Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Reform of Singapore's Political System is Long Overdue

Below are two speeches by Dr Chee Soon Juan & Ms Chee Siok Chin from the Singapore Democratic Party. I've selected these two speeches because it portrays the political system in Singapore. There'll be some who will say that I'm presenting a one-sided view. Well, go read the local newspaper, Straits Times {ST}, or watch the local news on Channel News Asia {CNA}, for the other side's one-sided view because the local media is heavily influenced & controlled by the ruling party. Oh by the way, the local media has a much wider reach with a national audience than this blog!

Singapore needs to reform its political system

Chee Siok Chin recently participated in the Institute of Policy Studies forum held on 2 Jun 06. Her speech below was made at the session The Future of Political Parties in Singapore.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

For more than 40 years now the PAP has dominated parliament. We’re not talking about 60% or 70% of MPs from PAP. Invariably it has been more than 90% of parliamentary representation from the ruling party. Is it a coincidence that this consistency has never been rocked since the PAP came in to power? Are opposition political parties so bereft of credible politicians that the PAP continues to make clean sweeps of the seats in every election? Clearly, this is what the Mr Lee Kuan Yew would like to have Singaporeans believe.

To a large extent, they have been successful in fooling many Singaporeans that talent lies only in and with the PAP. This is the sad excuse that the Lee Kuan Yew uses to justify the million-dollar salaries that they pay the ministers while countless Singaporeans are finding a hard time making a living.

An important question we must ask when we talk about the future of political parties in Singapore is “Is this really in our hands? In other words, are we really in control of our future?” At this point in time the future of SDP seems unclear due to the lawsuit that Lee Kuan Yew & Lee Hsien Loong have brought upon us. But I will come to that later. However, this is a pertinent question for all opposition parties and not just the SDP, when we examine how the ruling party has used its influence and power to shape or destroy its opponents.

How do opposition political parties survive, let alone thrive when every branch of the executive and all public services are controlled by the ruling party? How can the elections process and system be fair and free when wrought with biased, unfair and even unconstitutional practices and when the boss of the Elections Department is none other than the Prime Minister himself? How can the SDP get our message out when the local press which is controlled by the Government runs hate campaigns against the party? How can Singaporeans feel belonged to the country when we are not allowed to assemble or express our opinions freely without facing dire consequences?

As long as the PAP continues to have a stranglehold over these public institutions and services, opposition parties and civil societies can only exist to the extent that the ruling party sees fit.

This is precisely why the Singapore Democrats have been passionate in our call for democratic reforms for Singapore. Last weekend the party held a landmark workshop because this was the first time that Singaporeans have gathered together to plan for a campaign to bring about reform of the political system here. There are many areas in which changes must be made in order for Singapore, and not just political parties, to thrive. And the SDP has identified at least three which we feel need urgent attention. They are the elections system, the media and political and civil rights.

Electoral reform

The elections process and system in Singapore are far from being free and fair. I won’t go into the details of how the GRC system, the gerrymandering of constituencies, the late announcement of the elections, the 9-day campaign period, the exorbitant elections deposits, the restrictions imposed on the internet community etc work against the opposition political parties.

I will however elaborate on why it is important to challenge these practices and call on the government for reforms. Many Singaporeans, my fellow opposition politicians included, have said that we should participate in politics within the limits that the ruling party has set. In other words, play by and within the rules.

This seems a fair and logical observation at first glance. But look at how the rules have changed according to the whims and fancies of those in power. Each time we make some headway, new regulations are slapped on us to prevent us from gaining ground. Take for example the ban on political videos. It was the SDP that first produced our party video in 1996. Within a few months, the Government conceived a regulation and pronounced a ban on such videos. Of course, we all know how Channel News Asia produced and aired the 3-part story on Lee Kuan Yew. And yet independent film-maker Martyn See is under investigation for making a film on Chee Soon Juan.

More recently, just weeks before the announcement of the elections, a new regulation was conjured up to ban political podcasts during the campaign period. It is widely known that the SDP is the only political party that makes use of this technology which had proven popular as many people were downloading it to listen to SDP’s messages.

However, an even more glaring abuse of power is how the Progress Package and the New Singapore Shares are doled out during GEs. In addition to this, the tying PAP votes to the upgrading scheme are clearly wrong. However, I will not labour on these issues because as you might know, I have taken out an Originating Summons to the courts to question the legitimacy of the 2006 GE. The court date has been set on 27 June at 10am in open court.

The clearly undemocratic practices in the election system must be addressed by an independent elections commission and not an elections department under the direct control of the PMO.

Media reform

I’m sure those of you here who read the local newspapers regularly and follow reports on political parties will agree with me that the SDP gets the worst press. This is intensified during the elections when we are viciously attacked on an almost daily basis especially by the ST. And of course, the worst pictures of us are used in the newspapers. Ones with our eyes half-closed, mouths wide open, fingers pointing and basically most unflattering shots. On the other hand, you get nice posed shots of the PAP and even other opposition political parties. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all envious of how good the other politicians look in the newspapers. Here I’m trying to illustrate not just the biasness and the lack of professionalism of the local journalists and editors but also the fact that the media plays an extremely important role in obstructing or facilitating the democratization process in Singapore.

