Singapore government responds to the “White Paper on the Repression of Political Freedoms in Singapore” by Amsterdam & Peroff
Singapore government responds to the “White Paper on the Repression of Political Freedoms in Singapore” by Amsterdam & Peroff
15 Nov 2009 Posted in Replies
We have received queries on the “White Paper on The Repression of Political Freedoms in Singapore : The Case of Opposition Leader Dr Chee Soon Juan” by Amsterdam & Peroff.
The Paper recycles the views and comments that Dr Chee Soon Juan has regularly expressed. Singaporeans have, however, repeatedly rejected Dr Chee, his politics and his party. In the 1997 General Elections, Dr Chee lost decisively, obtaining only 35% of the votes. In the 2001 General Elections, he obtained only 20% of the votes, the lowest of any candidate in the Elections, where there were over 100 candidates. These results were a clear indication of what the electorate thought of him and his policies. In the 2006 General Elections, Dr Chee’s party, the Singapore Democratic Party ( SDP ), consistently polled the lowest votes in every constituency in which its candidates stood, and some of them were not far off from losing their deposits. There are others from the Opposition who are not only in the current Parliament but have also won several elections successively. These facts are not to be found in the Paper. Despite these facts, the Paper seeks to portray Dr Chee as the Leader of the Opposition in Singapore and a martyr.
Singapore is a democratic state with a Government that is elected through universal franchise. It has a clean and transparent government. Its public officials are held responsible against the highest standards of probity and integrity. Ministers and officials who have committed offences have been charged in Court and sent to jail. Independent global surveys on government effectiveness and quality have consistently ranked Singapore highly.
Singapore has a written Constitution that is supreme and which guarantees fundamental liberties such as the right to life or personal liberty, right to equal protection, freedom of speech, assembly and association, and freedom of religion. Such rights are not absolute. They need to be balanced against the interests of society as a whole. Just as much as the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly need to be protected, we believe that it is a fundamental human right of all our people to live in a safe and stable environment, free from violence and social disorder.
This document will not respond to each and every unfounded allegation in the Paper. Singapore encourages readers to research the facts which are publicly available and which speak for themselves. This response will clarify only the more egregious omissions and untruths.
1. The facts about Dr Chee Soon Juan
- Amsterdam & Peroff have made the case of Dr Chee Soon Juan the mainstay of their Paper. This section deals with the facts surrounding Dr Chee being sacked by the National University of Singapore, the civil and criminal cases he has been involved in, and his conduct over several years.
Dr Chee’s employment with the University, his dismissal and his “hunger strike”
- Dr Chee was a lecturer in the National University of Singapore in the early 1990s. In 1993, he was sacked by the University for misusing research funds, and then attempting to mislead the University in its investigations. When his misconduct was found out, he first admitted it. Subsequently, he tried to wriggle out of the situation. Dr Chee was to repeat this pattern of conduct more than once – first admitting his wrongdoing, and then subsequently trying to backpedal. Considering the nature and gravity of the offence, the University terminated Dr Chee’s employment.
- After Dr Chee received the notice of termination and the rejection of his appeal, he did not pursue any of the remedies open to him. If he had believed that the University had breached any of the terms of his employment agreement, he could have asked for arbitration as provided in the agreement. If he thought the University’s press statement or letters had defamed him, he could have sued the University for defamation, as he had publicly threatened to do. He did neither.
- Instead, on 5 April 1993 , he went on a “hunger strike” to protest his dismissal. His hunger strike was a stunt that gained him little public sympathy. It was reported in the press that he had a large breakfast everyday before commencing his hunger strike and that he had also fed himself on glucose water during his hunger strike. When asked about the glucose, he said that he took it on “doctor’s orders”. He carried out his hunger strike from a bed placed in his living room and there was substantial press coverage. On 14 April 1993 , Dr Chee called off his hunger strike.
Dr Vasoo’s suit against Dr Chee
- Dr Chee also alleged that his former superior in the University, Dr Vasoo, had fabricated evidence to justify Dr Chee’s dismissal. He contended that the Dean of the Faculty, Prof Ernest Chew and the department secretary (Ms Ow) were parties to the fabrication. These were serious allegations. All three sued Dr Chee for libel for making the allegations. Dr Chee could have chosen to prove his allegations in court. Whether there was indeed fabrication of evidence is a question of fact. Either Dr Vasoo fabricated evidence or he did not. The truth could have been established through cross-examination of Dr Vasoo and Dr Chee (as well as the cross-examination of Prof Chew and Ms Ow). It is quite telling to see what Dr Chee did when he was sued. He first filed a defence in Court. A few months later, he withdrew his defence. Thus, he did not offer a defence to the action. He also avoided cross-examination which would have severely exposed him. As stated earlier, this was a pattern which was to be repeated.
