Sunday, March 25, 2007

Singapore's libel laws - fixing dissidents and reaping dividends

Let us shake off this oppressive shroud of sycophancy and unquestioning homage to authority. For if we just drift along, we may get to a position where it is not only wrong to talk, but also wrong to think. History is full of chronicles of how a robust and hardy people will always triumph over adversity. In the end, it is those who have the guts, the endurance and the stamina, who will overcome all difficulties and come into their own.
- Lee Kuan Yew, New Year's Message 1965, exhorting the Malaysians to stand up to the Malaysian Federal government and be counted.

If we had considered them serious political figures, we would not have kept them politically alive for so long. We could have made them bankrupt earlier.
- Lee Kuan Yew, Straits Times, Sept 14 2003

Beyond Suspicion? The Singapore Judiciary
by Francis T. Seow


The Singapore courts - when adjudicating commercial cases between two contending parties where neither the authorities nor the political élite are involved or interested - may be relied upon to administer justice according to the law. In this regard, Singapore judges have an overall reputation for the integrity of their judgments. The enthusiastic reports of international organizations, such as the Geneva-based World Economic Forum or the Hongkong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, have to be read subject to this important rider.

This book, however, is concerned with the other face of justice in Singapore: where these very same judges, sad to say, in politically-freighted cases have repeatedly demonstrated a singular facility at bending over backwards to render decisions favourable to the Singapore government and its leaders. Whereupon their judicial contortions have acquired an international notoriety that concerned human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists, and latterly the Lawyers' Human Rights Watch Canada, were moved to send their legal representatives to Singapore to observe the trial proceedings herein at first hand. Their observations confirmed what many Singaporeans have known all along: that the political context of such cases invariably influence the judges in their decisions.

And yet, the Singapore judiciary was historically free and independent of the government of the day or any other controlling legal authority, until the ruling People's Action Party - with no viable political opposition to keep it balanced and in check - began insensibly to entrench itself in the body politic of the nation. In that time, Prime Minister Harry Lee Kuan Yew, now nominally senior minister but still the enduring éminence grise of the People's Action Party (PAP) government, systematically gained control over the courts, which he exercises currently through his judicial point man and great friend, Yong Pung How: the chief justice*. In addition, Lee appoints only politically correct lawyers as judges whose loyalty he ensures with princely remunerations - well over and above the comparable market rates for judges worldwide. Corruption often-times simulates many forms and disguises: paying obscenely high salaries and bonuses to judges is one, for they inevitably assume the gratifying form of monthly retainers by the government for loyal services rendered or to be rendered. Given that he who pays the piper calls the tune, it is virtually impossible for judges to do justice by the citizens when the state or its leaders are involved as litigants, as this narrative will amply demonstrate.

(* Yong Pung How has since stepped down from the judiciary. The current Chief Justice is the former attorney-general, Chan Sek Keong, appointed in April 2006)

Unlike previous defamation actions, the legal blitzkrieg herein - masterminded by Harry Lee Kuan Yew - was exceptional in the sheer number of PAP plaintiffs who retained in concert disparate law firms of high-priced lawyers and who, against valid objections and normal procedural laws, were allowed by the courts to maintain multiple lawsuits over the same matter against the defendants: lawyer and unsuccessful opposition candidate Tang Liang Hong, his wife, Teo Siew Har, and, ultimately, his defence counsel, J.B. Jeyaretnam, who was also then the secretary general of the opposition Workers' Party. The insidious purpose of this unusual legal manoeuvre was intended to overwhelm the resources in personnel and finances of the defendants, and of Tang in particular, and to hamper their defence - a manoeuvre that was patently obvious to the judges but who, chose to turn a Nelsonian eye on these legal shenanigans.