When the media is under the direct control of the ruling party, you can be sure that the brainwashing of Singaporeans is not just pervasive but quite thorough. This irresponsibility is exacerbated when the local press knows that there are no other alternative reporting via the mainstream media thanks to the Newspapers Printing and Presses Act.

The power of the media cannot be underestimated. When you have control over the mainstream media, you have control over the minds of the majority of the people. And the PAP knows this very well. It knows that if it should loosen its grip over the media and allow fairer reporting, people’s minds will open and we will think more incisively and draw more informed conclusions. Thus instead of providing Singaporeans with free flow of information, the local media is helping the government to retard our thinking processes not only through skewed but untrue reporting.

Political and civil reform

Nowhere else among First World countries will you find a citizenry as docile and a society as controlled as ours. For too long now the leaders have enforced laws to restrict the freedom of expression and movement. They do this in order to make Singaporeans feel powerless and isolated. When we feel this way we are entirely at the mercy of the authorities in every aspect of our lives. How we live, what we say, where we go and so on. Lee Kuan Yew knows this very well and that is why he said in 1987, “we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters - who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”

Civil society in Singapore must be allowed to thrive and citizens must feel empowered in order for us to feel that we have a stake and belong to the country. Singaporeans must realize that we are the real owners of this island state, not the PAP and even less so, the MM and his family.

Time and again Singaporeans who express dissenting views are asked to form or join political parties in order to have their voices heard and to be taken seriously. But why should this be so? Why can’t ordinary citizens express their views and have them taken seriously without getting onto the political bandwagon? Why do we have to allow the PAP to corner us into an unnatural arena and then attempt to manipulate us from there? It is precisely because they know that they have the means to shape opposition parties.

The lawsuit brought about by Lee Kuan Yew & Lee Hsien Loong on the SDP on the day that the elections was announced clearly shows that the SDP’s call for accountability and reforms do not go down well with those in power. Lee Hsien Loong had said that when he saw the article about NKF which he claims to be defamatory, he felt that he had to act on it. However, it is strange that the PM had only seen the article on the day that he called for the elections. That copy of TND had been on sale for about a month. In January this year the Singapore Democrats even held a forum to discuss the NKF matter. Articles were posted on our party website from as early as last year.

The timing of the legal action taken by PM & MM was to thwart the SDP’s elections campaign. They knew that this would distract my team members from running an effective campaign. We spent much time at meetings and discussing our response. Even our printer was sued and because of that we had a lot of trouble getting someone to print our campaign materials.

The Singapore Democrats have been passionate and active in pushing for these reforms. The PAP and especially Lee Kuan Yew feel very threatened by our call for reforms, accountability and transparency. This is exactly why Lee Kuan Yew has chosen to crucify and demolish us. We do not know what the damages will be but come what may, the MM and his son must know that the SDP is only an organization. They may be able to close down the party through their autocratic laws. But they will never destroy the spirit and the determination of those of us who genuinely love our fellow men and our country.

Thank you.
Statement of Chee Soon Juan submitted to the High Court, Singapore at the Bankruptcy Petition Hearing on 10 February 2006 {Note: Chee Soon Juan was jailed for 8 days for reading this statement}

Background: Dr Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, was sued in 2002 by former Singapore prime ministers Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong for defamation. The courts awarded the case to the plaintiffs and ordered Dr Chee to pay $500,000 in damages. Messrs Lee and Goh then took legal action to declare Dr Chee bankrupt. In response Dr Chee submitted this statement at the bankruptcy hearing.

After much observation and having personally gone through the judicial process, I cannot but come to the conclusion that my case has not received the justice that it is entitled to; it has been crippled right from the beginning.

First, I was denied the services of QCs when the case commenced in 2002 because according to judge Tay Yong Kwang, the matter was not “complex enough”. This is in spite of the fact that I had made known the problem that few Singaporean lawyers would act for me because this involved politics. In this regard, it is instructive to note an AP report said criminal lawyer, Mr Subhas Anandan, was happy to represent “thieves and even terror suspects – but no dissidents, please.”

The fact that the plaintiffs, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong, had engaged Senior Counsel, Mr Davinder Singh, who is seasoned in handling PAP defamation lawsuits and the fact that I had no lawyer to argue my case for me seemed to not bother the courts at all. The US-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights commented:
Neither at the hearing, on February 7 [2003], nor in the course of his judgment, did Justice Rubin display the least concern that Dr. Chee was unrepresented. The Lawyers Committee considers that this apparent lack of concern, coupled with the considerable latitude extended to Mr. Singh in his submissions to the Court, resulted in manifest unfairness in the course of the hearing and, specifically, the denial to Dr. Chee of a fair hearing that met the international norms to which we have referred.
Second, the case was awarded to the plaintiffs through Summary Judgment, which meant that I could not call witnesses and defend myself in open court. Again, the Lawyers Committee wrote:
The Lawyers Committee considers that there appear to be triable issues in this matter, such as whether or not the words spoken by Dr. Chee were defamatory and whether there was pressure brought to bear on Dr. Chee that should render his apology and admission void for duress.
In summary, not only did I not have legal representation but I also did not get a trial. It is well-known that Singapore has detention without trial. Now it seems that we also have defamation without trial.

