Obama's Human Rights Opportunity in Singapore

The effusive praise President Barack Obama has for former Singaporean Prime Minister and now Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is another gesture that has led many to wonder where the present administration sits on human rights issues. The forthcoming APEC summit in Singapore presents an opportunity for the president to set the record straight.

Asia is vital for the Obama Administration for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the imperative that even perceptions of democracy must be judged against not just American values, but universal values. Amnesty International recently released an open letter to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper calling attention to this very topic. In it, the organisation urges him to uphold Canada's reputation as a human rights supporter while attending the APEC summit by addressing ongoing human rights concerns in the island nation. Among these concerns is the case of Dr. Chee Soon Juan, one which President Obama would be well-advised to consider.

Dr. Chee, the oft-jailed leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, has extended an invitation to meet with President Obama and/or his entourage to leaven the president's praise of Singapore's autocracy with an acknowledgment that destroying political opposition should not be acceptable in any culture. Dr. Chee has been incarcerated seven times for attempting to exercise the basic human right to freedom of expression, which includes free speech and assembly, and recently recounted the conditions under which he has been held:

I have been jailed seven times in the past. In jail I spend 23 hours in a cell with a metallic door - no bars. The cell measures 15 feet by 6 feet and is shared with three cellmates (I was in solitary confinement during my first two terms). We have 45 minutes of 'yard time' and another 15 minutes for a shower. If it rains, we have no yard time. Sometimes it rained during yard time a few days in a row and so we spent 24 hours a day in the cell for a few days straight.

In one corner is a latrine, the squatting kind. There is no sink, nor is there a wash area. We brush our teeth over the toilet bowl. Meals are adequate except that on one occasion, I felt ill after taking the food and realised that my food tray was marked. I refused to eat after that and insisted on seeing my wife. They didn't allow me and so I went without food for more than a week. They then transferred me to the hospital when I got too weak and after seeing my wife and getting assurances from them that my tray will not be marked, I resumed eating. That was quite an ordeal.

I spend much of my time running the party and getting projects done: maintaining the website, publishing and selling the party newspaper to raise funds, organising activities, etc. Over the last couple of years, I have spent much time in court for several trials all proceeding simultaneously. At the moment, one has just ended and another one is being immediately brought on by the attorney general. There are five trials running simultaneously and the hearings overlap one another.

If you collapse all the hearing dates, I've spent in total about 7-8 months in court over the last year or so battling these cases. I represent myself in all of them because no lawyer in Singapore dares to represent me

I have three children, aged 5, 7, and 10. They need attention and I make sure that I don't neglect them and their needs.

Apart from this I sell my books to earn income for my family.

A crucial point of these Kafkaesque circumstances is that part of the punishment is being made to sit through endless legal proceedings. With all due respect to the judicial officers, these proceedings concern nothing more than attempting to exercise basic rights allegedly guaranteed under Singapore's constitution.

Dr Chee has also filed for bankruptcy as a result of a series of defamation suits brought against him by government leaders. He was ordered to pay more than a million dollars in total and has lost all his possessions trying to pay this sum. As a result of his being made bankrupt, he is barred from standing elections and banned from traveling out of Singapore. He has been subject to the aforementioned conditions for the following charges:

  • Speaking without a permit (3 counts)
  • Contempt of court (2 counts)
  • Attempting to speak and trespass (of presidential residence)
  • Speaking on a religious topic
  • Attempting to leave the country without a permit
  • Selling books without a license

No American president should be anything but horrified by the conditions under which Dr. Chee and other loyal opponents of the regime have been harassed.

What mention the president makes, if any, of this critical failing of the Singaporean model should give a very good idea of how much priority the Obama Administration really gives to human rights.

It is an opportunity that should not be wasted.