Professor Ian Chubb AO
Vice-Chancellor and President
Australia National University
Canberra, ACT 0200
I read, with deep concern, in the Straits Times (18 Mar 07) that the Australian National University (ANU) is conferring the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa on Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's Minister Mentor, on 28 Mar 07.
If this is indeed true (strangely, I could not find any announcement of this event on the ANU's website, then I must register my utmost disappointment with your institution.
You may remember that one of your fellow citizens, the late Nguyen Van Tuong, was hanged by the Singapore Government for peddling drugs. In all probability, Nguyen's contraband emanated from the poppy fields of Burma, Asia's foremost producer and trafficker of narcotics.
This is where it gets interesting. The Singapore Government invests in commercial projects with Burma's drug lords, notably a man by the name of Lo Hsing Han. It was the Australian Special Broadcasting Services that first broke the story. The US State Department confirmed that "over half of [the investments from] Singapore have been tied to the family of narco-trafficker Lo Hsing Han'' since 1998. Andrew Selth, an analyst with – of all institutions – the ANU, reported "notorious [Burmese drug] traffickers like Lo Hsing Han are thought to control a number of companies in Singapore that are investing heavily in Burma." He also wrote that, in September 1988, two months after the US State Department said that Burma's junta killed more than 1,000 students during a popular rebellion, "the first country to come to the regime's rescue was in fact Singapore".
I believe that the abominable irony is not lost on you.
Coming back to Nguyen's death, Lee's administration rejected all pleas for clemency by the Australian, Singaporean, and international communities. Nguyen, then 25 years old, was hanged in November 2005.
Contrast this with the case of Julia Bohl, a 22-year-old German lady who was also convicted of drug trafficking. Because of quick and quiet diplomatic pressure brought to bear on the Singapore authorities, the amount of drugs she was carrying was miraculously reduced to below the legal limit that would have mandated a death sentence. Instead of being hanged, she served a three-year prison sentence and was released in 2005.
Tragic as Nguyen's execution was, he at least got to hold his mother the day before he was killed. This was a result of intense pressure from all concerned, especially his lawyers and the Australian media. His former death-row mate, Shanmugam, a Singaporean, who went to the gallows before him never had the same privilege. Shanmugam's mother begged to touch his son one last time on the eve of his execution. It was denied.
It is hard to imagine that things could be any worse. But it was for Amara Tochi, a Nigerian, who was hanged for trafficking diamorphine together with Nelson Malachy, another African national. It is reported that Malachy had testified that his co-accused had no knowledge that the packet Tochi was handed contained illicit drugs. Even the trial judge admitted that: "There was no direct evidence that [Tochi] knew the capsules contained diamorphine. There was nothing to suggest that [Tochi's supplier] had told him they contained diamorphine, or that he had found that out of his own." But for some legal reason that escapes many, Tochi was found guilty and hanged. As he pleaded for his life and asked his counsel not to "allow these people to kill me" he was led to his death without ever seeing his loved ones ever since his arrest two years earlier in 2004. He was only 21 years old.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, stated that in Tochi's case "the Government of Singapore has failed to ensure respect for the relevant legal safeguards." More generally, Alston said that Singapore law making the death penalty mandatory for drug trafficking was inconsistent with international human rights standards.
Vice-Chancellor Chubb, do you not think that the award of this honorary degree to Lee Kuan Yew mocks the memory of Nguyen and the others who were hanged by the Singapore Government? More important, what message are you sending to those drug peddlers awaiting their executions in Singapore?
The irony, nay, hypocrisy of conferring this award, and of the Doctor of Laws to boot, boggles the mind and rankles the soul.
And speaking of laws, the Singapore Government continues to introduce, amend, and apply laws to cripple freedoms of speech, association and assembly of my fellow citizens. Just a couple of weeks ago, your conferee said in an interview: "The Americans try to prescribe democracy by saying governments should allow free association, demonstrations and a free press. Here you want to hold a demonstration, you must have a permit first." His minister for home affairs, however, says that "the government does not authorise protests and demonstrations of any nature." In 2005, a group of four Singaporean democracy advocates staged a silent protest, calling for transparency and accountability from the Government. They were met by the riot squad and ordered to disperse. My fellow activists and I continue to be harassed, prosecuted and jailed for speaking in public.
In addition, several of us have been sued for defamation and ordered to pay crippling sums of damages and costs. We have been made bankrupts and barred for standing for elections. I have been previously sued on two occasions and ordered to pay almost AUD 1 million in damages to Lee and his associates. A third lawsuit also by Lee against my party, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), and its leaders is on-going which will result in hundreds of thousands of dollars being awarded to the Minister Mentor and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Detention without trial continues to be wielded over the heads of Singaporeans like the sword of Damocles. I attended the memorial service of one of Lee's former detainees, Ho Piao. Ho was a unionist who was tortured by Lee's Internal Security Department officers. His ordeal is documented in the 1978 Amnesty International Report. According to the report Ho was tied to a wooden chair, strangled, and punched repeatedly in the stomach and ribs. When he almost passed out, an officer hurled himself at Ho and knocked him to the floor. Whilst on the floor, the officers continued to rain punches and kicks to his head. Ho testified: "They pulled me from the floor and tied me to the chair. Another group came in to torture me. The torture went on for four days. I did not eat or sleep for four days." As some of his former fellow-detainees recounted his beatings at the memorial service, his teenage son sat sobbing quietly on the side.
Many of the late Ho Piao's contemporaries, most of whom were in the political opposition, were locked up for almost two decades without ever being charged for any crime. One such prisoner was Chia Thye Poh who was detained for 32 years.
The media remain under the firm strangulation of Lee. All newspapers are owned and run by the Singapore Press Holding, chaired by one of his loyalists and former deputy prime minister, Dr Tony Tan. A former journalist who worked briefly as a global affairs columnist for the Straits Times, had this to say: "The Straits Times…is run by editors with virtually no background in journalism. For example, my direct editor was Chua Lee Hoong, a woman in her mid 30s. She was an intelligence officer. Other key editors are drawn from Singapore's bureaucracies and state security services. They all retain connections to the state's intelligence services, which track everyone and everything."
Academic freedom is a ghost consigned to wandering hopelessly in the halls of Singapore's state-controlled universities. Academics such professors Christopher Lingle, Bilveer Singh, and Lim Chong Yah who publish information unflattering of Lee's government were bullied into submission; Dr Lingle was forced to flee Singapore when he was interrogated by the police and subsequently criminally prosecuted. As a neuropsychologist, I was teaching at the National University of Singapore. I was sacked three months after I joined the SDP. When I disputed the dismissal, I was sued for defamation.
You may be interested to know that while you confer this award on Lee, your counterparts in Britain, such as the University of Warwick, Imperial College in London, and the London School of Economics, turned down invitations by the Singapore Government to set up campuses in the city-state. The reason? The Singaporean authorities would not protect the academic freedom and freedom of speech of their staff and students in Singapore.
It is impossible for me to relate to you the entire history of repression in Singapore in this letter. In this age of the Internet, however, such information is not hard to obtain. After you have read it, you may begin to understand why your decision to confer this honour on Lee Kuan Yew is such an affront to those of us, both in Singapore and throughout the democratic world, who truly value the sacredness of justice and freedom.
You may argue that as Vice-Chancellor you answer to only your staff and students. In which case, may I ask what values are you imparting to the minds of those who walk through the gates of ANU? What image are you conferring on ANU?
Chee Soon Juan
Singapore Democratic Party
(20 Mar 2007)