Thursday, July 24, 2008

Is the Constitution redundant?

Dr Ong Chit Chung was the MP for my former constituency, Bukit Batok. I felt that as a mark of respect I should refrain from discussing the issue of a by-election until after the passing of a week. I have met the man on two occasions. Once at a meet-the-people session and once when he made a house visit as part of gathering support for the lift upgrading programme. My condolences to his family.

Now that his seat is vacant, should a by-election be held? What is the legal position?

According to the Today paper, Halimah Yacob (Jurong GRC MP) said that the constitution “does not require a by-election”.

Based on an earlier report from the Today paper, Dr Thio Li-Ann is supposed to have expressed the following views:

No by-elections need to held “until there’s no one left in the GRC”. But while there was no legal requirement, she was of the view that “when you elect a team, you elect a whole team; so since this is not the team anymore, you should see if people want a new team.” – Today, July 14 2008

Let us see what the Constitution says:

Article 49 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore
Filling of Vacancies
49. —(1) Whenever the seat of a Member, not being a non-constituency Member, has become vacant for any reason other than a dissolution of Parliament, the vacancy shall be filled by election in the manner provided by or under any law relating to Parliamentary elections for the time being in force.
(2) The Legislature may by law provide for —
(a) the vacating of a seat of a non-constituency Member in circumstances other than those specified in Article 46;
(b) the filling of vacancies of the seats of non-constituency Members where such vacancies are caused otherwise than by a dissolution of Parliament.

Therefore, if a seat is vacant and it is not because Parliament has been dissolved (i.e. this is not a general election) then the vacancy shall be filled by election.
The Constitution requires that the vacancy be filled by an election. Therefore, when an MP has passed away and there is a vacancy, a by-election must be held.

What is the manner in which the election is to be held? Article 49 states that the election will be in the manner provided by any law relating to Parliamentary elections.

There is a law relating to Parliamentary elections in Singapore. That is the Parliamentary Elections Act (cap 218). The relevant provision of the PEA is as follows:

Writ of election
24. —(1) For the purposes of every general election of Members of Parliament, and for the purposes of the election of Members to supply vacancies caused by death, resignation or otherwise, the President shall issue writs under the public seal, addressed to the Returning Officer.
(2) Every such writ shall be in Form 1 in the First Schedule and shall specify the date or dates (referred to in this Act as the day of nomination) not being less than 5 days nor more than one month after the date of the writ and the place or places of nomination (referred to in this Act as the place of nomination).
(2A) In respect of any group representation constituency, no writ shall be issued under subsection (1) for an election to fill any vacancy unless all the Members for that constituency have vacated their seats in Parliament.

Section 24 deals with the issuance of a Writ of Election. During a General Election or when a by-election is called, the President issues a Writ of Election. Section 24, Subsection 2A, states that no writ of election shall be issued for a GRC unless all MPs in that GRC have vacated their seats.

On a surface reading of s.24 of the PEA, one would get the impression that there is no necessity to have a by-election. But, isn’t this inconsistent with the Constitution?

Article 49 is clear that the vacancy ought to be filled by election. At most it merely makes allowance for the election to be held in accordance with a procedure prescribed for Parliamentary Elections. The PEA is a statute that prescribes the procedures for parliamentary elections. However, the PEA attempts to assert that no Writ of Election shall be issued in the case of a vacancy of a seat in a GRC. This is clearly inconsistent with the Constitution.

The Constitution does not allow Parliament the discretion to pass a law that would negate a by-election. It allows Parliament to pass laws that would prescribe procedures for the conduct of elections. The words in the Constitution are very clear: “in the manner provided by or under any law”. It does not say that Parliament is permitted to pass laws that prevent the filling of vacancies. It says that vacancies must be filled. The manner in which they are filled can be provided under the law. However, the PEA seeks to exclude a by-election altogether. By providing that the President shall not issue a Writ of Election, the PEA has effectively overridden the Constitutional provision that an election shall be held.

Hence, s.24(2A) of the Parliamentary Elections Act is unconstitutional.

Article 4 of the Constitution:
This Constitution is the supreme law of the Republic of Singapore and any law enacted by the Legislature after the commencement of this Constitution which is inconsistent with this Constitution shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.

