Excerpts from “The Politics of Judicial Institutions in Singapore”

Standard

Excerpts from “The Politics of Judicial Institutions in Singapore”

by Francis Seow (1997)

Link to Article: Singapore-Window | PDF

* * *

Definitions:

1. Acquittal: A judgment that a person is not guilty of the crime with which the person has been charged.

2. Executive: Also used as an impersonal designation of the chief executive officer of a state or nation. (Black’s Law Dictionary)

3. Rule of Law: The legal principle that law should govern a nation, as opposed to being governed by arbitrary decisions of individual government officials. (Wiki).

Extracts from Article:

1) While [certain features of Singapore society] may be desirable, the manner of their implementation depends on certain anti-democratic and authoritarian structures and institutions.

2) I was astounded when my attention was first drawn to an October 1993 Straits Times banner-headlines, Singapore’s legal system rated best in world: Full confidence that justice will be fast and fair.

3) Some history is needed to show how the legal system was systematically undermined by the prime minister after the People’s Action Party (PAP) came into power.

4) The sudden transfer in 1986 of senior district judge, Michael Khoo — one of the ablest judges to grace the subordinate court bench — to the attorney general’s chambers following his acquittal of Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam [engendered] much controversy. From being the respected head of the subordinate judiciary, Khoo overnight became a mere digit within the attorney general’s chambers.

5) Jeyaretnam appealed [his] disbarment to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council — Singapore’s ultimate court of appeal in London — which roundly castigated the chief justice and the Singapore courts for their legal reasoning.

6) The minister for law [moved] in parliament for the abolition of appeals to the Privy Council decrying it as being “interventionist” and “out of touch” with local conditions.

7) Asked about the abolition of the privy council, Goh Chok Tong responded that [the] privy council was “playing politics.” It was a disgraceful statement. As the Roman satirist Juvenal once said: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will guard the guards themselves?)

8) The Jeyaretnam case [highlights] the grotesque contortions the politically corrupt judiciary went through to rid a political irritant to the prime minister and his government. It demonstrates the misuse of the law in advancing the agenda and interests of the ruling political party.

9) [The attorney general] argued the court could [not] “inquire into the reasons why [a] detention order is made [through the Internal Security Act (ISA)]. This is an executive act.” The court for its part willingly abdicated its judicial responsibility in favour of officialdom rather than the cause of justice.

10) In 1987, twenty-two young Roman Catholic and social activists were arrested under the ISA, accused of being Marxists involved in a dangerous conspiracy to subvert the PAP government through violence. They were released only after they had made the ritualistic television confessions. But eight of them were re-arrested when they disclosed those confessions had been coerced out of them. In the ensuing [proceedings], the [appeal was allowed] on technical rather than on substantive grounds, thus enabling the government to hurriedly amend the constitution and the relevant laws, and order their re-arrest.

11) Although the PAP government recognizes the role of the judiciary in the body politic, it no longer sees it as a check on the balance of power in the traditional sense but rather as an important instrument for the prolongation of its political longevity.

12) Judges on contract, renewable at the will of the prime minister, is not conducive to judicial independence. . .it is not uncommon to find a particular judge, like T.S. Sinnathuray, being commonly assigned sensitive cases with predictable results. Judges known for impartiality, independence and strength of character are never assigned them.

13) The then prime minister [LKY] appointed his banker-friend, Yong Pung How, as chief justice, who had not practised law for 20 years, whose superior claim to this illustrious position was that he is a loyal crony.

14) LKY’s hour-long defence of the appointment in parliament — during which he delved into bathetic nostalgia; [and] his inquiries of his judges to name the three best persons, excluding themselves, all of whom in a remarkable coincidence, named his friend [Yong] as “the best of the possibles” — rang somewhat hollow and contrived.

15) The salaries, which the PAP government pays its judges, have much method in its generosity. High court judges receive A$630,000 per annum plus a minimum bonus of three months’ salary or A$205,020 at A$68,340 per month, totalling A$835,020, besides other perks and privileges, like a motor car, a government bungalow at economic rent. The chief justice receives A$1,260,000 per annum, besides an official residence (or an housing allowance in lieu thereof), a chauffeur-driven car, among other handsome perks and privileges of office. Indeed, he receives more than the combined stipends of the Lord Chancellor of England, the Chief Justices of the United States, Canada and Australia. As a Queen’s Counsel pointedly queried: “Is this kind of money a salary or an income of permanent bribery?”

