IBAHRI gravely concerned by conviction and sentence of Dr Chee Soon Juan, leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) is gravely concerned about the recent ruling of the Singapore High Court, in which Dr Chee Soon Juan’s conviction for speaking in public without a permit was upheld. The IBAHRI believes that Dr Chee, leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), has been the target of repeated attempts by Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) to stifle his opposition views and prevent him standing for parliament.

On 20 January 2011, Judge Steven Chong in the High Court, sentenced Dr Chee to a $20,000 fine which would have been commuted to a prison term of 20 weeks in the event that it had not been paid by 10 February. SDP supporters raised and paid the fine. However, the IBAHRI is gravely concerned that the ruling PAP party has passed and continues to enforce unlawful domestic legislation which prevents the open political discussion necessary to ensure a democratic society. Of particular concern to the IBAHRI are the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act, Public Order Act and the Miscellaneous Offence Act. Section 2(1) of the latter, makes it illegal to conduct any activity without a permit if it: (a) demonstrates support for, or opposition to, the views and actions of any person; (b) publicises a cause or campaign; or (c) marks or commemorates any event.

The IBAHRI understands that the government has repeatedly stated that no permits will be given for outdoor political events and believes that the government refuses permits and/or prosecutes those groups which challenge or oppose it. Furthermore, under section 45 of Singapore’s Constitution, a person who has been convicted of an offence and sentenced to a fine of at least $2,000 is not eligible to stand for Parliament.

Singapore has not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which formally guarantees the right to freedom of expression. However, the IBAHRI believes that Singapore remains bound by international customary law such as such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Under Singapore’s own domestic law, Article 14(1) of the Singapore Constitution guarantees the rights to freedom of speech, assembly and association.

The IBAHRI contends that Singapore should abide by recognised international standards on freedom of expression, as set out in the 2008 IBAHRI Report: Prosperity versus individual rights? Human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Singapore. The Singapore Government’s reluctance to accede to international standards on freedom of expression is unacceptable. In response to the recent Singapore High Court ruling on Dr Chee, the IBA’s Executive Director, Mark Ellis said: ‘When Singapore’s restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and association are read in conjunction with its constitutional rules for parliamentary candidates, it appears that the government is attempting to silence its critics. This is achieved through a combination of legislative restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, the routine denial of permits and selective prosecution of political opponents. The IBAHRI deplores Dr Chee’s convictions and urges the Singapore Government to issue a pardon to Dr Chee and to continue to work towards adopting recognised international standards on freedom of expression.’

ENDS

For further information please contact:

Romana St. Matthew - Daniel
International Bar Association

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Notes to Editors

In 2008 the IBAHRI released the report Prosperity versus individual rights? Human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Singapore in which concern was expressed about limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly, and the press, and of the independence of the judiciary in Singapore. The report contains 18 recommendations which the IBAHRI urged the Singapore Government to implement as a matter of priority.

Investigations for the report began in the lead-up to the IBA’s 2007 Annual Conference in Singapore. Strong debate between the government and its critics took place during the IBA’s Rule of Law Day: an open public forum on human rights which was the first such discussion at an international conference in Singapore.

The report can be downloaded from the IBA website.

The following notes outline Dr Chee’s clashes with the ruling PAP government:

  • In 2001, the former Prime Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong of the PAP, sued Dr Chee for defamation during the 2001 election poll, following Dr Chee’s questioning of a government loan of $10 billion. Purportedly regarded as a ‘dissident’ by the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, Dr Chee was unable to obtain a defence lawyer and his application for a foreign QC was rejected. Damages of $500,000 were made against him and after losing on appeal, he was declared bankrupt on 10 February 2006 after failing to pay the sum. In the case of defamation claims by the ruling PAP party, in just six cases between 1959 and 1997, PAP officials have been awarded over $9 million in damages. In the case of actions by non-PAP litigants, the total for seven cases within the same period was $307,350.
  • In 2006, Dr Chee applied for, and was refused a permit to hold a rally during the World Bank and IMF annual meetings. 
  • On 24 February 2006, the Singapore Attorney-General filed Contempt of Court charges against Dr Chee for refusing to answer court's questions and defaming the Singapore judiciary during his bankruptcy petition hearing. Dr Chee was sentenced to a day in jail and a fine of $6,000, but he failed to pay the fine and was jailed for an additional seven days.
  • In September 2006, the Attorney General filed contempt of court charges on the grounds that Dr Chee had criticised the judiciary during his 2001 bankruptcy petition.
  • In May 2008, following an article on alleged government misuse of charitable funds, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew sued for defamation by inference. After a trial in which cross examination of the claimants was limited to two hours each, Dr Chee lost the case. Reports suggest that Dr Chee was imprisoned for contempt of court after he represented himself during the damages assessment.
  • In the most recent case, reported above, Dr Chee was prosecuted on eight counts for giving speeches in a public area without a permit during 2005 and 2006:
    • Three charges were subsequently dropped by the Attorney-General without explanation, whilst Dr Chee was convicted of one charge and served a five week prison term in 2006 in default of paying a $5,000 fine.
    • Dr Chee had three separate trials to dispose of the remaining four charges. His repeated requests for the charges to be consolidated into one trial were denied and consequently, his trials lasted from 2007 to 2010.
    • On 9 November 2010, Dr Chee appealed all four convictions in the High Court. He urged Judge Steven Chong to restore the people’s rights to free speech in Singapore and appealed on three grounds:
      1. He had a constitutional right to freedom of speech in Singapore;
      2. The Singapore government had repeatedly stated that no permits would be given for outdoor political activities. This policy was ultra vires and their argument that Dr Chee failed to hold a permit was a red herring; and
      3. The failure to issue a permit and/or prosecute Dr Chee represented illegal discrimination because organisations affiliated to the government and PAP party are permitted to speak in public.
    • Judge Steven Chong reserved judgment for two months, before dismissing Dr Chee’s appeal on 20 January 2011.