SINGAPORE (AFP) – Singapore’s legal system, praised by foreign investors for its efficiency, came under attack on Friday at an international lawyers’ conference for being repressive and silencing dissent.
Thousands of International Bar Association (IBA) delegates began meeting on Sunday in Singapore, a country that the group’s president, Fernando Pombo of Spain, said has an “outstanding judiciary.”
But Timothy Cooper, head of Washington-based human rights group Worldrights, challenged that notion. He questioned why political defendants in the city-state had never won libel suits brought against them by government officials.
He also asked why permits for gatherings “are routinely denied” to political opponents of the government – and received applause from hundreds of the conference attendees.
It is illegal to hold a public gathering of five or more people in Singapore without a permit, meaning demonstrations seldom occur.
Chee Soon Juan, one of a few to challenge the ruling People’s Action Party, also drew strong applause when he told delegates about his arrest and imprisonment six times, mainly for speaking in public without a permit.
Chee, secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party, and another opposition figure, lawyer J.B. Jeyaretnam, were declared bankrupt in recent years after failing to pay libel damages to members of the ruling party – effectively barring them from holding public office under Singapore law.
Addressing the gathering, Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar said that if Singapore’s leaders did not vigorously defend their reputations against those who questioned their integrity, “an insidious creeping effect” could lead people to believe the allegations.
He noted that London’s Financial Times had on Wednesday unreservedly apologised “for having published something which suggested nepotism” in Singapore.
Chee took a break from a five-day long solo protest over Singapore’s ties with military-run Myanmar to attend the IBA meeting. He said police told him his protest was illegal.
“I have no doubt that I’ll be charged and convicted again,” he said.
In his earlier speech, Jayakumar said Singapore’s legal system allowed the country’s different ethnic groups to live peacefully together, while international commerce thrived.
“Internationally our legal system and judiciary have been held in high esteem by the World Bank as an example of how a former British colony has been able to maintain its integrity and efficiency,” he said.
Singapore’s influential founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew earlier told the conference that other international groups have also given top ratings to the city-state’s legal framework.
He said authorities are “particularly careful” about political gatherings and those based on race, language or religion.
The city-state has bitter memories of past racial incidents in its early years and clamps down hard on anyone inciting communal tensions.
“We are not saying that our answers are the best answers, but they are simply what has worked for us,” Jayakumar said.
Before leaving to resume his one-man protest, Chee urged the lawyers to heed the words of Myanmar’s detained pro-democracy leader.
“In the words of Aung San Suu Kyi, please, use your liberty to help promote ours,” he said.
“Mr Jayakumar, this one thing I tell you, the human spirit can only be suppressed, never crushed.”
‘I want to thank the speakers…and Mr Jayakumar (left) for his very well-spun fairy tale’, Chee (right) said, and then proceeded to describe how he was sued for defamation and arrested several times for speaking without a permit. – PHOTO: ST
DEPUTY Prime Minister S Jayakumar on Friday accused Singapore Democratic Party’s Chee Soon Juan of turning an international meeting here into a theatre on Singapore politics, even as he responded to the opposition politician’s accusations of breaches in the law by the government.
And to a report detailing similar accusations, which SDP members distributed to delegates at the International Bar Association’s (IBA) symposium on the rule of law, Professor Jayakumar said it contained ‘half truths and complete untruths’.
He had opened the morning session at Suntec Convention Centre – the last major event of a week-long conference for about 4,000 legal practitioners from 120 countries – with a speech on how the rule of law is upheld in Singapore.
He was one of six speakers on the rule of law and the experience in Asia.
When the audience was invited to ask questions, Dr Chee took to the microphone.
‘I want to thank the speakers…and Mr Jayakumar for his very well-spun fairy tale’, he said, and then proceeded to describe how he was sued for defamation and arrested several times for speaking without a permit.
He claimed he had just come from a single person protest outside the Istana where he was approached by the police and told it was illegal.
‘Mr Jayakumar, will you tell the audience also when you talked about detention without trial, how members of the opposition were detained for 10, 20, 30 years?’ he said, naming other detainees like Chia Thye Poh and Francis Seow.
The session’s chairman, Mr Francis Neete, interrupted him at this point to let the minister respond, but Dr Chee said to let him finish what he wanted to say to the delegates.
‘I’m sure they would want to hear what the reality of Singapore is,’ he said, prompting applause from the audience.
Dr Chee then went on to say that he would gladly go to prison and remain bankrupt for the freedom of his country.
Quoting Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, he asked the delegates to ‘please use your liberty to help promote ours’.
Prof Jayakumar, who is also the Law Minister, replied that he would answer the question, ‘out of respect to the Chair, IBA and all the thousands of delegates who are attending’.
‘I say that because Mr Chee is a gentleman who vigorously campaigned for this conference to be cancelled and be boycotted.’
The DPM said he hoped that after spending six days here, the majority of the delegates would agree with the IBA’s decision to hold the conference here.
‘I would like or hope that the IBA proceedings do not get converted into a theatre of Singapore politics, because this is what Mr Chee Soon Juan is trying to do.’
‘He has the freedom of speech, but he has forgotten to tell some fundamental truths in many of the allegations that he has made both orally as well as in the publication that he has circulated.’
Referring to the eight-page report, he said: ‘If you want to persuade the members of the IBA, you have to tell them the complete truth.’
For example, the report gave the impression that in one court case, the Canadian courts had cast doubts on the integrity of Singapore courts.
‘But he doesn’t mention here that the courts in Canada from Supreme Court right up to the Ontario Court of Appeal threw out the allegation, and said that there is no reason to doubt the impartiality of the judges who heard the case in Singapore,’ said Professor Jayakumar.
The report also falsely claimed, he noted, that the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine was being banned here because it refused to apologise over a published interview with Dr Chee.
The session resumed after a break with a new panel of speakers, including National University of Singapore law professor Simon Tay, Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim and Malaysian Bar Council Ambiga Sreenevasan.
At question time, more SDP leaders took to the microphone.
Dr Chee’s sister, Ms Chee Siok Chin, recounted how she was bankrupted as a result of defamation suits by Singapore’s leaders, and then asked how it came to be that the Malaysian Bar Council had no qualms speaking up about the rule of law in Malaysia.
SDP assistant secretary-general John Tan, who came after her, questioned the independence of the judiciary here.
Among the five other members of the audience who took to the microphone, was Mr M. Ravi, who introduced himself as a human rights lawyer who has defended opposition parties.
He defended the Chee siblings when they were sued by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for defamation.
Another person who spoke was Mr Timothy Cooper, executive director of US-based human rights advocacy Worldrights.
Both Mr Ravi and Mr Cooper also raised questions about what they saw as flaws in Singapore’s rule of law.
Mr Neete, IBA’s immediate past president, told The Straits Times he was not surprised that politicians had taken to the conference.
Similar incidents had occurred in previous conferences and the same could be expected next year’s conference in Buenos Aires, he said.
He quipped: ‘Politicians being politicians will have to have a forum.’