A prominent Singapore opposition leader said on Wednesday he has been charged with contempt of court because he made critical comments about the Singapore judiciary.
Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the tiny Singapore Democratic Party, was declared bankrupt by Singapore's High Court last month for failing to make libel payments to two former Singaporean prime ministers, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong.
In a court document seen by Reuters, the attorney-general said that Chee had acted in contempt of court during his bankruptcy petition on Feb. 10 when he refused to answer the court's questions and proceeded to read his statement.
The attorney-general also said that Chee had scandalised the judiciary when he "imputed that he and other opposition politicians had suffered grave injustice because the Singapore Judiciary was not independent and compromised the law in order to gain favour with the Government".
During the hearing, Chee made a statement to the effect that the city-state's judiciary is not independent when it comes to dealing with opposition politicians. The statement was later distributed to the media, Singapore government members and international human rights organisations.
"They are coming after me for the statement I made. But the point that I want to make is that we’ve got to put a stop to all these defamation lawsuits which are used for political ends," Chee told Reuters on Wednesday.
Opposition politicians and human rights groups say that defamation lawsuits brought by Singapore's leaders are designed to cripple the opposition. Singapore's leaders say such action is necessary to safeguard their reputations.
Chee's February statement quoted passages from Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists and the New York City Bar Association, which he said have all criticised Singapore's judiciary.
Many Singapore opposition figures have faced legal action at some time by government members.
Under Singapore's laws, there is no maximum penalty for charges related to contempt of court and Chee is not the first person to be charged with contempt of court.
In 1995, Christopher Lingle, an American professor who lectured at the National University of Singapore, wrote in the International Herald Tribune that judiciaries in some Asian countries are compliant to ruling powers.
Although the article did not mention Singapore, the Singapore attorney-general pressed contempt of court charges against Lingle, charging that he was referring to Singapore.
The academic left the country, was tried in absence and fined S$10,000, which was paid from his frozen assets in Singapore.
Known for his strong criticism of the government, Chee lost a three-year legal fight against defamation suits brought by Lee and Goh in January 2005, and was ordered to pay S$500,000 ($306,200) in damages for questioning the government's use of public funds.
Chee has already lost his right to contest the next general election -- expected later this year -- after being fined for speaking in public without a permit. He will remain barred from contesting elections as long as he remains bankrupt.
The ruling PAP -- now led by Lee Kuan Yew's son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong -- has dominated parliament since independence in 1965. It won 82 of 84 seats in the November 2001 general election, and has never lost more than four seats in any election. Chee's party has no seats.
A High Court official told Reuters on Wednesday that the attorney-general filed the contempt of court charges against Chee on Feb. 24.
Defamation suits against the opposition must stop
Chee Soon Juan
2 Mar 06
Singapore is probably the only country that cannot produce enough opposition candidates to contest in more than half of the seats during elections thereby conceding power to the ruling party even before the first vote is cast. The coming general elections expected in a few months will be no exception.
A major cause of this crisis is the use of defamation lawsuits brought by ruling party officials against opposition leaders to obtain crippling amounts of money in costs and damages, and subsequently making them bankrupts when they cannot make the payments. Bankrupts are barred from contesting in elections. Mine is but the latest in a series of cases that have terrorized Singaporeans into submission. Below is a list of previous cases:
Year Litigants Damages awarded
1979 Lee Kwan Yew v J. B. Jeyaretnam S$130,000
1988 Lee Kwan Yew v Seow Khee Leng S$250,000
1989 Lee Kwan Yew v J. B. Jeyaretnam S$230,000
1990 Lee Kwan Yew, Lee Hsien Loong, & S$650,000
Goh Chok Tong v International Herald Tribune
1994 Lee Kwan Yew v International Herald Tribune S$400,000
1996 Lee Kwan Yew & Lee Hsien Loong S$1,050,000
v Tang Liang Hong
1997 Lee Kuan Yew et al v Tang Liang Hong S$3,630,000
1997 Goh Chok Tong v J. B. Jeyaretnam S$100,000
2005 Lee Kuan Yew & Goh Chok Tong S$500,000
v Chee Soon Juan
(US$1 = S$1.7)
The above cases are those that went to trial. There were several others that were settled out of court where opposition defendants agreed to pay PAP plaintiffs hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages because they felt that going to trial was futile and served only to increase damages and costs that would be ultimately awarded.
Apart from the International Herald Tribune, foreign news companies such Time, Newsweek, The Economist, Asiaweek (defunct), Far Eastern Economic Review (defunct), Bloomberg and Yazhou Zhoukan, a Chinese-language news weekly, have also been sued by Singapore government officials.
For the sake of democracy, freedom of speech, and openness, these defamation suits must stop. And they can be stopped if the country’s judicial system exercises its powers to become a bulwark to protect the people from an authoritarian executive bent on crushing the opposition and the media.
I have now been charged for contempt of court for making the statement that Singapore’s judiciary is unfair and not independent. Imprisonment for me is inevitable. But as one who cares deeply about democracy and freedom, I could not have done otherwise.
For too long the international community has ignored this injustice and repression that has gone on in Singapore. And because of the silence, the practice has spread to other countries in Asia: Cambodia’s Hun Sen recently sued Sam Rainsy and colleagues for defamation, Thaksin Shinawatra has sued the media in Thailand and openly professed his admiration for the Singapore system, and Malaysia’s establishment has also used defamation suits to silence its critics. Even Martin Lee has raised concerns about the “Singaporization” of Hong Kong.
In order for the region to not continue the slide towards oppression through laws, effort must be taken to examine and reform judicial systems that have come, or are in danger of becoming, co-opted by undemocratic regimes. As Singapore remains a major economic-political player in Asia, such effort must perforce start with the city-state.
In a few weeks I will face my accusers in court and will be judged by the very institution I have spoken out against. The outcome is a foregone conclusion. I will accept whatever penalty that is meted out for as much as I dread going to prison, continuing to keep quiet when injustice is used to subvert democracy is even more painful.
It is my hope therefore that Singaporeans and members of the international community alike will join me in the struggle to make Singapore’s judiciary independent, and from there turn Singapore into another bastion of democracy and freedom in Asia.
Chee Soon Juan
Singapore Democratic Party