- The Court entered judgment for Dr Vasoo, Prof Chew and Ms Ow and ordered Dr Chee to pay damages. No other outcome was possible, given that Dr Chee did not offer any defence to the claims made against him.
- It is noteworthy that Dr Vasoo had been supportive of Dr Chee. Dr Vasoo persuaded the University to appoint him as a lecturer. Despite Dr Vasoo showing him goodwill and supporting him, Dr Chee secretly taped a conversation they had in December 1992. Dr Vasoo asked Dr Chee, point blank, whether the conversation was taped. Dr Chee denied taping the conversation. Later the taping was shown to have been done.
Mr Chiam, Dr Chee’s political mentor, repudiates Dr Chee’s conduct
- Mr Chiam See Tong is a veteran opposition Member of Parliament (MP). He has been an MP since 1984 and is still an MP. Mr Chiam is a respected and honourable man. He has never been sued by anyone from the PAP . He did not engage in defamation as a stock in trade of political business. Indeed, Mr Chiam has sued more than once, to vindicate his own reputation. Mr Chiam has also successfully claimed damages against two Government ministers because they had defamed him.
- In 1993, when Dr Chee was sacked by the University and started his hunger strike, Mr Chiam was the leader of the SDP . Mr Chiam had brought Dr Chee into the SDP and was Dr Chee’s mentor.
- Mr Chiam was very unhappy with Dr Chee’s antics (including the farcical hunger strike). Mr Chiam expressed his views. Dr Chee then immediately manoeuvred to oust Mr Chiam from the SDP and Dr Chee became the leader of the SDP in 1993. But, the ouster was illegal. Mr Chiam sued the SDP for illegally expelling him and succeeded in Court. Subsequently, Mr Chiam left the SDP and started another party.
- In 1995, Dr Chee made defamatory remarks against Mr Chiam. Mr Chiam sued Dr Chee and others who were responsible for publication of the libel. Dr Chee caused the issue of a press statement on 6 November 1995 stating inter alia, that Mr Chiam had shown a craze for personal power and that he had almost “killed” the SDP by his actions. On 1 February 1996 , Dr Chee told the press that the SDP would not apologise for the press statement. Mr Chiam sued for libel and the High Court found that the Chiam had been defamed. Mr Chiam was awarded S$120,000 in damages.
Dr Chee misleads Parliament
- In 1996, Dr Chee and some of his SDP colleagues made written and oral representations to a Parliamentary Select Committee with fabricated data. The claims made were startling and untrue, like a claim that the Government’s share of total health expenditure had fallen from 40% in 1970 to just 5% in 1990. In November 1996, Dr Chee and his three other SDP colleagues were charged by the Parliamentary Committee of Privileges for “deliberately falsifying data and misleading the public”. During the Committee of Privileges hearings, they continued to evade and prevaricate. Dr Chee and his colleagues were found to have been in Contempt of Parliament and were fined.
Dr Chee defames the Prime Minister and other Ministers
- During the campaigning in the 2001 General Elections, Dr Chee confronted then Prime Minister (PM) Goh Chok Tong and heckled him. He also shouted, during the heckling, that the PM and Ministers had lied to Parliament and the public, about a US$10 billion loan to Indonesia and that the government was hiding the true facts. These were absurd claims, made purely for political gain, without a shred of evidence or basis. Singapore had never made such a loan. Not a cent had been loaned. But Dr Chee did not care whether his headline grabbing allegations had even a tangential relationship to the truth.
- The Singapore Government is well known to be thrifty, careful and has never been accused of such scandalous conduct. Indeed, Singapore scores highly, in international rankings inter alia, for absence of corruption and transparency. The WEF Global Competitiveness Report 2009-2010 rated Singapore first out of 133 countries for public trust of politicians and transparency of government policymaking. The IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook 2009 ranked Singapore first out of 57 countries for the effective implementation of government decisions, and fifth out of 57 countries for transparency in government policies. If Dr Chee’s claims were true, then the PM would have lied to Parliament and the public and would not have been fit to be the PM.