Lee used to assert that the judiciary must be protected against "unjust attacks and slurs," but in truth, it is he who has not only disfigured the pristine face of justice in Singapore but undermined its very foundation by politicizing it, as well as that of the legal profession. In the ensuing proceedings, counsel for Lee and the Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong - Drew and Napier and Allen and Gledhill respectively - not to mention the lawyers for the other PAP plaintiffs, disgraced themselves and sullied the noble profession of the law by meekly allowing themselves to be led by their noses by the puppetmeister. In an attempt to win the case at all costs, they not only suppressed important evidence advantageous to Tang but concealed them from the presiding judge, Justice Chao Hick Tin. Nor did they take any steps to correct his [the judge's] misconception of the facts at the subsequent judgmental hearing, consequently ensuring that damages awarded against Tang would be humongous: thus perpetrating a travesty of justice by their studied silence. A classic case of the legal maxim, suppressio veri suggestio falsi - suppression of the truth is suggestion of the false. Given their seniority at the bar, they should have known better. Together with the staff of the Supreme Court registry, they manipulated the practice and procedure of the court and its docket to disadvantage the defendants at every turn in their obscene rush to judgment.

In a closed society where the government has a finger in almost every pie of business and commerce and controls every aspect of community life right down to sporting and even kindergarden activities, it makes sound commercial sense, if nothing else, to keep on its good side for its capacity to distribute lucrative contracts and work to the politically correct. In so far as the legal profession is concerned, the cornucopia of legal work dispensed by the government and its many linked companies was, and is, immense and lucrative. It is bread-and-butter work. It is understandably the aspiration of many law firms to be the chosen receptacle of such official favours. The defamation case or rather cases against Tang Liang Hong and his wife, Teo Siew Har - and the opposition Workers' Party leader, J.B. Jeyaretnam - bring into sharp focus the reluctance of Singapore lawyers to represent clients who are anathema to the puissant Lee and his government. Even so, this is Asian value at its rawest: one does not muddy the source of business or possible businesses by being a contrarian...

With the best will in the world, is it really conceivable for any judge in Singapore to decide a case against Harry Lee Kuan Yew and his PAP cohorts? Neither a wink nor a nod is necessary for a judge who values his position to decide in a certain way. Even if Lee's judicial point man has not intimated the correct decision to his judges, Lee has ensured their loyalty with magnanimous monthly salaries and allowances topping them up with generous yearly bonuses. To paraphrase Vladimir I. Denisov, a Gorbachev-era Soviet parliamentarian: given their princely pay, perks and privileges of office, no Singaporean judge would be mad enough to rule against Lee and his political confrères.

The PAP mouthpiece, the Straits Times, in its news coverage of the visit of Lord Woolf, the Master of the Rolls in England to Singapore, bragged that the visiting English judge was reportedly "especially struck how courts here have built a new legal culture which is highly efficient and technology-orientated. For example, he noted that while court cases here could be heard within six months, quite a few lawsuits in his country were still taking more than two years to be resolved. 'It is very impressive how Singapore courts are so efficient in managing cases and using IT.'" Lord Woolf was speaking, be it noted, on the mechanics of the courts system and not on the quality of justice! One should be able to separate the woods from the trees. The technology may be impressive but it is the administration of justice between people, and justice between individuals and state, and vice versa, that really matters ultimately.

The draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), Cap 143, which allows the arbitrary and indefinite detention of Lee's political opponents, dissidents and media critics, among others, is noticeably being relegated to the back burner, as the courts are increasingly being used to suppress critical comments and viewpoints through threats of defamation actions and the payment of huge damages and ultimately bankruptcy. Singapore has earned the dubious distinction of being a country whose leaders routinely use the libel laws as a weapon of repression. However, the courts cannot be freely resorted to, unless they are first made reliable tools of government: in other words, the judges chosen must be reliable. Tang's legal predicament with its scads of lawsuits, and by extension to that of his defence counsel and political colleague, J.B. Jeyaretnam, proves their political reliability, beyond peradventure.

The news media, in the rankling words of Harry Lee Kuan Yew, must be subordinated to "the overriding needs of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of [his] government," a feat he achieved with relative ease but at great cost to his international reputation and stature. The news media was subsequently reshaped into his subservient mouthpiece and that of his PAP government. The legal and judicial system is not too far behind. Once before, Dr. Joseph Goebbells, the Nazi minister of propaganda, dreamt of the same system of justice for the Third Reich where "justice must not become the mistress of the state, but must be the servant of state policy." But where Adolf Hitler and his enthusiastic minister of propaganda failed, Harry Lee Kuan Yew is succeeding. It is not an idle, but a terrifying prospect.

