By Hah Foong Lian
SYLVIA LIM has a master’s in law from the University of London and has a stable job teaching and doing administrative work at Temasek Polytechnic. The 40-year-old former police officer also has a thriving political career. A member of parliament since 2006, Lim is definitely an achiever by Singapore’s stringent standards. The only problem is that she belongs to an opposition party, which means her political run is in constant danger of becoming a short sprint. Worse, she can end up in penury.
Bankrupting opposition leaders through defamation suits has become the ruling party’s most popular – and most effective – weapon against its rivals. For years now, the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has dominated Singaporean politics even before it became an independent nation in 1965, has been winning such cases against political opponents, who are then ordered by the court to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. Unable to come up with the money, PAP’s rivals are forced to declare bankruptcy. Under Singaporean law, this disqualifies them from running for elections.
The situation has opposition politicians treading very carefully – to the point, some observers say, that they have been practically rendered voiceless. Comments one lawyer who, like other legal experts interviewed for this piece, declines to be named: “It is a powerful way to get your opponents. The government knows only two things, power and money. If I can get you through money, I will do it. I will suck you dry.”
Lim herself admits, “Once we get (in position), it is an uphill task. We try to stay within the system to survive.”
She says the ruling party is quite thin-skinned. “If there is any innuendo that the remarks (you made) has affected the reputation of PAP leaders,” she says, “they would not hesitate to use the courts.”
Slapped with lawsuits
Two of her colleagues at the Workers’ Party (WP) have already been at the receiving end of this tactic: J.B. Jeyaretnam and Tang Liang Hong, who each faced multiple civil defamation suits filed by PAP leaders in the late 1990s.
Chee Soon Juan, secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), was also forced to declare bankruptcy in February 2006 after the court ordered him to pay current Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong S$500,000 in damages. Chee was found guilty of making derogatory remarks against Lee and Goh during the 2001 polls. He was unable to run in 2006 elections because of his bankruptcy and barred from attending conferences overseas. His wife remains employed but Chee himself has been reduced to selling books on the street to help support his young family.
Tang, meanwhile, fled the country after receiving death threats. Aside from 11 defamation suits, he had also been slapped with 33 counts of tax evasion. He was ordered in absentia to pay damages totalling S$8 million ($5.71 million).
Jeyaretnam, for his part, in 2007 finally finished paying the last installment of S$223,000 ($159,286) as fine for defaming the government leaders of this island state. (He had to hurdle eight such suits.) Theoretically, he can now resume his profession as a lawyer and travel abroad without permission – privileges denied him while he was still officially bankrupt. He can also run in the next general elections, which are scheduled for 2011. Then again, Jeyaretnam would be 85 years old by that time, and some pundits doubt if he would still be able to muster the physical strength needed for the contest.
In 1981, the veteran politician became the first opposition candidate elected to Singapore’s parliament. Five years later, a conviction on criminal charges regarding supposed anomalies in party fund-collection barred him from standing for reelection until 1991.
In an article he wrote for a Canadian journal for magistrates, Canadian provincial judge and Amnesty International representative Paul Bentley observed that in the 1997 case, Goh had claimed that the following words Jeyaratnam uttered at a rally were defamatory: “And finally, Mr. Tang Liang Hong has just placed before me two reports he has made to the police against, you know, Mr. Goh Chok Tong and his people.”
Bentley noted that while the court awarded only S$20,000 ($14,286) to Goh – a mere 10 percent of the amount he sought – it made Jeyaretnam bear 60 percent of PAP’s litigation expenses that were estimated to reach S$100,000 ($71,429). Then the WP secretary general, Jeyaretnam is also said to have been ordered to fork over as much as S$2 million in defamation fines.
One lawyer here says that the ruling in Jeyaretnam’s case shows that “persons holding public office or politicians — we call them ‘public men’ — are equally entitled to have their reputations protected as those of any other persons.” This means that unlike in other countries, there is no such thing as fair criticism of public figures in Singapore. Or at least of public officials, says the barrister.
In fact, PAP’s ugly tiff with Tang – which later hooked in Jeyaratnam – began with the contention of the ruling party’s leaders that Tang was simply unsuitable to be even considered for parliament. Goh had apparently perceived Tang as “a Chinese chauvinist, Bentley wrote, and he believed that Tang harboured anti-Christian views.”