16) Supremely confident in the reliability of his judiciary, the prime minister uses the courts as a legal weapon to intimidate, bankrupt or cripple the political opposition, and ventilate his political agenda. Which judge would be so reckless or foolhardy to award a decision against him? Judges know on which side their bread is buttered.

17) The notorious case of Public Prosecutor v Tan Wah Piow demonstrates the [precarious] state of the judiciary in Singapore. . .vital defence witnesses were arrested on the morning of the trial, and deported.

18) An Australian Queen’s Counsel, Frank Galbally, who observed the trial for the Australian Union of Students, said: “In Australia, the case would be laughed out of court … [The three accused] did not get a fair trial. … In my opinion, it is just a political trial.”

19) [In a 1995 criminal trial in Singapore] Alun Jones, QC, discharged himself “for the first time in 23 years’ practice,” describing the judicial proceedings as “a travesty of a trial” and a “perversion of a judicial process.”

20) The New York City Bar Association, after a fact-finding mission to Singapore led by the late Robert B. McKay, then dean of the New York University Law School, observed:

What emerges. . .is a government that has been willing to decimate the rule of law for the benefit of its political interests. . .The only check on the Singapore judiciary is the prospect of ultimate appeal to the Privy Council in London.

That report was published in October 1990. Since then, appeals to the privy council have been abolished. The supervisory powers of the courts have been removed.

21) In a fateful [1996] interview, opposition Workers’ Party candidate, Tang Liang Hong, observed:

“Why wasn’t [the Nassim Jade] matter handed over to a professional body like Commercial Affairs Department or Corrupt Practice Investigation Bureau? They are government departments [well-known] for being [firm and impartial]. They would be more detached and their reports would have been more convincing to the people.”

Lee and his son took offence at those remarks, and commenced a libel action. The presiding judge was Justice Lai Kew Chai, a former partner of the prime minister’s law firm of Lee and Lee.

22) Lee and his political colleagues’ [papers] were served and heard the same day — a privilege and sense of urgency denied to Tang and his wife. Tang described it as PAP’s ‘instant justice.’

23) Let me recall to mind the dreadful words of Dr Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s notorious minister of propaganda:

“Justice must not become the mistress of the state, but must be the servant of state policy.”

Those words could just as well have been spoken by Harry Lee Kuan Yew or by any one of the PAP ministers. For Singapore’s judiciary is well on its way to this Goebbelsian utopia.

Source: “The Politics of Judicial Institutions in Singapore,” by Francis Seow (1997)

Link to Article: Singapore-Window | PDF

* * *

francis-seow

FRANCIS T. SEOW is a former Solicitor General of Singapore and a brilliant Public Prosecutor. He was awarded the Public Administration (Gold) Medal during his 16-year career with the Singapore Legal Service.

Francis became the lawyer for several of those detained in 1987. Regrettably, in 1988, he too was arrested under the Internal Security Act and detained without trial for several months.

He is the author of several books on Singapore, including To Catch A Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison, The Media Enthralled and Beyond Suspicion? – The Singapore Judiciary.

Francis Seow Online: Profile | Wikipedia | YouTube | Beyond Suspicion | Foreword by Devan Nair

Book Review: Beyond Suspicion

Standard

beyond_suspicion

Towards the end of Once a Jolly Hangman, Alan Shadrake shares some details about his arrest in Singapore. There is one paragraph where he says:

“Was I in danger of being arrested? I consulted well-known Singaporean Francis T. Seow, a former president of the Law Society. His advice: as long as it’s all correct, you have nothing to fear.”

We can thus hold Francis Seow to his word, in the sense that the research in his book, Beyond Suspicion? is based on facts, not fiction. This was yet another book that I would have thought was a tragicomical political movie script or novel, had I not already been familiar with some of the well-known, real life members of the cast.

As the former solicitor-general of Singapore, Francis T. Seow was one of LKY’s right-hand men — the top man after the attorney general (the attorney general being the principal legal officer who represents a country in legal proceedings and gives legal advice to the government).

The publication’s core strength lies in Francis Seow’s references to a complete set of court documents to present his points. That this book is written in a vibrant, intellectually lively style makes it both an educational and entertaining read. For example, Francis Seow doesn’t simply use the word “corrupted” to describe Singapore politics — he describes it as “a dirty gladiatorial game [that’s] also dangerous.”

No time is wasted with giving the reader a bit of background information on Yong Pung How (“an old crony from Lee’s college days”), who became the chief justice of Singapore in 1990. This happened despite the fact that Yong never actually practiced law in Singapore. To paraphrase an insider’s quote, “no judge [in Singapore] who values his rice bowl” would dare go against his political masters’ expectations when it comes to political court cases.

