IBA on Rule of Law in Singapore

cheesoonjuan101708.jpgThis afternoon and evening I have put in a number of hours working on the case of Dr. Chee Soon Juan to prepare for the events of next week (read more here and here). I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and making many calls to various contacts, and I’ve discovered that many in Singapore believe that this man’s tireless and heroic efforts somehow impairs the image of the country. There are some who express open distaste in what he is doing based on the “cultural relativism” argument, and others who are openly afraid to be involved in any way in his defense. Both arguments I have encountered before in other contexts and in other countries. I can only say that respect for opposing views is not the property of any one single culture. Further, what the present global financial crisis shows us is that there is an overwhelming social interest in transparency at all levels of both governments and business. Our interest in this case, I would like to emphasize, is generated by Dr. Chee’s proper and legitimate interest in bringing authority to account and building a stronger future for the country. In my series of discussions with this gentleman, I have heard him raise questions of leadership, but have never heard him utter a disrespectful word. I marvel at his restraint and the constructive attitude he has exhibited throughout personal bankruptcy and multiple wrongful incarcerations. After the cut, I share an excerpt from a July 2008 report from the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute entitled “Prosperity and Individual Rights? Human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Singapore.” The report, which confirms the institutional culture of fear which has prevented Dr. Chee from obtaining legal counsel, explains the background of his case, and states: “It certainly appears that Dr Chee has been made a target by the Singapore Government, and that their criticism of him has gone far beyond a reasonable standard.

Dr Chee Soon JuanDr Chee Soon Juan was born in 1962 and holds a PhD in neurophysiology from the University ofGeorgia. In 1992 he joined the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), and shortly afterwards became its Secretary General, which he remains. He lectured in psychology at the National University of Singapore until 1993. Three months after contesting a by-election against then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, Dr Chee was sacked for allegedly misappropriating research funds; a charge he denied and protested against through a hunger strike. The head of his department at that time, and the person who accused him of the crime was reportedly a PAP member of parliament. Dr Chee has clashed with the Singapore Government on numerous occasions, some of which are outlined below. Dr Chee has not yet been elected to Parliament.In 2001, Dr Chee was sued by Lee Kuan Yew and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for defamation during the 2001 election poll. The defamation was linked to Dr Chee’s questioning of a government loan of US$10 billion previously offered to former President Suharto of Indonesia. Dr Chee was purportedly unable to obtain a lawyer, as the president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, Subhas Anandan, had allegedly stated that he would represent murderers, thieves and even terror suspects but would not act for dissidents in Singapore. Dr Chee’s application for a foreign Queen’s Counsel was rejected, and he reports that a summary judgment with S$500,000 damages was made against him. After losing on appeal, in February 2006 Dr Chee was declared bankrupt after failing to pay the damages. In addition to being prevented from standing for election, he has also reported that he has been banned from campaigning for his SDP colleagues and from appearing in public election rallies. It should be noted that in August 1999, Dr Chee applied twice to hold public rallies, and was rejected on both occasions.In September 2006, Dr Chee held a rally during the World Bank and IMF annual meetings. He had applied for a permit, but this was refused. The Singapore Government has stated that all outdoor demonstrations and processions would not be allowed during the meetings. Although he was approached by police officers, he was not arrested. In the same month, the Attorney General filed contempt of court charges against Dr Chee regarding his behaviour during his bankruptcy petition when he criticised the judiciary. In June 2006, Dr Chee was charged with eight counts of speaking in public without a licence and violating the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act (PEMA).He was initially fined S$5,000, with an order that he be imprisoned for five weeks if he failed to pay the fine. He did not pay the fine and was eventually jailed. Dr Chee has recently lost another defamation case initiated by Lee Kuan Yew and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The article in question that prompted this case concerned a scandal involving misuse of funds in the National Kidney Foundation, a government-run charity. The article effectively implied that corruption in the Foundation was not disclosed as the government insisted on secrecy in all government-run funds. Although the article did not mention Lee Kuan Yew or Lee Hsien Loong, the court found defamation based on the conclusion that the statements were defamatory by inference. In this case, the defendants did not answer the defamation claim and therefore defaulted, which makes it difficult to assess the value of the claims. It should be noted that there is reportedly a chance that the SDP will be dissolved as a result of this case. Of interest in this case is the court’s decision that where reference is made to a class of persons – such as the government as a whole – every individual member of that class may have a cause of action. The court in this case rejected that there is any greater latitude to make statements about public figures or matters of public concern, and held that the two plaintiffs had a right to sue. During the damages assessment, Dr Chee represented himself and has been cited for contempt by the court. The cross-examination of the plaintiffs was reportedly limited by the court to two hours each. Reportedly, Dr Chee has now been imprisoned for contempt of court following that hearing.The Singapore Government’s consideration of the situation regarding Dr Chee is as follows:

‘Dr Chee has, in between elections, repeatedly flouted Singapore’s laws on public order and insisted on going to jail instead of paying a fine to build up his dissident image… That Dr Chee flouted the law at this time and at other times suggests that he may consider himself above the rule of law, when the law in question is one that he does not agree with.’

Throughout the ongoing clashes between the government and Dr Chee, PAP officials have made numerous harsh criticisms of Dr Chee, both publicly and under parliamentary privilege. It certainly appears that Dr Chee has been made a target by the Singapore Government, and that their criticism of him has gone far beyond a reasonable standard.However, it must also be noted that the government not taken action against those participating in democratic debate at certain times. For example, at the annual IBA Rule of Law Day, held as part of the IBA’s Annual Conference in Singapore, Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the IBA, insisted that the meeting be open to the public in order to ensure an open and lively debate on rule of law issues. Included in the audience was Dr Chee, who made strong statements against the government and its human rights record. The Rule of Law Day was a public event, and despite significant delays, the IBA was eventually granted a licence from the Singapore Government for the public to attend. The resulting debate was vigorous and no action was taken following the session against those speaking.