So, my question to those who claim that the Constitution does not require a by-election or those who try to adopt a ‘practical’ approach to the question of looking after the constituency is this: Have you read the Constitution? If not, please do so. If yes,please explain how the s.24(2A) of the Parliamentary Elections Act could be consistent with Article 49 of the Constitution.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Of Word Games and Human Rights, democracy, rule of law and all that Jazz (Part 2)

In continuation of my earlier blog entry where i was analysing the Ministry of Law's response to the IBA report, I was planning to do an analysis of paragraphs 7 & 8. These are the relevant paragraphs:

7. The human rights allegations in the Report also have no substance. Singapore had responded in detail to them in our 9 April response to the draft report. Singapore, like nearly all countries, subscribes to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights are interpreted and implemented according to the specific histories, cultures and circumstances of each country. Every society must find and decide the appropriate balance between rights and responsibilities for themselves. Human rights groups in IBAHRI have closed ranks with other Western human rights NGOs to prescribe for Singapore and all new countries, especially China, Western norms of liberal democracy as the only way to bring stability and prosperity. They believe that free market policies cannot succeed without Western liberal democracy, and it is their mission to make other societies adopt the Western model.
8. No NGO has greater interest and understanding of Singapore's history and internal balance than Singapore's leaders, to be able to set norms that will work for Singapore. Whatever the shortcomings of the Singapore government, from our record no one has doubted that our overriding objective has been to get Singaporeans better educated, to understand and be exposed to the globalised world we are now in. So we adjust our laws and systems to maximise the benefits from global forces to make Singapore a thriving cosmopolitan city, where Singaporeans and foreigners live and work in a peaceful, safe and open environment. We listen carefully to all advice and then decide the right balance for ourselves. So far we have not done badly.

I find it difficult to digest the idea that IBA is closing ranks with other NGOs or that it doesn't have a right to render a friendly advice. Before I could formulate my thoughts coherently and write about those two paragraphs, I have read the following from Michael Backman in The Age, 17 July 2008:

As you read through the measured paragraphs of the IBA report, you can almost feel the pleading; the advice to a friend: "you're wealthy, you're educated, you're like us now. Take that final step — join us — the community of civil, prosperous societies. Do it, before you embarrass yourself more." But this friend is too proud to listen.

The full article is at

Whilst I don't agree with every aspect of Backman's article, his characterisation of the IBAHRI report as an advice of a friend is very apt. We have reached a level of development where we can safely cross over to the other side. There is no point in our government repeatedly asserting that given our unique cultural, social, historical, etc. background, we have to chisel a system that works best for us. There is surely a system that worked for us in the economic developmental phase of nation-builidng. But, we must remember that we are building a nation and not a company. The next step is the emotional fulfilment of being Singaporean; of having a sense of belonging; of having a sense of civic responsibility; of having a stake in the decision-making process; of having a say in relation to government policies; of being able to critique the political goings-on without the constant fear (imagined or otherwise) of reprisal lurking next to every thought that we wish to express.

We are more educated. We are economically more well off. But, why must freedom languish in the abyss. Let us lift ourselves and march confidently. Criticisms sharpen our perspectives, broaden our understanding and ensure enlightened governance.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

nkosi sikeleli mandela

Happy Birthday to Nelson Mandela.

As a teen, I was greatly inspired by the South African struggle against apartheid. What a colossal struggle and what an amazing feat against all odds. Mandela is an inspiring icon of our times.
What I most appreciate about South African story is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to heal the wounds of the people. Instead of allowing a cycle of violence to be perpetuated; instead of calling for retribution; instead of unleashing a lynch-mob, the post apartheid leaders embarked on the path of forgiveness and healing. An Amazing stroke of political genius.

Happy 90th Birthday, Nelson Mandela.

The following is a list of quotations from Mandela:

Let freedom reign. The sun never set on so glorious a human achievement.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.

The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

I detest racialism, because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man.

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.

In my country we go to prison first and then become President.

It always seems impossible until its done.

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.

Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.

Money won't create success, the freedom to make it will.

There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.

