Democracy in Singapore

Wall Street Journal’s opinion piece on Lee vs Chee. “But at least, thanks to the Internet, they are able to read the exchange and make up their own minds.” The best statement made in that article as we wade through the arguments posited from all sides. By why is democracy in Singapore always about Dr Chee vs the PAP? That simplifies the whole debate too much and makes it seem that only Dr Chee is the champion of “democracy” in Singapore. That certainly cannot be the truth isn’t it as nobody should have the monopoly on what democracy is all about – not the PAP, not Dr Chee. What about the Workers’ Party, who seem to have been deliberately written off by the international media, although that party is in the best position in the past few years to dislodge the PAP from a GRC even.

Democracy in Singapore
26 June 08

Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore can rightly be proud of many achievements, but full democracy is not one of them. The city-state he founded in 1965 and led as Prime Minister until 1990 is economically prosperous and its citizens enjoy a range of freedoms. Political dissent is not among them.

Which makes a recent David vs. Goliath exchange between one of the country’s few opposition politicians and Mr. Lee worth noting. The dialogue took place in a courtroom and is therefore privileged – which means we can report on it without risking a lawsuit, which Mr. Lee often files against critics. Audio files are available on the Singapore Democratic Party’s Web site, and a partial transcript is available at Singapore Rebel, an independent blog.

The setting was a hearing to assess damages against Chee Soon Juan, head of the Singapore Democratic Party, and his sister and colleague, Chee Siok Chin. In 2006, the Chees lost a defamation suit brought by Mr. Lee and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, over an article they published in their party newsletter that was interpreted by the court to imply corruption on the part of the government. In last month’s hearing, the elder Mr. Lee, who holds the title of Minister Mentor, was cross-examined by Mr. Chee, who was representing himself.

Mr. Chee is no orator, and on one level the dissident was no match for the eloquent Mr. Lee. But when the subject turned to the moral underpinnings of democracy – freedoms of speech, assembly and association – the debate went game, set and match to Mr. Chee.

Mr. Chee set out his philosophy while questioning Mr. Lee: “What I’m interested in is justice, the rule of law, because ultimately it is not about you, Mr. Lee. It is not about me. It’s about the people of Singapore, it is about this country and everything we stand for. You and I will pass on, but I can tell you, the practice of the rule of law, the entire concept of justice, democracy – that is going to last for all eternity.”

Mr. Lee didn’t respond directly to those assertions, choosing instead to cite the International Bar Association’s decision to “honor” Singapore by holding its annual conference there last year and noted a letter from the association’s president saying “how impressed they were by the standards they found to obtain in the judiciary.”

Elsewhere in the hearing, Mr. Lee defended his string of defamation suits against opposition politicians and the press: “They know me by now,” Mr. Lee said, referring to the people of Singapore, “that if anybody impugns the integrity of the government, of which I was the prime minister, I must sue.”

He went on: “There are various parts of this government which do not comply with Western practices, including the law of libel. But it is a system that has worked.” Mr. Lee has never lost a libel suit. He and his son are currently suing the Far Eastern Economic Review, a sister publication of this newspaper, and its editor, Hugo Restall.

Our reading is that the Minister Mentor sounded more than a tad defensive – no less so than in his characterization of Mr. Chee, who has been bankrupted as a result of lawsuits by Mr. Lee and other politicians. He called Mr. Chee, a “liar, a cheat and altogether an unscrupulous man.” Not to mention “a near-psychopath.” Mr. Chee, for his part, referred to Mr. Lee as a “pitiable figure.”

It’s hard to know what Singaporeans make of all this. Mr. Lee is widely revered as the father of their country, and Mr. Chee is often scorned for his aggressive tactics. But at least, thanks to the Internet, they are able to read the exchange and make up their own minds.

So, too, in the case of Gopalan Nair, which is making its way through the courts now. Mr. Nair is a former Workers’ Party candidate. He is now a U.S. citizen and online advocate for media freedom in Singapore. He traveled to the city-state to attend Mr. Chee’s hearing last month and recorded his thoughts on his blog, where he expressed his contempt for the court proceedings and challenged Mr. Lee to sue him.

On May 31, he was arrested and interrogated. On June 2, he was charged with insulting Judge Belinda Ang, who presided over the Chee hearing, by email. He was released on June 5, six days after his initial arrest, and charged on June 12 with insulting another judge in a separate, 2006 email. Last week, the court changed the first charge and specified that the offending remarks about Judge Ang were made on a blog, not by email.

Mr. Nair’s case is scheduled to go to court in mid-July. Meanwhile, Mr. Chee was just released from jail, where he served 11 days for “scandalizing” the court during his questioning of Mr. Lee. His sister served 10 days. The court has yet to set the amount of monetary damages in the defamation case. When it does, we’ll know the price of political dissent these days in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore.

Full Weight of the Letter of the Law

From the way Today presented the facts, it looks like after the full weight of the letter of the law is brought down on Gopalan, he is recanting and repenting for the sake of escaping a heavy punishment. Shrewd as the government now cannot be too harsh. The government also now have the reason not to be too harsh, as being too tough in the sentencing might get bad press as after all, all they wanted to do is to make a strong point across.

The judiciary hounded Gopalan as he dared attack the judiciary openly. I can’t help but think of the bad press the Malaysian judiciary is receiving now because they bended to former PM Mahathir’s political whims and fancies when he ruled Malaysia. Is the judiciary falling into that image trap? With the new AG in town, I initially thought that his credentials might bring a positive change. What do you think?

