(21 Oct 2008)
Singapore represents itself as a good place to live and do business -- a democracy with the rule of law.
In reality, Singapore is a bully. But it ensures that the rest of the world fails to realize it by using a carefully crafted PR strategy designed to portray the city-state as a model of good government and economic development.
"The frustrating thing is that people continue to see Singapore as a rules-based society. I want the international community to realize the abuses," said secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party and leader of the opposition, Dr. Chee Soon Juan, in an exclusive telephone interview yesterday from his home in Singapore. "Fortunately, international organizations are getting involved, like Lawyers Rights Watch, the International Bar Association, the Inter-national Commission of Jurists. All have criticized Singapore."
Dr. Chee should know. His saga, which began in 1992, reads like the Book of Job and shows that the city-state of five million people is truly an autocracy whose ruling elite use defamation lawsuits and other court techniques to harass democratic activists like Chee, as well as media and corporate entities which fall out of favour.
This Thursday, Dr. Chee will be on trial for the eighth time. He is accused of the "crime" of holding a meeting with more than five persons without a permit. (So much for the Singapore constitution's guarantee of freedom of opinion, expression and assembly.)
"Every time we [have] applied for a permit we have been turned down and the minister said that he would never grant a permit," Dr. Chee explained.
His ordeal began after he joined the opposition party and criticized the cronyism and secrecy of the Singaporean government. Since then, lawsuits waged by the ruling elite have bankrupted him personally and are about to bankrupt his political party. He has ended up in jail because he is no longer able to pay the fines, and he has lost his university position as a lecturer. Throughout, Dr. Chee has been denied basic legal rights such as legal representation and the right to cross-examine and present a defence. Every time he criticizes such unjust treatment he is sued for defamation, then fined huge amounts or sent to jail.
Singapore also muzzles the press. Local media is government-owned and foreigners have been harassed when they tried to report on such abuses. "International newspapers, The Dow Jones, The Wall Street Journal, Fair Eastern Economic Review, Time, The Economist, International Herald Tribune [and] Bloomberg have all been sued and/or prosecuted for making statements about these matters," Dr. Chee said.
Fortunately, a team of lawyers, led by Canadian law firm Amsterdam & Peroff in Toronto, has been set up in order to help Dr. Chee defend himself in court and to embarrass Singapore before the world for its failure to uphold the rule of law. The team is headed by Bob Amsterdam (who defended Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other high-profile Russians against the oppressive Putin regime), U. K. defamation expert Anthony Julius (who represented Lady Di) and American law professor.
William Burke-White. "The Singaporean authorities are using the law to repress political rivals and as punishment," Amsterdam said in a phone interview from his headquarters in London. "It's a myth that Singapore is a democracy, a complete myth."
The team is going to help Dr. Chee represent himself in court and also intends to bring the injustice to the attention of the United Nations. They also plan to register the Singapore Democratic Party in their jurisdictions so that it may continue its work as an exiled entity.
On Thursday, Dr. Chee will have to represent himself, however. The Singapore court will not give standing to a foreign lawyer, and local lawyers have been frightened away from his case. There is no Legal Aid representation provided either. He knows he probably faces jail again because he cannot pay any more fines.
"I survive financially by selling books. I peddle them on the street. I was trained in academia but after I joined the opposition in 1992 I was sacked and since then nobody will want to work with me. They are frightened of guilt by association," he said.
He was fired by a member of parliament with the ruling party. "When I said my sacking was politically motivated, he sued me for defamation. I went to court, lost and the court awarded damages of US$350,000. My wife and I sold our house, car and everything to pay this fine," he said.
Another two defamation lawsuits resulted in US$400,000 in fines after Dr. Chee raised questions about Singapore's secret financial support for the corrupt Suharto regime in Indonesia.
"The significance of those cases was we didn't even go to trial. It was a summary judgment, decided by the judge in chambers without any right to cross-examine," he said.
"A third case in 2006 was a defamation lawsuit by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his son, the current Prime Minister, over an article written in our party's newspaper. Fines were huge [US$610,000] and the judgment was delivered in the judge's chambers again."
When Dr. Chee criticized the result, the judge said this constituted contempt of court and jailed him for 12 days.
"I've been convicted on seven occasions already and have another nine charges outstanding. I can't afford to pay any fines so I will have to go to prison. The only way out is to leave, but if I leave the government wins and if the government wins the people lose. Singapore is my home and lack of transparency and accountability will simply result in huge problems down the road for my country and for my children."
"I hope to see democracies like Canada, the U. S. and others in the world pay attention to these matters before it's too late. Ultimately, their interests are going to be affected as well."