There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.

There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.

There is no such thing as part freedom.

There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.

We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.

And finally, a quote from his trial in 1964:

'I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.'

Monday, July 14, 2008

Inflation may lead to wage increase but there is no evidence the other way around

What was Mr Tharman talking about?

My layman brain is throbbing with a big, fat headache. Are there any economists out there that can explain?

Our Finance Minister says that wage increases will fuel a second round of inflation. I have been trying to work out the dynamics in my mind as rationally as I can. I have tried speaking to people to see if anyone can shed light on the relationship between wages and inflation. Looks like it can be argued both ways (for and against the Minister’s proposition). After doing a bit of google-searching, I have discovered this excellent policy discussion paper:

“Does Wage Inflation Cause Price Inflation?” by Gregory D. Hess and Mark E. Schweltzer (Policy Discussion Paper, Number 10, April 2000), Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland

Gregory D. Hess is the Danforth-Lewis Professor of Economics at Oberlin College and an academic consultant to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

Mark E. Schweitzer is an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

The Abstract of the discussion paper says it all:
“Recent attention has turned from unemployment levels to wage growth as an indicator of imminent inflation. But, is there any evidence to support the assumption that increased wages cause inflation? This study updates and expands earlier research into this question and finds little support for the view that higher wages cause higher prices. On the contrary, the authors find more evidence that higher prices lead to wage growth”

The conclusion that they reach at the end is:
“There is little systematic evidence that wages (either conventionally measured by compensation or adjusted through productivity and converted to unit labour costs) are helpful for predicting inflation. In fact, there is more evidence that inflation helps predict wages. The current emphasis on using changes in wage rates to forecast short-term inflation pressure would therefore appear to be unwarranted. The policy conclusion to be drawn is that inflation can appear regardless of recent wage trends.”

The policy paper can be accessed online:

On a related note, the European Central Bank recently warned against wage increases and alleged that wage increases would lead to another round of inflation. But, the European Trade Union Confederation has rebutted that. The following is an extract from a Reuters article dated 1 July 2008:

BRUSSELS, July 1 (Reuters) - Trade unions in the European Union chided the European Central Bank on Tuesday for urging caps on wage growth and reiterated their opposition to any interest rate increase.
The European Trade Union Confederation said ongoing wage bargaining or expected wage trends would trigger no second-round inflationary effects -- the feed-through of high energy and food prices into the wider economy -- as feared by the ECB.
"The ECB's concerns on wages are unfounded and dangerous. The ETUC calls upon the ECB to stop using wages as an alibi to hike interest rates," ETUC General Secretary John Monks said in a statement.

So, how did our trade unions respond? In fact, our Finance Minister was speaking directly to one of our trade unions. He was at a dinner organised by the Singapore Industrial and Services Employees’ Union. Mr Philip Lee, the Deputy President of the Union is reported to have said that his union would not push for higher wages. Incidentally, Mr Tharman is the Chairman of the Union’s Council of Advisors. Looks like the Union would be taking the Chairman’s suggestion to heart.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Of word games and human rights, democracy, rule of law and all that jazz

The International Bar Association has released a report entitled, ‘Prosperity versus Individual Rights? Human Rights, Democracy and the rule of law in Singapore.’ The Ministry of Law has responded swiftly to the report. Let’s see what the Ministry has to say.

From para 2 of MinLaw’s response:2. From a quick perusal of the Executive Summary, we note that IBAHRI has not taken into account our comments on their draft report, sent on 9 April 2008. We release a copy of our comments previously given to the Chairman of the IBAHRI on the draft report, for your reference.”

It is MinLaw’s assertion that IBAHRI had not taken into account their comments. This is a reference to a letter dated 9 April 2008 from Mark Jayaratnam, Deputy Director of the Legal Policy Division of the Ministry of Law. I went through the IBAHRI report and for good measure I used the ‘search’ tool available for pdf files. Mark Jayaratnam’s letter is referenced by the report 19 times. They have ‘taken into account’ the comments. Although, it is clear that it does not necessarily agree with the comments, IBAHRI has, where appropriate, quoted from the letter to illustrate the Singapore Government’s viewpoint.