- Dr Chee was sued by then PM Goh and then Senior Minister (SM) Lee Kuan Yew. He first publicly apologised for making his outrageous allegations. Later, he withdrew his apology. Again, he did not offer any defence to the action against him. He also did not go into the witness box to be cross-examined. If he had taken the stand, his mendacity and motivations would have been even more exposed. The Court gave judgment against him and ordered him to pay damages. The Judge found that Dr Chee’s conduct “leads inexorably to the inference that he acted in bad faith throughout. He knew the allegations he made were false, but he refused to admit that, and tried instead to delay the progress of the legal proceedings against him.” He did not pay the damages and was made a bankrupt in February 2006.
- Thus, Dr Chee’s bankruptcy had nothing to do with any exercise of a genuine right of free expression. He had fabricated sensational allegations of serious misconduct in order to get publicity while campaigning for the elections. When sued, he shied away from proving the allegations or allowing himself to be cross-examined. The court actions and damages awarded were a natural and logical result of his actions.
- In the run up to the 2006 General Elections, Dr Chee and the SDP published defamatory articles, which were also sensational. The articles alleged that Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and PM Lee Hsien Loong were corrupt and had covered up serious financial wrongdoings in National Kidney Foundation (NKF), a major charity. The Ministers sued.
- The legal suit was inevitable. This Government holds itself to the highest standards of probity and integrity. Ministers, MPs and civil servants found wanting have been dismissed and charged. Singaporeans know that they have a clean Government. Singapore ’s achievements in this respect, marks it out as a rare exception amongst countries that became independent after the World War II. Thus, any allegation of corruption or any allegation of wrongdoing is taken very seriously. The Ministers, so accused, will sue to clear their names and will go into the witness stand to be cross-examined (unlike Dr Chee, who has more than once, refused to take the stand). If the Government Ministers did not sue when allegations are made against them, that would be tantamount to accepting the charges against them.
- It was not denied by Dr Chee and his sister, Chee Siok Chin, that the publication of the libel against the Senior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister was part of their strategy in the 2006 General Election to discredit the Ministers and enhance the SDP ‘s image. They continued to distribute the article to the public even after the Ministers’ lawyers demanded an apology. Malice was evident - from the publication of the patently false allegations, the effort to perpetuate the allegations, and the intent to injure the Ministers as widely and gravely as possible. When sued, six members of the SDP Central Executive Committee apologised, some of whom stated that they knew nothing about the contents of the article. But Dr Chee and his sister, who were directly responsible, refused to apologise.
- The High Court gave judgment to for the plaintiffs, with damages to be assessed. Seven months after the timeline prescribed in law had passed, Dr Chee asked for an extension of time to appeal against the judgment. This was rejected by the Court.
- The matter then went for assessment of damages. The primary issue before the Court was assessment of the quantum of damages to be paid to the two Ministers. But Dr Chee and his sister persisted, without any foundation, in asserting that their libel was true, when it was no longer open to them to prove the truth of or defend the claims. They went about cross-examining the Ministers in a manner calculated to aggravate the damage and made statements that aggravated the libel. The Judge, in making a substantial award of damages against the Chees (which award was academic as the Chees were bankrupt), said that the Chees’ clear motive was to bring into view their political grievances at a highly publicised hearing. Their objective was to use the hearing (which as stated above was only to decide on the damages payable) “for the ulterior purpose of indicting the present political system in Singapore , which had nothing to do with the judicial decision to be made in this assessment of damages”. During their cross-examination of the two Ministers, the Chees had raised a range of matters including Singapore ‘s electoral system, detention under the Internal Security Act, nepotism, the prices of Government subsidised flats and the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation. These issues were quite irrelevant to the primary issue before the Court – which was to decide the quantum of damages payable. The Judge noted that “there was unbridled and offensive cross-examination of the Plaintiffs in public” by them and “speeches and assertions made without evidential basis”.
- Dr Chee’s behaviour during the assessment is detailed in Annex 1 (paragraph 15).
Dr Chee’s Criminal Cases
- Dr Chee has also been running a campaign of civil disobedience for some years. His modus operandi is to deliberately flout the law and challenge the authorities to charge him – and then allege persecution. In that way, he seeks to get international attention and sympathy. These details about his criminal convictions are also at Annex 1.
