02 April, 2007

“Frankly very disturbing”

More on AUSTRALIA: " Controversial visit by Singapore's founding father "

It is frankly very disturbing that Australia’s national university would bestow upon Lee Kuan Yew an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. It also seems rather odd that this important visitor and event are not mentioned on the ANU events calendar. Is there some reason (beyond security) that there is apparently a degree of secrecy surrounding this event? Is the ANU embarrassed by this choice of candidate? Given a recent report in Crikey that the Vice-Chancellor at ANU told staff they would be supported for exercising free speech it seems somewhat inappropriate to be awarding Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew with a Doctor of Laws. Lee has demonstrated a complete lack of respect over the years (and certainly no honour) for free speech and used the laws of Singapore to ensure he gets his way.

If the ANU wishes to recognise the role Lee has played in Singapore’s economic development or his success as a social engineer then by all means award him a degree in government, development or perhaps even business but not any kind of degree with the word “law” attached to it. Can there be anyone at ANU who does not know something of Lee’s total disregard for legal process and decency when it comes to dealing with his country’s own citizens?

For more than forty years now under Lee’s stewardship the Peoples Action Party (PAP) government of Singapore has manipulated and controlled the country’s legal processes as one of many measures to help ensure the status quo with respect to governance. The laws of Singapore under Lee and his successors (really no true successor while he lives on forever in the background) have been used as a very blunt instrument to bludgeon any and all political opposition, academic independence, freedom of the press and citizenry generally who are deemed to have stepped out of line. Has no one at ANU heard of Chia Thye Poh and his thirty two year detention by the Singapore state without ever being convicted of any crime?

Is it possible that no one at ANU knows just how the judiciary of Singapore is compromised by and compliant to the wishes of Lee and other senior government voices? Or does everyone really believe that all those newspapers and news journals were guilty of a crime because they were sued successfully in Singapore’s courts for hundreds of thousands of dollars by Lee and other government figures? Were they not doing what a free press is supposed to do? I think you will find that between them various news outlets such as the International Herald Tribune and others have paid out millions of dollars to settle various liable claims. Let us not forget that the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) is currently banned in Singapore and is being pursued by Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong for damages simply for daring to allow an opposition party leader to speak his mind on PAP efforts to silence dissent. Perhaps someone at ANU should read the FEER’s account (easily accessible on the web) of how the law is being manipulated by the government of Singapore to shut them up. Thailand’s king hides behind the archaic law of lèse majesté and Singapore’s leaders hide behind a tamed and obedient judiciary.

I suggest instead of rewarding Lee (with a Degree in Laws at least) the ANU honour some of Lee’s victims with this degree, particularly those who have been mercilessly pursued by him through the country’s legal system for no other crime than attempting to have a say in their country’s future. There is quite long list of these people, some former insiders who fell out with Lee and others who were never part of the Lee clique. There is no doubt that some of these characters were as disreputable as Lee would make them out to be but many others, whatever their personal faults and weaknesses, were simply citizens who wanted something more from their government.

Notable among the victims of Lee’s manipulation of the legal process are Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, and more recently Dr Chee Soon Juan. Jeyaretnam has struggled for more than two decades to create and maintain a viable political opposition in Singapore in the face of intense political persecution backed up by a complicit pro-government judiciary. From the moment he won a seat in Singapore’s parliament in 1981 he became the target of a relentless pursuit by Lee and the PAP more broadly. In fact he was already a victim of Singapore’s legal system in 1976 when he was found to have defamed Lee and had to pay a large damages settlement. His persistence and refusal to be cowed has cost him dearly. He has been publicly derided by the government of Singapore on a regular basis, imprisoned, bankrupted through endless and baseless lawsuits (baseless because in any other democratic legal jurisdiction the government’s claims would have been thrown out of court) and prevented from running for parliament on the basis of the outcome of these lawsuits.

Dr Chee Soon Juan a former lecturer at Singapore National University now finds himself treading similar political ground to Jeyaretnam. It is his interview reported in the FEER last year which has lead to its recent banning in Singapore. As leader of the Singapore Democratic Party he has been bankrupted by libel and jailed more than once for organising public meetings and speaking publicly without the proper permits. He has spoken out often on the tainted judiciary of Singapore particularly in conflicts between the government and opposition politicians. There simply is no such thing as a fair trial for anyone who enters the political fray as an opposition politician in Singapore.