Another judge, another charge
Gopalan Nair accusedof having insultedJustice Lai two years ago

Friday • June 13, 2008

Leong Wee Keat
weekeat@mediacorp.com.sg

ALREADY facing one charge of recently insulting a High Court judge, former Workers’ Party candidate Gopalan Nair has now been accused of having insulted another judge two years ago.

The 58-year-old lawyer, now an American citizen, allegedly insulted Justice Lai Siu Chiu in an email sent to her private secretary, on or around March 17, 2006.

According to the charge filed in the Subrodinate Court yesterday, Nair had accused Justice Lai of having “no shame”. He also accused other judges of “selling their souls (and) their conscience for money”. He charged: “Your Singapore judges including Lai are corrupt judges.”

This offence allegedly took place while Justice Lai was sitting in a judicial proceeding. The High Court judge had sentenced Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) leader Chee Soon Juan to a one-day jail term and fined him for contempt of court, on the same day Nair had allegedly sent the email.

This new charge was filed under the Penal Code. The earlier charge, in which Nair is accused of insulting Justice Belinda Ang last month in the execution of her duty as a public servant, fell under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisances Act). Both carry a maximum punishment of a year’s jail and a fine of $5,000.

On May 25, the former Singaporean had returned to observe a three-day court hearing to assess damages in a defamation suit that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had won against the SDP and its leaders. It was alleged that Nair had sent an email containing comments from his brief on Justice Ang to the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General during his stay.

And yesterday, Nair apologised for the impact his words might have had — but stood by his blog’s contents.

“It was never my intention to malignor cause distress to anyone and if thewords that I have used have this effect, I withdraw them and apologise. But as far as the contents of my blog go, as to the events that occurred in the three days of court, it is an accurate observation which I have stated under my rights as a free man,” he said during a 25-minute press conference at a coffeeshop at Peck Seah Street following his court appearance.

Nair said the incident involving the 2006 email was “too long ago” and he “probably did not send” it to Justice Lai.

He also claimed he did not send any emails to Justice Ang or anyone else regarding last month’s incident.

While he migrated to the United States in 1991, Nair said he “is a Singapore patriot at heart”, and felt a “compelling need” for him “to tell the world” about what he had witnessed at last month’s trial.

Nair’s lawyer, Mr Chia Ti Lik, said his client intends to claim trial for both charges. Nair, who was released on $5,000 bail yesterday with his passport impounded, will next appear in court on Monday.

Law Minister K Shanmugam had earlier this month condemned attacks made on the Judiciary as “totally unacceptable”.

“To make sure that you protect the integrity of the Judiciary … you have to be very, very strict about anyone who attacks the judiciary in scurrilous ways, or calls into question its independence,” he added.

Gopalan’s Famous Last Words

“I repeat the threat that Lee Kuan Yew had made on day two of the show trial during the last 3 days in the High Court. When asked by Dr. Chee whether he will sue those who write on the Internet defamations against him, I mean defamations in the Singaporean sense, his definitive unequivocal answer was that he will sue them. There is no doubt in the Singaporean sense, I have defamed him and his Prime Minister son, not only in my last blog post but in almost all my blog posts since my blog’s inception in December 2006”

“Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, look here. I am now within your jurisdiction and that of your corrupt police and your corrupt judiciary who will do anything you want of them, however criminal and illegal.

What are you going to do about it?”

Gopalan Nair stood as a WP Tiong Bahru GRC candidate in the 1988 election. In 1991, he took part in a 3-cornered Bt Merah single ward fight. Now, after his arrest for insulting civil servant Belinda Ang, this would be his biggest political battle ever. Representing him is Chia Ti Lik another former WP member. If you observed Gopalan Nair’s style in his blog, I bet he was a fiery speaker back then at elections since his prose is dramatic and provocative. Personally, I feel it would be entertaining to watch him and the courts cross swords. We shall see if he still full of bravado when faced with a maximum one year jail sentence. Should we feel sympathy for Gopalan? It all depends on how much we think Gopalan set the course for his own unpleasant predicament.

US blogger charged in Singapore over ‘prostituting’ comment

SINGAPORE (AFP) — A California-based blogger who allegedly accused a judge of “prostituting herself” has been arrested and charged in Singapore, his lawyer and a court document said Monday.

Gopalan Nair, a former Singapore lawyer who is now a US citizen, was arrested in the city-state Saturday and charged Monday with insulting a public servant, his lawyer Chia Ti Lik told AFP.

Nair, 58, was later remanded in custody for one more week as the authorities said they needed to investigate further, Chia told reporters.

He is due back in court next Monday.

“We can confirm that Gopalan Nair, a US citizen, was arrested on May 31,” a US embassy spokesman said, adding that “we are monitoring the case closely.”

According to a court document, Nair is charged with insulting Justice Belinda Ang Saw Ean last Thursday by sending an email which said she “was throughout prostituting herself during the entire proceedings, by being nothing more than an employee of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his son and carrying out their orders”.

Nair’s lawyer Chia said the comments essentially repeated those Nair made in a recent blog about a defamation case filed by Singapore’s leaders against an opposition party and its members.

In the blog, Nair strongly criticised a three-day legal hearing last week at which Singapore founding father Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, testified.

In another post on his blog Saturday, Nair taunted authorities, saying he was in Singapore at a particular hotel, and also gave his phone number.

“I am now within your jurisdiction… What are you going to do about it?” Nair wrote.

Nair is charged with insulting a public servant, which on conviction carries a maximum fine of 5,000 dollars (3,660 US) or one year in prison.