The moral of the story… don’t jump to conclusions based on a quick perusal of the Executive Summary. Surely, the Executive Summary is not going to exhibit the government’s comments. I suspect that when MinLaw asserts that IBAHRI did not take into account the comments, what they really had in the mind was that IBAHRI did not agree with their comments. One can take into account an opposing thesis and then disagree. The fact that one disagrees does not mean that one has not taken into account the opposing thesis.

From para 3 of MinLaw’s response:
“3. The IBAHRI Report questions the independence of the Singapore Judiciary. This is contradicted by Mr Fernando Pombo, President of the IBA, who stated in his opening speech at the IBA Conference in Singapore last October that lawyers the world over were coming to Singapore because:
"this country has an outstanding legal profession, an outstanding judiciary, an outstanding academical world in relation to the law".”

It is quite clear from the IBAHRI Report that the allegations directed at the issue of the independence of the judiciary are muted and qualified. IBAHRI does not go all out to claim that the judiciary is not independent. They have acknowledged the high standards maintained by the judiciary and the high standards within our legal system. But, they have sought to address the nagging doubt that is raised by some of the ‘political’ cases that have appeared before the courts. The criticism is measured and I believe it is not inconsistent with the IBA President’s comments at the IBA Conference last year.

“The judiciary in Singapore has a good international reputation for the integrity of their judgments when adjudicating commercial cases that do not involve the interests of PAP members or their associates. However, in cases involving PAP litigants or PAP interests, there are concerns about an actual or apparent lack of impartiality and/or independence, which casts doubt on the decisions made in such cases. Although this may not go so far as claimed by some non-governmental organisations, which allege that the judiciary is entirely controlled by the will of the executive, there are sufficient reasons to worry about the influence of the executive over judicial decision making. Regardless of any actual interference, the reasonable suspicion of interference is sufficient. In addition, it appears that some of the objective characteristics of judicial independence, including security of tenure, separation from the executive branch and administrative independence may be absent from the Singapore judicial system.”

IBAHRI’s comments and their findings do not assert an actual executive interference in judicial affairs. In fact, they are suggesting that there is room for improvement. After all, justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.

From Para 4 of MinLaw’s response:
“4. Other independent observers agree. The Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC), which rates Asian countries on their business and legal environments, regularly rates the Singapore judiciary highly. PERC's Asian Intelligence Report 2006 explained that this was because the Singapore judiciary demonstrated three essential elements of judicial independence. First, the courts and individual judges within the system are publicly perceived to be impartial in their decisions. Second, judicial decisions are accepted by contesting parties and the larger public. Third, judges are perceived to be free from undue interference from other branches of government. The IBAHRI Report failed to acknowledge these facts.”

IBAHRI does refer to the PERC Asian Intelligence Report of 2006. In the section D of the Report under the heading ‘Singapore’s International Rankings’, IBAHRI has outline a number of rankings that rate Singapore very highly and some that rank Singapore poorly. Specifically in relation to the judiciary, this is what they say:

“In the judicial and legal system rankings, Singapore has also performed well in international assessments. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2006, which measures the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians, Singapore ranked fifth in the word. Similarly, in an Asian-only based report, the Political & Economic Risk Consultancy’s Asian Intelligence Report 2006, strong commendation of Singapore’s judicial system was made, stating: ‘Within Asia, Hong Kong and Singapore are the only two systems with judiciaries that rate on a par with those in developed Western societies…’

So, the bone of contention for MinLaw is that IBAHRI did not acknowledge all of the accolades given by PERC. Clearly, if IBAHRI intended to carry out an independent study, it would take into account the findings of multiple sources and draw its own conclusions. We can’t expect IBAHRI to rubber stamp PERC’s findings. All that this indicates is that there is a variety of opinion out there about our judiciary. In any event, the point that IBAHRI seems to make is not so much that our judiciary is not independent but rather that there is a perception of lack of independence.

From Para 5 of MinLaw’s response5. The IBAHRI Report did acknowledge that "Singapore has a good international reputation for the integrity of their judgments when adjudicating commercial cases", but it alleged that for cases that involve "the interests of PAP members or their associates", there were "concerns about an actual or apparent lack of impartiality and/or independence". Instead of substantiating this grave allegation with evidence, the Report argued that "regardless of any actual interference, the reasonable suspicion of interference is sufficient". This is a feeble justification.