Amnesty International underscored the “notoriety of Lee and his government’s use of defamation laws to stifle the opposition via compliant courts.” Garry Rodin, Director of the Asia Research Centre from 2002-2009, wrote about “the PAP’s manic desire to crush the slightest semblance of serious scrutiny” in his blurb on the back cover of the book. These quotes further illustrate the extent of the politicization of the judiciary.

Even when armed with this knowledge, the reader will still come across an array of mind-boggling dialogue and logic-defying actions (thanks to the PAP leaders of the time), through Francis Seow’s intense presentation of the case involving Tang Liang Hong.

Tang’s “crime” was questioning the Lees’ controversial purchases with the Nassim Jade properties, and asking why the matter wasn’t handed over to a professional body like Commercial Affairs Department or Corrupt Practice Investigation Bureau.

In Tang’s own words:

“[The CAD or CPIB] are government departments. . .well-known for being [firm and impartial]. They would be more detached and their reports would have been more convincing to the people.”

The real crime is that Tang Liang Hong was in opposition politics, an individual whom the PAP elite recognized “as an immediate threat to their electoral prospects in the Cheng San GRC” during the 1997 General Election. Back in 1981, LKY once dismissed the value of a political opposition as being “irrelevant.” How can someone or something be a threat and irrelevant at the same time?

The rest of the chapters give a detailed account of the political gangsterism and character assassination Tang Liang Hong experienced. One would think that the text was describing the bullying that occurs in a children’s playground, and not the behaviour of highly-ranked politicians in a court of law.

We are shown how The Straits Times provided coverage that was “more favourable to the PAP leaders than reports from foreign journalists,” and how Tang Liang Hong was branded by PAP leaders as an “anti-Christian, anti-English-educated Chinese chauvinist,” with Goh Chok Tong taunting Tang as a “coward and a liar.”

As if these obnoxious epithets were insufficient, LKY likened Tang Liang Hong to “a serial killer” during an hour and a half monologue in court. LKY and his “PAP digits” were “like ravenous hyenas in a feeding frenzy” when they demanded a grand total of S$12.9 million for the lawsuits over Tang’s remarks on the Nassim Jade purchases, along with his other actions.

Other memorable gems include the Singapore government misusing taxpayers’ funds to support a private quarrel, LKY’s comments on how J.B. Jeyaretnam — who represented Tang Liang Hong in court — should be “skinned alive like a skunk,” and Wong Kan Seng, then the leader of the House, “loyally leaping to the patriarch’s rescue” when LKY made a grave and thoroughly unsupported allegation that Tang was backed by people who wished to destroy Singapore. There are plenty of other juicy details which I can’t include in a book review, though I will endeavour to feature bits and pieces in future articles.

The nature of the PAP leaders involved in this dreadful fiasco can be seen in the final outcome of Tang’s case. All the charges against Tang were dropped when the main property asset of the Tangs was no longer worth as much, due to the Asian financial crisis and other factors (and therefore less of a boon than the PAP leaders had originally hoped for, in terms of being awarded their millions in damages).

After all the litigation costs, mental/emotional distress, and disruption caused to him and his family, Tang was declared a bankrupt, so that he could not hold any political position in Singapore and directly partake in politics. Tang himself succinctly described the law in Singapore as being an unequal struggle, and “a test of financial strength, not of legal arguments.”

As a June 1997 editorial by The New York Times wrote:

“Singapore’s leaders are masters at using libel suits in a compliant court system to silence or intimidate their domestic opponents. . .”

The purpose of books like Beyond Suspicion is not to ridicule or be derisive. It is to expose flaws in a political party or system, and provide a record of history. Note that on Page 241, it is mentioned that one of the legal documents to do with Tang Liang Hong was ordered by Justice Chao Hick Tin to be destroyed — at the request of LKY, via his counsel, Davinder Singh. Who knows what else has been requested to be destroyed?

Another purpose is for future generations to remember what this party has done to opposition members whom they viewed as a threat. Were the opposition members viewed as a threat to Singapore; good governance; or to the PAP’s own stronghold of political power?

If leaders are wise and less arrogant, they would seek to produce less scripted videos which appear to be more propaganda-inspired than patriotically inspired. Instead, they would seek to learn from mistakes of the past — and make genuine amends — so that they can prove to current voters/citizens why they should still be in office, as well as justify their high salaries drawn from taxpayers’ dollars.