- Francis T. Seow


A brief excerpt of a report to the International Commission of Jurists on the defamation trial of Goh Chok Tong v J.B. Jeyaretnam, 18-22 August 1997

Singapore's leadership has a long-standing reputation for using defamation actions as a mechanism for removing opposition members from the Singapore parliament: far from tolerating critical remarks (not even those spoken or written in the heat of an election campaign), Messrs Goh and Lee have been swift to commence actions, to succeed with them, and to obtain such unconsciously high damages (and costs) as to bankrupt their opponents.

The registrar of the high court of Singapore provided this observer with a printout of all defamation actions heard to completion in the jurisdiction since 1959 (when the People's Action Party first came to power). It shows the following:

Schedule of awards of damages in Singapore cases

  • 1979 Lee Kuan Yew v Jeyaretnam S$ 130,000
  • 1988 Lee Kuan Yew v Seow Khee Leng S$ 250,000
  • 1989 Lee Kuan Yew v Jeyaretnam S$ 230,000
  • 1989 Lee Kuan Yew v FEER S$ 230,000
  • 1990 Lee Kuan Yew v Jeyaretnam S$ 260,000
  • 1991 Lee Kuan Yew v Quek Teow Chuan S$ 200,000
  • 1994 Lee Kuan Yew, his son and Goh Chok Tong v IHT S$ 650,000
  • 1994 Lee Kuan Yew v IHT S$ 400,000
  • 1994 Ernest Chew v Chee Soon Juan S$ 75,000
  • 1994 Ow Soh Leng v Chee Soon Juan S$ 30,000
  • 1994 Dr. S. Vasoo v Chee Soon Juan S$210,000
  • 1994 Chiam See Tong v Xin Zhang Jiang Restaurant S$ 50,000
  • 1995 Lee Kuan Yew v Vincour & Ors S$ 300,000
  • 1995 Goh Chok Tong v Vincour & Ors S$ 350,000
  • 1996 Lee Kuan Yew & son v Tang Liang Hong S$ 1,050,000

Actions by non-PAP politicians

  • 1996 Company (imputation of incompetence) S$ 20,000
  • 1995 Importer (imputation of bogus goods) S$ 100,000
  • 1994 Bank (imputation of negligence) S$ 50,000
  • 1992 Architect (imputation of fraud) S$ 60,000
  • 1992 Architect (imputation of unethical conduct) S$ 45,000
  • 1981 Lawyer (imputation of dishonesty) S$ 25,000
  • 1969 Lawyer (imputation of insolvency) S$ 7,350

Mr. Jeyaretnam sued Mr. Goh Chok Tong in 1987 (imputation of trickery, defence of fair comment) and failed, the Workers' Party sued two PAP members, one the attorney general, in 1974 (imputation of accepting foreign funds, and subversion; defence of privilege) but failed.

Earlier in 1997, Goh Chok Tong and the ten plaintiffs in the present actions had sued Mr. Tang Liang Hong, another Workers' Party candidate, who had alleged they conspired to defame him. Mr. Tang fled the jurisdiction, stating that he feared for his life. In his absence, all eleven suits were heard and the plaintiffs won damages totalling S$5,825,000:

Goh Chok Tong awarded damages of S$600,000, S$450,000 and S$350,000 (Total: S$1.4 million)
Lee Kuan Yew awarded damages of S$550,000, S$400,000 and S$300,000 (Total: S$1.25 million)
Lee Hsien Loong (son) awarded damages of S$350,000
Tony Tan Keng Yam awarded damages of S$350,000
Lee Yock Suan awarded damages of S$300,000
Six other PAP members awarded damages damages of S$1,350,000 and S$1,075,000

The above mentioned cases, it should be remembered, are only those that went to verdict. Many others have been brought by PAP members and settled out of court. Few details of those are available.

One example of a settled case was reported to this observer by another defendent (an opposition election candidate). In an election speech, he spoke words to the effect of "Membership of the PAP is a wise career move." He was threatened with an action, and chose to apologise and pay S$200,000, rather than face what he regarded as an inevitable verdict, and a crippling order for costs. The defendent, a retired man, had to sell his home to pay S$200,000.

- Stuart Littlemore QC, October 1, 1997

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