Oh my God! Feeble justification. A very important principle of procedural justice is a ‘feeble justification’. Justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done. This principle is basic. The point is best illustrated through using the process of adjudication. If I judge a civil dispute involving my son as the Plaintiff and some other person as the Defendant, I might still be able to do the honourable thing and adjudicate impartially. I might assure the defendant that I will adjudicate based on the law and the evidence before me and that the Plaintiff will be treated as just any other person. It is not inconceivable that a true man of conscience with a deep sense of justice would be able to perform this separation of reason and emotion.

There is a story about a Chola king in Tamil Nadu that has passed into legend and it is eulogised in classical Tamil literature. Manu-needi Cholan had a son who killed a calf by riding his chariot over it. The king had a petition-bell outside the palace. Any person who felt aggrieved may ring the bell and seek justice. The mother of the calf was ringing the bell violently. The king eventually discovered through his aides the full story pertaining to the killing of the calf. He then ordered that his son be punished for the crime that he committed.
This story is always presented as an indication of how an honourable king would behave when adjudicating a dispute. The unstated fact is that impartiality in adjudication is not a norm and is usually an exception. Surely the norm is that a king would have difficulties in being impartial when his own son is involved. So, it is important that the king does not place himself in a position of a judge when his own son is the object of the complaint. However, that old Tamil story seeks to instill the value of impartiality within the ruler rather than to insist that a system of impartiality be created to distance the king from the adjudicative process so that we can guard against the human frailty (which is a norm rather than an exception).

In English law, which we have inherited, there is a deep sense of impartiality in decision-making that has been implanted within civil and criminal proceedings. In fact, instead of taking chances with the ability of fallible human beings in performing the mental gymnastics of separating their personal emotions (fear, favour, vested interests) from the rational processes, there is a principle of natural justice that no man shall be a judge in his own cause. If a judge is faced with a Plaintiff or a Defendant in a case and there is a personal financial or non-financial interest that the judge has in the case, he must not hear the case. The principle extends beyond actual bias and deals with apparent bias as well. Our own courts have in many cases held the principle to be of application in Singapore. Of course, this is a principle that is utilised in the course of judicial proceedings. So, a judgment can be quashed not only where actual bias is proven but also on the basis of apparent bias.

Therefore, in the context of judicial impartiality and/or independence, there is no reason why the standard of apparent lack of impartiality and/or independence should not be applied.

IBAHRI’s assertion is as follows:

“However, in cases involving PAP litigants or PAP interests, there are concerns about an actual or apparent lack of impartiality and/or independence, which casts doubt on the decisions made in such cases. Although this may not go so far as claimed by some non-governmental organisations, which allege that the judiciary is entirely controlled by the will of the executive, there are sufficient reasons to worry about the influence of the executive over judicial decision making. Regardless of any actual interference, the reasonable suspicion of interference is sufficient.”

Note that the report does not state that there is no impartiality or independence. It states that there are ‘concerns’ about the ‘actual’ ‘or’ ‘apparent’ lack of impartiality and/or independence. In fact, they were at pains to point out that they were breaking ranks with other NGOs that go overboard in criticising the judiciary in Singapore.
This, however, is the allegedly ‘feeble’ point that they are trying to make: “regardless of any actual interference, the reasonable suspicion of interference is sufficient.”
The point is that it is not enough for a government to assert that there is no interference. Efforts must be made to ensure that the system is not capable of being abused. Efforts must be made to ensure that the system does not allow for the possibility of interference. Efforts must be made to ensure that there can be no reasonable perception of interference. In its report, IBAHRI uses the examples of Judge Michael Khoo, the trend in defamation suits and the Jeyaratnam case that went up to the Privy Council to illustrate the perception of interference. It is clear from the report that there is no actual evidence of interference.

When IBAHRI states that reasonable suspicion of interference is sufficient, they mean that a modern state such as Singapore should strive for a higher governance standard. We can no longer be judged like a third world country. We have first world standards in so many aspects of our life. Is there anything wrong in seeking to have a system of governance that excludes the possibility of executive interference in the judiciary?