In the context of Singapore’s political scene, it is only by the party’s own words and actions that they make the choice to be regarded as the “People’s Action Party,” or a “Perpetually Arrogant Party.”

* * *

More Information:

Beyond Suspicion? (Amazon.com)
Book Depository (Free Shipping)
TLH Legal Saga | SW S’poreans Appeal (Singapore Window)
Yale University / Monograph 55 (Publisher)
Beyond Suspicion by Dr. Michael Barr (Book Review)
To Catch A Tartar by Teo Soh Lung (Book Review)
Francis Seow (Wikipedia)
Francis Seow (Profile)
Francis Seow: The Interview (YouTube; where a certain “bosom pal and crony of LKY” is mentioned, and much more)

Rule of Law not to be found in Singapore

Standard

* Also on The Real SG and Singapore Repository.

Transcribed by Jess C Scott from the Toledo Blade archives (1997).

* * *

rule_law

“Rule of law not to be found in Singapore”
by William Safire (Toledo Blade – Jun 3, 1997)

WASHINGTON — In Nazi Germany, dictators used the power of a corrupted and compliant judiciary to cloak with legitimacy the regime’s need to lock up, torture, or drive out any who dared oppose them.

That same device — the misuse of law — is being used today in Singapore. The local dictator, Lee Kuan Yew, has developed his own method of silencing his political opponents and courageous journalists: He has had his lap-dog judges condemn critics for libel and assess fines to be paid to the dictator and his henchmen.

Here’s how the judicial gang operates: A veteran lawyer named Tang Liang Hong had the temerity to run against the ruling party this year. When he mentioned scandalous discounts the dictator received in a real estate deal, Mr. Lee and his coterie charged Mr. Tang with being “an anti-English education, anti-Christian Chinese chauvinist.”

As might be expected in a political campaign, Mr. Tang denied that and called his attackers liars — thereby stepping into a libel trap. Mr. Lee and cohort sued for millions. When the “election” ended, Mr. Tang wisely beat it out of town to Hong Kong because he claimed to fear for his safety. Lee & Co. sued him for saying that, too.

When Mr. Lee sues, judges jump. His bench socked Mr. Tang for $5.8 million for subverting the dictator’s “moral authority to govern” and, while the lap-dog judges were at it, ordered the miscreant dissenter arrested on 33 counts of tax evasion.

In his 63-page judgement, the presiding judge recalled with pleasure a previous award to Mr. Lee of $400,000 from the International Herald Tribune for a piece he claimed suggested that compliant judges were used by Mr. Lee to bankrupt political opponents. Mr. Tang’s “ferocious and venomous” suggestion that the senior minister lied was worth at least 10 times that.

What we have here is a plain and simple extortion racket. The dictator uses the courts to squeeze opponents for money or to exact tribute from the Trib, making sure to appoint judges who deliver for him by bankrupting and exiling the opposition. Singapore is run by efficient political racketeers professing respect for law and order.

Why should this bother us? The regional reason: Singapore’s ultra-orderly economy and anti-democratic politics make up the dangerous “model” being followed by China. A broader reason: The Singapore virus — the notion that capitalist prosperity can be abetted by political repression — could infect the global economy with its strain of fascism.

But nobody’s worried. The World Economic Forum hails Singapore as No. 1 in Economic Freedom — when the mention of “freedom” in the same breath as Singapore is a joke.

The Nixon Center for Peace and Pragmatism, controlled by Henry Kissinger, James Schlesinger, and Maurice Greenberg, looks back fondly at Mr. Lee’s anti-communist past and honors him as its “architect of the next century.” And travelers who profess to stand for human rights help tyranny along by flying Singapore Airlines.

Worst of all, the organs of international opinion — supposed guardians of free speech — kowtow commercially to the despot and his nespot son. Times, Newsweek, The Financial Times write on eggs to avoid litigation in Extortionland; the Wall Street Journal invests with Singapore in a regional news network, and the Herald Tribune, owned by the New York Times and Washington Post, still operates in the scene of its past humiliation.

Why don’t my brethren combine in restraint of trading with the avowed enemy of democracy’s values? We aren’t helpless; news media can locate headquarters in Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Taipei, which are already sites for printing and distribution.

Integrity makes possible finality. Someday the beacon of the rule of law will shine into Singapore and all the dark corners of the world.

william safire

William Safire is a syndicated columnist who writes for the New York Times. Toledo Blade, 1997.