Chee Soon Juan, the much-jailed, harassed and bankrupted leader of Singapore’s harried opposition Singapore Democratic Party, was ordered back to jail Wednesday after being found unable to pay a fine for violating Singapore’s bankruptcy act.
Chee is to spend three weeks at Singapore’s Queenstown Remand Prison. The fine grew out of the luckless opposition leader’s attempt to leave the country in February to attend the World Movement for Democracy in Istanbul, where he had been invited to deliver an address on the island republic’s authoritarian approach to dissent. He was fined S$4,000 for trying to leave the country. The party has posted its message on YouTube.
“My colleagues and I have been repeatedly convicted and imprisoned for ‘speaking in public without a permit,’” Chee said in a press release issued before his imprisonment.
The sentence for the country’s most prominent opposition leader comes as an embarrassment to the American Bar Association, which together with Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is organizing the World Justice Project’s International Multidisciplinary Outreach Conference on September 20. The US-based legal organization, whose motto is “defending liberty, pursuing justice,” did not answer a request for an interview on why it has lent its name to a conference in a country with some of the most restrictive laws and policies in the world.
Singapore’s legal system has been condemned repeatedly by the New York City Bar Association, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others. Scores of opponents of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) have been jailed or sued to bankruptcy by the government. Defamation suits have been used against the international press to the point where they remain a cudgel against free expression – except for the republic’s increasingly ubiquitous and angry blogs. In 2006, the International Commission of Jurists condemned the “the use of defamation proceedings in Singapore to silence opponents, seriously undermining the rule of law.”
In reacting to Chee’s latest imprisonment, Amnesty International said in a statement: “This climate continues to stifle freedom of expression, deters the expression of views alternative to those of the ruling People’s Action Party and dissuades many Singaporeans from exercising their right to take part in public affairs.”
Chee himself was sued in 1993 and 2001 for defamation and ordered to pay former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and other PAP leaders US$600,000. He was sued again in 2006 in an action that makes it virtually certain that the SDP will be bankrupted and put out of business. A neuropsychologist by training, Chee was sacked from his job as a lecturer at the National University of Singapore in 1993 after he was accused of improperly using S$226 for postage.
Chee’s party did not win any parliament seats in last year’s May poll, but won 23 percent of the votes in the wards it contested.
As bankrupts, the party’s leaders now have been banned from standing for election and from traveling overseas; Chee’s passport has been impounded.
Singapore is ranked 146th of out of 168 countries by Reporters without Borders, the journalism watchdog organization, just below Somalia and Sudan. The Far Eastern Economic Review is currently being sued by Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, for having published an interview last year with Chee.