From para 6 of MinLaw’s response
6. The cases brought by PAP members usually relate to scurrilous and completely untrue allegations of corruption made against them. Providing clean and efficient governance is a longstanding cornerstone of the PAP Government's policy. Thus defamatory allegations cannot be allowed to rest. The accuser has to prove his allegations. The decisions of the Courts in these cases are matters of public record, and can be analysed. Anyone questioning these verdicts should try to do so by examining these decisions properly, rather than making vague unsubstantiated allegations. What the western media continually criticise is that Singapore does not adopt Western, i.e. American, defamation laws that give the media freedom to report libellous untruths without liability to pay damages. It is also absurd to suggest that honourable and upright judges in commercial cases become compliant and dishonourable when dealing with defamation cases involving government ministers.
I will be fair to our judiciary in those defamation suits. The decisions have remained within the rational limits of the English law of defamation that we have inherited. Using defamation suits alone as a basis for alleging the perception of lack of judicial independence would be insufficient. IBAHRI does not rely on the defamation suits alone. In fact in relation to defamation suits, the bone of contention appears to be that statistically, PAP litigants have received much higher damages compared to non-PAP litigants. Incidentally, the IBAHRI statistics are a bit outdated. They end at 1999. IBAHRI also takes issue with the Summary Judgment procedure that is available under our Rules of Court for defamation suits. When a matter is disposed via Summary Judgment, the matter is not heard in open court. In suits involving politicians, this can run counter to the need for the public to view the proceedings so that they can form their own opinion and so that no allegations of executive interference can be made in the judicial process. It is from this perspective that IBAHRI have made their observations vis a vis he defamation suits.

Para 7 and para 8 of MinLaw’s response deserves a separate comment which I will attempt to do in a separate blog.

Friday, July 04, 2008

The Wisdom of a 15 year old

This is definitely the quotation of the week (maybe, it might even be the quotation of the year):
Jarret Huang (Secondary 3 student from Raffles Institution): "The sense of persecution is not a reactive measure in my situation but rather it is a pre-emptive measure taken such that certain things which are deemed incorrect cannot be said in certain situations.”

The red-herring that is often thrown at us if we directly question a minister about the curtailment of the freedom of expression is that we have false perceptions of persecution/restricions/etc. The restrictions that exist are purely in the interest of public order and safety and also national security. The restrictions do not prevent legitimate criticism.

Jarret Huang's response to Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's question about whether he feels persecuted hits the mark perfectly.

There is a political climate that has been carefully constructed and repeatedly reinforced that ensures that we practice self-censorship most of the time. It is not persecution but the fear of possible persecution that drives the self-imposed silence that many of us are guilty of.

Once in a while, a little boy would stand up and tell the Emperor that he is not wearing any clothes. :-)

Is this some kind of tennis match?

I was half-expecting a response along the lines of what Ms Yeong Yoon Ying has come up with. TODAYonline has received a letter from her explaining the “murderers, robbers, child molesters and rapists” allegation that she raised in her letter to the Wall Street Journal.

Firstly, the Wall Street Journal had attempted to report about the Lees v Chees defamation suit and they had made statements to the effect that Singapore is lacking in terms of political freedoms. In response to that article, Ms Yeong (MM Lee’s Press Secretary) wrote to the WSJ to set the record straight. In her letter she said:

The case had nothing to do with political freedom. It was for defamation arising from the Chees' false claims that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Kuan Yew are criminals and corrupt. Despite being advised by a Queen's Counsel, they failed to produce any credible defence or evidence to back up their claims.
Having lost, Dr. Chee in open court then called the Singapore leaders "murderers, robbers, child molesters" and "rapists."

My initial reaction to the allegation that Dr Chee said that the Singapore leaders were murderers, etc was: No Way! It can’t be! He wouldn’t have said that. If he did, he must have been insane. Maybe he was taken out of context and he might have said something else altogether different.