On its profile web page under “Research at ANU” it states that ANU is “Home to some of the world’s finest minds … expanding the boundaries of human understanding through research of the highest quality”. I have always believed this very big claim to have some substance. However, if the ANU bestows on Singapore’s strong man Lee Kuan Yew a Doctor of Laws honoris causa degree then clearly not all the minds are as “fine” as we would wish them to be nor are the “boundaries of human understanding” being pushed too hard.

- Stephen Dobbs, University of Western Australia

SDP writes to Australian university on degree conferment on Lee Kuan Yew

20 March 2007

Professor Ian Chubb AO
Vice-Chancellor and President
Australia National University
Canberra, ACT 0200

Dear Sir,

I read, with deep concern, in the Straits Times (18 Mar 07) that the Australian National University (ANU) is conferring the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa on Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's Minister Mentor, on 28 Mar 07.

If this is indeed true (strangely, I could not find any announcement of this event on the ANU's website http://www.anu.edu.au/), then I must register my utmost disappointment with your institution.

You may remember that one of your fellow citizens, the late Nguyen Van Tuong, was hanged by the Singapore Government for peddling drugs. In all probability, Nguyen's contraband emanated from the poppy fields of Burma, Asia's foremost producer and trafficker of narcotics.

This is where it gets interesting. The Singapore Government invests in commercial projects with Burma's drug lords, notably a man by the name of Lo Hsing Han. It was the Australian Special Broadcasting Services that first broke the story. The US State Department confirmed that "over half of [the investments from] Singapore have been tied to the family of narco-trafficker Lo Hsing Han'' since 1998. Andrew Selth, an analyst with – of all institutions – the ANU, reported "notorious [Burmese drug] traffickers like Lo Hsing Han are thought to control a number of companies in Singapore that are investing heavily in Burma." He also wrote that, in September 1988, two months after the US State Department said that Burma's junta killed more than 1,000 students during a popular rebellion, "the first country to come to the regime's rescue was in fact Singapore".

I believe that the abominable irony is not lost on you.

Coming back to Nguyen's death, Lee's administration rejected all pleas for clemency by the Australian, Singaporean, and international communities. Nguyen, then 25 years old, was hanged in November 2005.

Contrast this with the case of Julia Bohl, a 22-year-old German lady who was also convicted of drug trafficking. Because of quick and quiet diplomatic pressure brought to bear on the Singapore authorities, the amount of drugs she was carrying was miraculously reduced to below the legal limit that would have mandated a death sentence. Instead of being hanged, she served a three-year prison sentence and was released in 2005.

Tragic as Nguyen's execution was, he at least got to hold his mother the day before he was killed. This was a result of intense pressure from all concerned, especially his lawyers and the Australian media. His former death-row mate, Shanmugam, a Singaporean, who went to the gallows before him never had the same privilege. Shanmugam's mother begged to touch his son one last time on the eve of his execution. It was denied.

It is hard to imagine that things could be any worse. But it was for Amara Tochi, a Nigerian, who was hanged for trafficking diamorphine together with Nelson Malachy, another African national. It is reported that Malachy had testified that his co-accused had no knowledge that the packet Tochi was handed contained illicit drugs. Even the trial judge admitted that: "There was no direct evidence that [Tochi] knew the capsules contained diamorphine. There was nothing to suggest that [Tochi's supplier] had told him they contained diamorphine, or that he had found that out of his own." But for some legal reason that escapes many, Tochi was found guilty and hanged. As he pleaded for his life and asked his counsel not to "allow these people to kill me" he was led to his death without ever seeing his loved ones ever since his arrest two years earlier in 2004. He was only 21 years old.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, stated that in Tochi's case "the Government of Singapore has failed to ensure respect for the relevant legal safeguards." More generally, Alston said that Singapore law making the death penalty mandatory for drug trafficking was inconsistent with international human rights standards.

Vice-Chancellor Chubb, do you not think that the award of this honorary degree to Lee Kuan Yew mocks the memory of Nguyen and the others who were hanged by the Singapore Government? More important, what message are you sending to those drug peddlers awaiting their executions in Singapore?