2. Freedom of assembly
Public Order Act
- All Singapore citizens, including Dr Chee and his supporters, are guaranteed under Article 14 of our Constitution the right to assemble peaceably and the right to form associations. The Constitution recognises that these rights are not absolute and allows for necessary restrictions in the interest of the security of Singapore or public order. Such legitimate restrictions are consistent with international instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- In other countries, demonstrations and processions have disrupted community life, and in many instances, endangered people and caused economic loss and damage to property. In Singapore , such rights are balanced against the societal need for law and order. Each society must decide for itself where the balance lies. Singapore is a small city with a dense population. The rights of society are therefore given significant weight. Individuals who wish to express themselves may do so in a variety of ways as long as they do not affect the rights of others. They are free to advocate their views outdoors at Speakers’ Corner or indoors. They may upload their views on the internet. Or they may apply for permits to hold assemblies outside of the Speaker’s Corner.
- One example of the approach taken is the “Move On” powers found in the Public Order Act. Singapore studied other jurisdictions and found the Australian model of move-on powers to be useful to prevent a situation where there is illegal conduct from escalating. If a person who is given the move on order complies with it, no offence is committed and there is no record of antecedence against the person.
- Another example of the approach is the filming of law enforcement activities when the filming jeopardises sensitive on-going law enforcement operations (counter terrorism activities) or when the film will compromise the safety of officers. Singapore has consciously decided not to have a general offence of filming but only if a filming prohibition order is issued and not complied with. This is more narrowly scoped than the recent UK Amendments to the Counter-Terrorism Act 2000. Such powers do not apply to the filming of routine Police functions.
- Dr Chee is entitled to express his views freely and has done so. He has also organised, unfettered, numerous public meetings lawfully to discuss his political views, including criticism of the Singapore Government. Neither he, nor those who have attended such activities or meetings, have been penalised or victimised. The rule of law dictates that all persons, politicians or otherwise, should obey the law of the land. This principle is applicable throughout the world.
- Dr Chee has decided for political reasons that he will not comply with the law. If he or anyone else is allowed to break the law with impunity, on the ground that they bear political messages, the rule of law will be fatally undermined. In doing so, Dr Chee seeks to pose as a martyr for an international audience in the expectation that foreigners unfamiliar with the politics of Singapore will grant him the legitimacy that the voters of Singapore have denied him.
The Internal Security Act
- The Paper highlights the Internal Security Act ( ISA ) as “one of the most troubling departures from the rule of law in Singapore ”. The ISA was introduced by the British against the backdrop of the Communist insurgency, in the 1950s. That insurgency continued for decades. The Paper mentions Chia Thye Poh, who was a key member of the Communist Party Malaya (CPM) who advocated armed insurgency and violence. He was detained under the ISA . Thousands of people died in the armed insurrection and guerilla warfare that the CPM carried out with the support of Communist states. The CPM and satellite organisations also had standing directives to punish with death those who betray the CPM revolution.
- Currently, there are less than 20 persons in detention. The detainees are broadly a mix of Jihad believers, and members of organisations with Al Qaeda links. The powers of preventive detention are subject to important checks and balances provided in the Constitution and the ISA . For instance:
- The detainee has the right to make representations to an Advisory Board, which must be considered, and is free to engage a lawyer of his choice for this purpose.
- The Advisory Board is appointed by the President, and is headed by a Supreme Court judge. It has the powers of a court of law to subpoena witnesses including investigators, and examine documents, including classified intelligence.
- It is required to review the detainees’ detentions on a regular basis.
- If the Advisory Board recommends the release of the detainee, the Government cannot detain him further unless the President gives approval – as such the President has the final say, with constitutional veto powers. The President is directly elected.
- Apart from the Advisory Board, members of a Board of Inspection, comprising Justices of the Peace and community leaders, are empowered to unscheduled visits to the ISA detention facility. By law, the Inspection Board is required to make an inspection at least once a month. Members are entitled to speak to the detainees and report their complaints and concerns to the Government.
- Doctors examine detainees regularly, although detainees may ask for a doctor at any time. Any injuries sustained by the detainees must be reported.
- Finally, detainees receive weekly visits by their families. This is an important component of their rehabilitation and helps prepare them for reintegration into society after their release.
- In detention, detainees undergo reformative training. Independent clerics discuss the theology with them. If they renounce their jihadist beliefs and pose no threat to society, they are released. The release can be on conditions.
- The challenge which terrorist activity places on traditional judicial trials is not a new one. The USA , UK , Israel and Australia , for example, have their own approaches to terrorism and preventive detention.
3. Freedom of expression
- The freedom of speech and expression is constitutionally guaranteed in Singapore .
Law of Defamation
- The law of defamation is not unique to Singapore and as in other jurisdictions that value the rule of law, the purpose of such a law is not to stifle free speech and expression, but to protect debate from untrue and scurrilous personal attacks.