Then came Chee Soon Juan’s assertion that the statement by Ms Yeong was untrue. In my mind I was wondering: Hmm.. If it is untrue, how did Ms Yeong bravely make such an assertion. Is there going to be some hanky panky with the transcript. Nothing as blatant as that would happen. Surely, it wouldn’t get that ugly.

Now, Ms Yeong has clarified by producing an extract of the court transcript. The Today paper wrote on 3rd July about this exchange between Ms Yeong and Dr Chee. Today, 4th July, the paper has published an article clarifying Ms Yeong’s position. The relevant part of the transcript is as follows and according to Ms Yeong reproduced from p.115 of the court transcript of the hearing on 28 May 2008:

Mr Davinder Singh: “ ... And to conclude on Dr Chee’s submissions, he says that he doesn’t wish Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Lee Hsien Loong ill. In that same breath, he says he stands by The New Democrat article, which alleged that they are ‘criminals, corrupt, and covered up matters in the NKF’. And under his breath he’s now just said ‘murderers and robbers’.”

Dr Chee: “And rapists, too, you might as throw it in, you know, right? Child molesters”.

Mr Singh: “And this is the man who says “I don’t wish them ill”.

What’s wrong with this picture? Most readers would instantly realise that Dr Chee was being sarcastic. It is the kind of situation where a frustrated man sitting down listening to another person making allegations would remark sarcastically. Those words should not have been taken out of context and played out the way that MS Yeong has done. She says: “having lost, Dr Chee in open court then called the Singapore leaders ‘murderers, robbers, child molesters’ and ‘rapists’.” In the context of the transcript I find it difficult to come to the conclusion that Ms Yeong has come to.

I feel like I am witnessing a couple of kids engaged in a senseless quarrel and I just want to walk up to them and say: STOP IT! This is enough!

For his part Chee Soon Juan should not have responded to Ms Yeong’s letter in the manner that he did. This is what he said:
“The outrageousness of Madam Yeong's lie borders on the comedic. Mr Lee Kuan Yew, or his counsel, is in possession of court transcripts and audio-recordings that would show whether I had uttered those words. He must now produce the part of the transcript that quotes me saying those words or he risks destroying his own credibility.”

I’m sure he would have known that he used the words ‘rapists’ and ‘child molesters’ at least. Even if we assume that he did not say ‘murderers’ and ‘robbers’ and that this was stated by Dewinder Singh, then it is clear that he had at least said ‘rapists’ and ‘child molesters’. Instead of responding by challenging Ms Yeong to produce the transcripts, he should have just set out the context in which the words were used and clarified the issue. We don’t need this kind of back and forth between Ms Yeong and Dr Chee. This is like a tennis match now. But, I guess given the fact that it looks like the words were taken out of context, Ms Yeong has hit a rather week shot into Dr Chee’s side of the court. Will Dr Chee go in for the kill or will he slip before he hits the ball?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Uighurs are not enemy combatants

Here's the story that doesn't make the news much. Amongst the detainees at Guantanamo are Uighurs (ethnic minority in Western China). These persons were living in Afghanistan due to persecution in China and were handed over to the Americans by the Pakistanis for a bounty. It is easy for politicians to use the broad brush of executive prerogative and mark a person out as an 'enemy combatant' or a 'terrorist'. After that these people languish indefinitely under sanity sapping conditions.

It is good to see that the US courts are making decisions here and there upholding habeas corpus and determining the issue of 'enemy combatants'.

The following article is from the Human Rights Watch:

Uighurs at Guantanamo
By Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counterterrorism director, published in FindLaw

June 30, 2008

In a ruling that is years late, but is nonetheless brave and important, a federal appellate court held last week that a prisoner at Guantanamo has been wrongly deemed an “enemy combatant.” Huzaifa Parhat, the prisoner whose fate was at issue in the case, has been in US custody at Guantanamo for over six years.

Parhat is an ethnic Uighur, part of a Muslim minority from western China. Like the 16 other Uighurs who remain in military detention at Guantanamo, Parhat claims that he was never a combatant and that he ended up in US custody by mistake. Parhat says that he was living with a group of other Uighurs in Afghanistan when the 2001 war started, that his group was led across the border to Pakistan, and that the Pakistanis sold them to the United States for a bounty.

