Singapore Responds to Chee

Earlier this month Garry Rodan had a great article in the Far Eastern Economic Review about Dr. Chee Soon Juan, the Singapore opposition leader facing a long campaign of savage repression by the local authorities.  I assist in Dr. Chee’s international legal defense effort.

Singapore’s authorities already enjoy a reputation as the world’s most litigation prone, but even by local standards this year has been exceptional. Not only was the REVIEW in September found to have defamed Prime Minister Lee and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, with an appeal now pending, but The Wall Street Journal Asia was also fined a record amount for contempt of court in a finding last month.

Meanwhile, three activists were given jail sentences in November. Theiroffence was to wear T-shirts adorned with a kangaroo in a judge’s robeoutside the Supreme Court in May during a defamation trial against Mr.Chee and his sister Chee Siok Chin. The Chees too were sentenced tojail for contempt after the judge in the defamation case contended theyhad not only accused the court of being biased and pre-judging thecase, but also disobeyed orders to cease particular lines ofquestioning. Comments about the way the presiding judge handled thatcase also landed blogger Gopalan Nair a three-month jail sentence.There could be more jail terms to come, as another 19 SDP members werecharged in October for illegal assembly and participating in an illegalprocession in March this year.

An interesting dimension to the flurry of legal actions this year hasbeen the eagerness of the new attorney general, Walter Woon, toinstigate contempt of court charges. Mr. Woon took the opportunity ofhis first public address as attorney general to attack what hedescribed as human-rights “fanatics.” Significantly, he directed theseremarks to an audience of lawyers and embassy officials at a LawSociety gathering to launch its Public and International LawCommittee’s lecture series. The first project of the new committee isto study the relevance of the United Nations Declaration of HumanRights in Singapore law. In the 1990s, Mr. Woon was, among otherthings, a nominated member of parliament who some Singaporeans hopedmight be a voice for liberal reform.

Under crossexamination by Mr. Chee during his defamation case in June,Minister Mentor Lee depicted the SDP leader as a political failure,contrasting him unfavorably with Singapore’s two elected oppositionmembers of parliament, Singapore People’s Party’s Chiam See Tong andLow Thia Khiang of the Workers’ Party. Yet Mr. Chee’s strategy ofchallenging–and breaking–what he sees as unjust laws circumscribingpolitical engagement is not just drawing international attention, butinspiring more SDP colleagues not to be intimidated by the threat oflegal actions. Mr. Chee also gets to directly confront and question Mr.Lee through the courts.

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