- Personal reputation is no less valuable than personal property. We do not believe that public discourse should degenerate to a base level. If any person feels that he has been defamed, he may seek to vindicate his reputation by commencing an action in the Singapore courts. Senior Government leaders, including the Prime Minister and Minister Mentor have taken the stand to give evidence in trials and have subjected themselves to cross-examination. In each and every case, the accuser must prove his allegations. If the allegation is proven, the plaintiff will lose the case and pay legal costs. Otherwise, the accuser pays damages and legal costs. The decisions of the Singapore courts are matters of public record and can be analysed. The reality is that they have stood the test of public scrutiny.
Restrictions on Political Messages
- The Paper accuses the Government of imposing a prohibition on the producing, distributing and exhibiting of political films under the Films Act, claiming that it is without legitimate purpose and constitutes an unjustified violation of the freedom of expression. The blanket accusation not only fails to recognise the lawful justifications behind some of the restrictions imposed, it is also inaccurate. Party political films that are factual and objective are permitted. Political parties, their candidates and election agents as well as individuals are also permitted to use new media for Internet election advertising. As with many of their allegations, the Paper chooses to disregard facts which are not consistent with its thesis.
- There are 5,500 foreign newspapers and journals in circulation in Singapore . Many freely carry articles critical of Singapore . Singapore ’s population is not only well-educated, it is internationally connected and highly wired. Household broadband penetration is at 115%. Singapore ranks amongst the top three connected cities in the world. The Singapore population is able to judge for itself the truth.
Experiences of Other Opposition Politicians aside from Dr Chee
- The Paper states that the government has engaged in a systematic campaign to co-opt Singapore ’s legal system as a tool of control and repression to prevent the opposition and the people of Singapore from speaking. There is no truth to the allegations the Paper makes about various opposition members. A detailed rebuttal of the misrepresentations is at Annex 2.
- Mr Chiam See Tong is a clear example of how even opposition politicians value their reputation. When he first stood for election, two PAP ministers made defamatory remarks about Mr Chiam’s law firm and his abilities as a lawyer. Mr Chiam threatened to sue, and after taking legal advice, the two ministers paid damages. Mr Chiam and Mr Low Thia Khiang (the leader of the Workers’ Party) have between them served as MPs for 42 years in Parliament. Neither has ever been sued. They continue to campaign freely, speak freely, both in Parliament and outside it.
- It is pertinent to note that the Constitution of Singapore was amended to allow opposition politicians who have failed to win a seat at an election to hold seats in Parliament as “non-constituency” members. Opposition non-constituency members have not been reticent, inside or outside Parliament, in criticising Government policies and holding the Government to account. If the intention of Government leaders were to remove the opposition from Parliament by utilising defamation laws, the Constitution would not have been amended to ensure precisely the opposite effect.
4. Singapore ’s Independent and Impartial Judiciary
- There is no merit to the allegation that Singapore ’s judiciary is not independent and impartial. The Singapore Government exercises its authority through laws that are enforced by an independent judiciary in accordance with established procedures. Singapore ’s Supreme Court Judges enjoy security of tenure until the age of 65 years, and their independence is guaranteed under the Constitution.
- Singapore ’s judiciary is highly regarded internationally for its independence and administration of justice.
- The Paper has also alleged that there is a violation of judicial independence and impartiality insofar as the administration of matters bearing directly on the exercise of its judicial function is within the power of the executive through the Attorney-General [emphasis added]. The Attorney-General’s Chambers is an organ of the State. It is independent of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of Government. It is headed by the Attorney-General, who is neither a Minister nor a parliamentarian nor a member of the governing party. The independence of the Attorney-General is constitutionally protected. As the Public Prosecutor, the Attorney-General’s duty is to uphold the Rule of Law and to safeguard the public interest.
- Singapore does not see the need to respond to every allegation within the Report. The assertions based on Singapore ’s Constitution at Part IV of the Paper, for example, are quite wrong. A plain reading of the Constitution would expose the logical flaws in the Paper.
- Singapore has grown and prospered because of its adherence to the rule of law and its robust legal framework. In a world of competing interests and priorities, Singaporeans must choose for themselves the kind of government they want, and the appropriate balance to be struck between societal interests and the individual. Singapore does not seek to prescribe or impose its values on others, but simply for an open dialogue on these issues untainted by misrepresentation. This response clarifies facts which the Paper chose to ignore.
Last Updated on 26 Nov 2012