“Goh publicised his views during the campaign and his remarks were published in numerous newspaper articles,” said Bentley. “Tang responded by sending a letter to the prime minister complaining about the defamatory allegations, and alleging that they were intended to limit his chances of electoral success. He demanded a retraction and an apology. Goh responded by repeating his allegations and affirmed that he would continue his attacks.”
Tang then gave an interview to a local newspaper in which he said that he was not only planning to hale the then premier, as well as Lee, to court, he was also thinking of filing a police complaint against them for supposedly spreading lies about him.
It was this complaint that he handed to Jeyaretnam during that fateful rally. Goh’s lawyers later argued that Jeyaretnam’s words seemed to imply the prime minister had done something criminal that led Tang to file a police report.
“The opposition is the specific target of the powerful PAP,” says another legal expert who has been following the suits filed by government officials. “Records show that defamation suits had been filed against the opposition after every general election since the 1970s.” He adds that no PAP official has yet lost a civil defamation case against a political rival.
“People in public office should be subjected to criticism as a check of the government,” says another lawyer. “The general election cannot be the only platform for this check and balance.”
“If I have a good manager,” the lawyer adds, “it doesn’t mean that he will do everything right. There must be a device for checks and balances. I should be able to criticise your work at meetings.”
PAP officials have repeatedly said that they have every right to defend themselves from what they have invariably described as libelous comments. But legal observers here say the courts may not as unbiased as they should be. Indeed, the International Commission of Jurists has described the Singaporean courts’ reputation as “improperly compliant to the interests of the country’s ruling People’s Action Party.”
According to the lawyer who has been taking tabs of the government’s defamation cases against its rivals, one interesting point to note is that the salaries of 40 percent of the “entire judiciary…are discretionary,” which means government higher-ups decide the size of these magistrates’ wages. He also points out that the pay of Singapore judges are among the highest in the world. A high court judge, for instance, can get anywhere between S$1.5 million and S$1.8 million ($1.07 million to $1.3 million) a year. The attorney general, Court of Appeal judge, and chief justice each takes home some S$2 million ($1.4 million) in annual wages.
“So why rock the boat?” quips the lawyer. “The government pays well and life is comfortable in Singapore.”
The ‘uncomfortable’ Chees
Obviously, though, life is less pleasant for those on the other side of the political fence. Chee Siok Chin, a prominent member of the SDP and sister of Chee Soon Juan, has been unable to travel abroad after a court declared her bankrupt in August 2007.
Ironically, this could be traced back to a request she and two other SDP members had asked from a court in 2005. Chee Siok Chin and company wanted the court to declare that the police and the home affairs minister had abused their powers when a legal assembly outside the Central Providents Fund building was forcibly dispersed in August of that year. The peaceful demonstration consisted of four people, among them Chee Siok Chin.
Instead of granting their request, the judge gave them – not the police or the minister – a warning. They were also ordered them to pay nearly S$24,000 ($17,143) for legal costs incurred by the government in answering their challenge. In a 2006 settlement, the SDP trio agreed to pay the amount in collective monthly installments of S$800 ($571). But Chee Siok Chin – whose last listed non-political job was as supervisor at a family service center – apparently found it difficult to keep up with the payments.
Earlier, she had asked for donations from the public. Four months into making the installments, she had also confessed to thinking of just not paying altogether. But she said she changed her mind when she realised the consequences of being declared bankrupt. Now and until the payments are complete, she also cannot stand in elections.
Still, she may regain that right sooner than her brother Chee Soon Juan, who has even spent days and weeks in jail on separate occasion. His usual offence: speaking in public without a permit.
“Without free speech, how can we compete against them (those in power)?” asks Chee Soon Juan. “They have the loudspeakers and the newspapers. How are you going to fight them?”
He laments that Singaporean politics is not an even playing field, and hints that he no longer believes in elections so long as PAP remains in control of the government. He argues that taking part in the general polls would only legitimise the “oppressive regime.”
“Now your hands are tied, blindfolded and going in with one leg,” says the visibly exasperated opposition stalwart. “You don’t vote out a dictatorship, do you?”
Hah Foong Lian is an assistant editor at the Ipoh branch of the Star Publications, the best-selling English daily in Malaysia. This article was produced under the 2007 SEAPA Journalism Fellowship.