The irony, nay, hypocrisy of conferring this award, and of the Doctor of Laws to boot, boggles the mind and rankles the soul.

And speaking of laws, the Singapore Government continues to introduce, amend, and apply laws to cripple freedoms of speech, association and assembly of my fellow citizens. Just a couple of weeks ago, your conferee said in an interview: "The Americans try to prescribe democracy by saying governments should allow free association, demonstrations and a free press. Here you want to hold a demonstration, you must have a permit first." His minister for home affairs, however, says that "the government does not authorise protests and demonstrations of any nature." In 2005, a group of four Singaporean democracy advocates staged a silent protest, calling for transparency and accountability from the Government. They were met by the riot squad and ordered to disperse. My fellow activists and I continue to be harassed, prosecuted and jailed for speaking in public.

In addition, several of us have been sued for defamation and ordered to pay crippling sums of damages and costs. We have been made bankrupts and barred for standing for elections. I have been previously sued on two occasions and ordered to pay almost AUD 1 million in damages to Lee and his associates. A third lawsuit also by Lee against my party, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), and its leaders is on-going which will result in hundreds of thousands of dollars being awarded to the Minister Mentor and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Detention without trial continues to be wielded over the heads of Singaporeans like the sword of Damocles. I attended the memorial service of one of Lee's former detainees, Ho Piao. Ho was a unionist who was tortured by Lee's Internal Security Department officers. His ordeal is documented in the 1978 Amnesty International Report. According to the report Ho was tied to a wooden chair, strangled, and punched repeatedly in the stomach and ribs. When he almost passed out, an officer hurled himself at Ho and knocked him to the floor. Whilst on the floor, the officers continued to rain punches and kicks to his head. Ho testified: "They pulled me from the floor and tied me to the chair. Another group came in to torture me. The torture went on for four days. I did not eat or sleep for four days." As some of his former fellow-detainees recounted his beatings at the memorial service, his teenage son sat sobbing quietly on the side.

Many of the late Ho Piao's contemporaries, most of whom were in the political opposition, were locked up for almost two decades without ever being charged for any crime. One such prisoner was Chia Thye Poh who was detained for 32 years.

The media remain under the firm strangulation of Lee. All newspapers are owned and run by the Singapore Press Holding, chaired by one of his loyalists and former deputy prime minister, Dr Tony Tan. A former journalist who worked briefly as a global affairs columnist for the Straits Times, had this to say: "The Straits Times…is run by editors with virtually no background in journalism. For example, my direct editor was Chua Lee Hoong, a woman in her mid 30s. She was an intelligence officer. Other key editors are drawn from Singapore's bureaucracies and state security services. They all retain connections to the state's intelligence services, which track everyone and everything."

Academic freedom is a ghost consigned to wandering hopelessly in the halls of Singapore's state-controlled universities. Academics such professors Christopher Lingle, Bilveer Singh, and Lim Chong Yah who publish information unflattering of Lee's government were bullied into submission; Dr Lingle was forced to flee Singapore when he was interrogated by the police and subsequently criminally prosecuted. As a neuropsychologist, I was teaching at the National University of Singapore. I was sacked three months after I joined the SDP. When I disputed the dismissal, I was sued for defamation.

You may be interested to know that while you confer this award on Lee, your counterparts in Britain, such as the University of Warwick, Imperial College in London, and the London School of Economics, turned down invitations by the Singapore Government to set up campuses in the city-state. The reason? The Singaporean authorities would not protect the academic freedom and freedom of speech of their staff and students in Singapore.

It is impossible for me to relate to you the entire history of repression in Singapore in this letter. In this age of the Internet, however, such information is not hard to obtain. After you have read it, you may begin to understand why your decision to confer this honour on Lee Kuan Yew is such an affront to those of us, both in Singapore and throughout the democratic world, who truly value the sacredness of justice and freedom.

You may argue that as Vice-Chancellor you answer to only your staff and students. In which case, may I ask what values are you imparting to the minds of those who walk through the gates of ANU? What image are you conferring on ANU?

Chee Soon Juan
Singapore Democratic Party



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