Chok Tong. I had applied for a Queen's Counsel (QC) to represent me because no Singaporean lawyer dared to take up my case. This is not surprising given that president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, Subhas Anandan, had indicated that he would represent murderers, thieves, and even terror suspects, but would avoid acting for dissidents in Singapore.

The courts rejected my repeated applications for QCs, insisting that my case was not "complex enough" thereby leaving me without legal representation. It then awarded summary judgment to the plaintiffs. Thus, not only was I deprived of a lawyer, I was also denied of a trial. I was subsequently ordered to pay US$300,000 in damages. And because I couldn't meet the demands, I was declared a bankrupt. I had already paid US$300,000 to another set of plaintiffs in another lawsuit in 1993 when I first joined the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).

As a bankrupt I have been barred form traveling overseas and my passport has been impounded. I am now facing charges for attempting to leave the country without permission from the Official Assignee. I was also prevented from campaigning for my colleagues in the elections in 2006 and barred from getting up on the stage for election rallies.

Another suit, the most recent, has been taken by Lee Kuan Yew (now Minister Mentor) and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, this time against the SDP and its executive committee members. Again the case was awarded to the plaintiffs in a summary judgment despite our filing of our defence disputing many of the Lees' claims of fact and law.

The foreign media has also come in for such action. The Far Eastern Economic Review was recently sued by the Lees for publishing an interview it did with me. Because it refused to apologise, the journal was banned. Other publications that were targeted over the years include Time, Newsweek, Asiaweek (defunct), Asian Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Economist, and Bloomberg News, leading the Committee to Protect Journalists to comment:

State control of the media in Singapore is so complete that few dare to challenge the system and there is no longer much need to arrest or even harass journalists. Even foreign correspondents have learned to be cautious when reporting on Singapore, since the government has frequently hauled the international press into court to face lengthy and expensive libel suits.

The entire local media in Singapore is owned and run by the Government. In its latest

annual survey, Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 146th out of 168 countries, one spot below countries like Somalia and Sudan.

Because of such defamation cases Singapore's legal system has been repeatedly and strongly condemned by organizations such as the New York City Bar Association, Amnesty International, International Commission of Jurists as well as by legal experts and senior judges across the world.

Crushing human rights

The UN has repeatedly raised questions about Singapore's legal system especially when it comes to the mandatory death sentence for drug peddlers. UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, stated that the mandatory death sentences in Singapore "violate international legal standards" and are "inconsistent with international human rights standards." In the recent case of a young Nigerian man, Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi, Alston said that the Singapore Government "failed to ensure respect for the relevant legal safeguards. Under the circumstances, the execution should not proceed." The Singapore Government ignored the plea and hanged Tochi on 26 January 2007.

As far as citizens are concerned, we are barred from gathering and speaking in public places. When a group of four persons staged a silent protest outside a government building in August 2005, they were met with the riot squad and ordered to disperse.

The four protesters then filed a legal action taking the Minister for Home Affairs and Police Commissioner to court for overstepping their powers (under the Constitution only five or more people gathered in a public place with common intent constitute an illegal assembly). High Court Judge V K Rajah not only dismissed the protesters' application but also warned them that they did not have the right to "picket public institutions" because to do so would be to "question the [institutions'] integrity and cast a slur on their reputation." The protesters were then ordered to pay the Attorney-General's costs amounting to US$15,000.

My colleagues and I have been repeatedly convicted and imprisoned for "speaking in public without a permit" even though the Minister for Home Affairs openly declared that "The government does not authorise protests and demonstrations of any nature."

There are seven outstanding charges against me and another activist for speaking in public. We will be tried over the next few months.

During the World Bank-IMF meeting in Singapore in September last year, 12 activists were deported and another 28 who had accreditation with the World Bank were banned from entering the country. One activist, Wilfred D'Costa, general secretary of the Indian Social Action Forum, was even interrogated for several hours before he was deported. The Singapore Government banned all outdoor protests at the meeting.

Practitioners of the Falungong faith have likewise faced these repressive curbs on freedom of speech and assembly in Singapore. Several of them have been, and continue to be, prosecuted for illegal assembly when they gathered in parks to exercise their faiths. Jehovah's Witnesses remain banned.

Homosexuality in Singapore continues to be criminalised and their efforts to hold functions have been repeatedly denied by the Government.

If all this is not enough, the Singapore Government announced in December 2006 that it was amending the Penal Code to increase the penalty for various offences including unlawful assemblies.

Academic freedom remains elusive in Singapore. This was the primary reason the University of Warwick rejected the Singapore Government's invitation to set up a campus here. The university had written to the Government asking that its students in Singapore campus be exempt from laws limiting freedom of assembly, speech and the press, and to remove bans on homosexuality and certain religious practices on campus. It also wanted its staff and students not to be punished for making academic-related comments that might be seen "as being outside the boundaries of political debate". The Government turned this down. Imperial College, London and the London School of Economics had previously also rejected similar invitations from Singapore.

I apologise for the length of this letter but I wanted to give you a comprehensive picture of the human rights situation and the abysmal lack of the rule of law in Singapore. Even so I have had to omit much more information because of space constraints. But as you can see, much of what is happening in Singapore goes against many, if not most, of what the IBA stands and works for.

For this reason and for the sake of the rule of law in Singapore I would like to ask the IBA to re-consider its decision to hold its 2007 Annual Conference here.

My colleagues and I would be happy to discuss this matter with you in greater detail. We invite you to send a fact-finding mission to Singapore in the near future to ascertain for yourselves the validity of the issues that I've raised in this letter.

As Singaporeans are so starved of news that runs contrary to the official stand, it would be remiss of me if I did not make the contents of this letter available to them. I would also be most grateful if you could highlight this letter to your members and associates.

Thank you and I look forward to a meaningful discussion over this matter with you and your colleagues.


Chee Soon Juan


Singapore Democratic Party