US officials realized pretty quickly that the Uighurs were no threat. Indeed, Parhat and others were reportedly determined to be eligible for release from Guantanamo more than four years ago. The reason that they remained at Guantanamo was that they could not return to their home country, and no other country—including the United States—would agree to accept them.

Parhat and the other Uighurs would risk serious persecution if returned to China. Since their continued imprisonment at Guantanamo represents an unjustifiable wrong, and they have nowhere else to go, they should be paroled into the United States.

Chinese Fears of “Splittism”

Uighurs in China face imprisonment, torture, and even execution for what the Chinese government deems to be “separatism” or “splittism.” Having fled to Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban would be sufficient, under the Chinese government’s standards, for the 17 Uighurs at Guantanamo to be viewed as a dangerous threat.

The Uighur population of western China is under tight Chinese control. Because the Chinese fear that ethnic Uighurs want independence for their region of the country, the government has taken draconian steps to repress Uighur nationalist sentiment. As Islam is perceived as underpinning Uighur ethnic identity, the government also represses most outward expressions of Islam.

For Uighurs to celebrate Muslim religious holidays, study religious texts, or show their religious identity through their personal appearance are acts that are strictly forbidden at state institutions, including schools. The Chinese government vets who can be a cleric, what version of the Koran is acceptable, where religious gatherings may be held, and what may be said at such gatherings.

Even the most peaceful Uighur activists, if they practice their religion in a way that the authorities deem inappropriate, face potential arrest and torture.

Whether to Return the Uighurs to the Chinese

US officials have made it clear that they will not send any of the Uighurs to China, but this option was once deemed within the range of possibility.

In a document that was released via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, an unnamed FBI official who worked at Guantanamo in late 2002/early 2003 mentioned the idea. “At the time of my TDY [temporary duty at Guantanamo],” he said, “US officials were considering whether to return the Uighurs to the Chinese, possibly to gain support for anticipated US action in the Middle East. The Uighur detainees at GTMO were convinced that they would be immediately executed if they were returned to China.” The next paragraph in the document was entirely censored.

In a document contained in an earlier FOIA release, an unnamed FBI official described an interview with a Uighur detainee, stating that “[CENSORED] advised that he still has faith and trust in America and please do not return him to [CENSORED].” The censor’s codes show that the first excision in the sentence was made to hide a person’s name, but that second excision was made because the information that would have been revealed—no doubt the word “China”—was considered classified. It is sad that US classification authority was used to protect the Chinese from embarrassment.

While no Uighurs were ever returned to China—and in fact the US managed to convince Albania to take five of them in 2006—the US did allow Chinese officials to visit Guantanamo at one point and interrogate the Uighur detainees.

“They didn’t treat me good,” one Uighur explained, when asked about the visit in a 2004 administrative proceeding. Saying that the Chinese officials made threats, he described how they photographed him and said that he and the other Uighurs were going to be sent back to China.

Walking in Circles

The appellate court’s opinion in Parhat’s case has not yet been released because it, too, contains classified information, but a redacted version is being prepared. Importantly, in the one-page order that has so far been released, the court told the government either to release or transfer Parhat, or—in what would be a pointless and agonizing exercise at this point—to hold a new set of administrative proceedings for him.

In the meantime, Parhat is living a life of useless tedium. He recently described his daily routine to his lawyer, who wrote:
Wake at 4:30 or 5:00. Pray. Go back to sleep. Walk in circles—north, south, east, west—around his 6-by-12 foot cell for an hour. Go back to sleep for another two or more hours. Wake up and read the Koran or look at a magazine (written in a language that he does not understand). Pray. Walk in circles once more. Eat lunch. Pray. Walk in circles. Pray. Walk in circles or look at a magazine (again, in a foreign language). Go back to sleep at 10:00 p.m.
Abdusemet, another Uighur at Guantanamo, has described days on end of doing nothing more than eating, praying, pacing, and sitting on his bed. “I am starting to hear voices, sometimes. There is no one to talk to all day in my cell and I hear these voices,” Abdusemet told his lawyer, worriedly.

“What did we do?” he asked. “Why do they hate us so much?”