To be sure my case is only the latest in several that have taken place through the years. Mr J B Jeyaretnam, one who has suffered the most under this legal tyranny, has had to endure much injustice. One case which he had appealed with Mr Wong Hong Toy to the Privy Council of London in 1988 will perhaps go down in judicial infamy. The Law Lords then had concluded that both the defendants had “suffered a grievous injustice” at the hands of the Singapore Judiciary and Law Society.

Another instance was the removal of former judge Mr Michael Khoo from the bench after he had passed a lenient sentence on Mr Jeyaretnam.

Through the years Mr Jeyaretnam has been hounded and was finally made bankrupt in 2001 which made him ineligible for the 2001 elections. He looks set to also be disqualified for this coming elections.

Then there was the case of Mr Tang Liang Hong who likewise was sued for defamation and made bankrupt in 1997. If ever there was any doubt as to the partiality of Singapore’s courts, this case and all its attendant proceedings removed it. It involved a police report that Mr Tang had made during the 1997 general elections about PAP leaders. Mr Lee Kuan Yew then got hold of the report, distributed it to the media, and then proceeded to sue Mr Tang for defamation.

The above have been but a small sample of instances showing the lack of independence and fairness of our judicial system. This has prompted international organizations to comment:
“Civil defamation suits are being misused by the Executive to intimidate and deter those Singaporeans holding dissenting views.” – Amnesty International

“[Defamation lawsuits have] done little to overcome the courts’ reputation as improperly compliant to the interests of the country’s ruling People’s Action Party.” – International Commission of Jurists

“What emerges…is a government that has been willing to decimate the rule of law for the benefit of its political interests. Lawyers have been cowed to passivity, judges are kept on a short leash, and the law has been manipulated so that gaping holes exist in the system of restraints on government action toward the individual. Singapore is not a country in which individual rights have significant meaning.” – New York City Bar Association
Our own former solicitor-general, Mr. Francis Seow said, “the judiciary…contort themselves into obscene positions to favour…the government.”

The US embassy in Singapore expressed concern over “the ruling party’s use of the court system to intimidate political opponents.”

Stuart Littlemore, QC, reporting for the International Commission of Jurists wrote:
“The Singapore leadership has a long-standing record of using the high court as a mechanism for silencing its opponents – by suing them for statements that, in any comparable jurisdiction, would be seen as part of a robust political debate inseparable from democratic freedoms, and by being awarded such unconscionably high damages and costs as to bankrupt the defendants, forcing them out of parliament.”
More recently, Chief Justice Yong Pung How sued his former remisier, Mr Boon Suan Ban, for defamation when Mr Boon allegedly harassed Mr Yong over some financial matters. Mr Boon was subsequently arrested and remanded at the Institute for Mental Health at the “pleasure of the President.” The papers pertaining to the case were thensealed.

In 2005, High Court Judge Mr V K Rajah ruled that a silent protest staged by four activists calling for transparency and accountability from the Singapore Government was “incendiary” and that such protests would “improperly undermine both a hard-won national dignity and a reputable international identity.” This is in spite of the fact that the Singapore Constitution clear states that only five or more persons gathered in a public area constituted an illegal assembly.

The question of the independence of Singapore’s judiciary is also the subject of a dispute between two commercial companies that is taking place presently in Ontario, Canada. The arguments of one party can be found here. {Note: Read the article Suffering Singapore's Slings by Michael Backman}

Through the decades opposition politicians have been, and continue to be, hounded, persecuted, and prosecuted by the PAP through the courts. All this time no one in Singapore has dared to say anything. There comes a time, however, when one must look deep into oneself and ask how much more of the persecution one has to suffer in silence. Today I have made the decision not to remain silent any more and tell you what you don’t want to hear: That the judiciary in Singapore is, sadly, not independent especially when it comes to dealing with opposition politicians.

I wish I didn’t have to do this. I wish I could say that my country’s judicial system is independent and fair. But I can’t because that would be a lie. It would be a much easier decision for me, and more importantly for my family, to walk away from this bankruptcy hearing and accept the punishment that the court has meted out. But my conscience dictates otherwise and I must take the path that in all likelihood will lead to dire consequences.

However, making this statement is a decision that I have chosen and, having made it, to accept the consequences that it brings. I hope to make this statement a start to a campaign to pry the country’s judiciary from the clutches of the PAP Government.

I may or may not succeed in my endeavour, but I would rather live my life having spoken and fought for the truth than to share it with cowardice and deceit. In my little way, I would have stood up for Singapore, my home too.

Chee Soon Juan
10 February 2006

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