You have been a champion of human rights lawyer since you started your career as a lawyer in Singapore. What were some of your more recent cases ?
The challenge to the constitutionality of caning. Not only I am opposed to caning myself but my client (Malaysian Yong Vui Kong) has got an additional caning sentence imposed aside from life imprisonment. My question to that is; for someone to be sentenced with both life imprisonment and caning, the caning does not serve any purpose because it is a disproportionate punishment. It is an excessive punishment given the fact that he has also been given caning. I have been fighting for him for about 4 years. Recently, his death sentence has been lifted but it was replaced with life imprisonment with caning. So, the fight against constitutionality of caning is my most recent case, in fact I filed it only 2 days ago in court. The second case is the right to counsel, because accused person in Singapore does not have an immediate right to counsel and this has been the interpretation of the constitutional law. I am challenging that on behalf of my client saying that accused person should have an immediate right to counsel upon arrest. So that issue is being considered by the court and the hearing date is on the 7th May.
The criminalization of gay sex. I am also challenging that and the hearing is coming in April.
Governments like Singapore and others in the Asian region stating that Human Rights is a western concept and not an Asian concept and Human rights is a de-stabilizer for the Asian economic growth model is seen as a baseless argument by the international community. What is your opinion on this matter ?
“Asian values” and the concept of the Human Rights as a western concept is a Singapore concept designed to detract from the truth about the universality of human rights. If a labourer fighting for medical care or a decent wage or proper housing and safe transportation of him from one location to another is employing a western concept alien to Asia and Singapore, then Singapore and the whole of Asia should adopt those western values. No value is a good value which says I have to let go of my rights to a good and peaceful life because my seeking such a life is premised upon an alien western concept. The right to life and liberty is a universal concept. The Asian doesn’t bleed any less than the westerner. Singaporeans and those who sojourn in our country deserve the same universal protection they would enjoy elsewhere, whether it be in the US or in India. Singapore is NOT an exceptional nation. We share the same human afflictions and affections as any other. Whether we are economically viable or not, our human afflictions don’t change, and the talk of exceptionalism based upon economic growth is truly sordid and sheer sophistry. One may even venture to say Singapore’s position is rather bigoted in this regard. Whilst on the one hand Singapore adopts completely a Western model for its economy without any shame, whilst on the other, it rejects the Western model towards human rights, expressing disdain for it. You can say Singapore wants to have the cake and eat it too. This I say is contradictory in principle.
The right to peaceful assembly in Singapore which is something basic in any democratic society. Would the POA ever be repealed like the ISA Act in Malaysia? Do you suppose the Singapore government will ever revoke the ISA like Malaysia ?
Singapore’s considerations and primary concerns tend to differ from those of Malaysia’s. Singapore’s primordial concern is one that is entrenched in exceptionalism and economic primacy. What exceptionalism and economic primacy necessarily mean, at least In the Singapore context is the subjugation, and even restriction of human rights, if that will guarantee our continued economic viability as envisioned by the Government. In this vision, economic viability trumps all other considerations. One can of course mount the argument that with greater economic viability and success, naturally, our state will achieve greater human rights protection, but this argument is moot, because despite the great economic wealth, Singapore still ranks poorly in terms of human rights protection. The restriction imposed upon our constitutional right to freedom of peaceful assembly is one stark indication of the state of affairs in Singapore. Also, in Malaysia the repeal was made possible due to the presence of a substantial number of opposition members in Parliament, and the huge protests like the Bersih movement. It would be safe to say that we could envisage some change to the POA in Singapore only when a viable opposition comes to power.
Your defense of Dr Chee Soon Juan? What was the reason for supporting Dr Chee? Was this politically motivated ?
There cannot be such thing as politically motivated support because that would be a negative comment. I give my support to Dr. Chee because Dr. Chee has a lot of integrity in terms of what he is fighting for. He is fighting to challenge an unjust law that is affecting our country (Singapore) and crippling our civil liberty. He is fighting against them and organizing civil disobedience just like what Martin Luther King organized, the way the Koreans organized or the way the Malaysian lawyers have marched to challenge unjust law. This has been the wave of democracy/the wave of change that has been sweeping across the world. Dr. Chee is trying to achieve that too and I feel it is something that one should support.
Currently Dr Chee is allowed to travel and able to participate in international events. Is there a softening of a stance taken by the current government of Singapore ?
There is no softening of the stance. It just so happened that Dr. Chee has cleared his bankruptcy status and is being able to travel, so that does not change. We see a kind of opening up and then suddenly tightening, so Singapore government is completely frightened of the changes. We are very confident that this not will go on forever. With the next coming election, I think we will see a large number of oppositions coming into power and the government can be toppled quite easily.
Is there any possible chance in the future where you would join any of the opposition parties in Singapore much like JB Jeyaratnam and Francis Seow ?
JB Jeyaratnam has passed away and Francis Seow is currently living in exile. Whether or not I would join a political party, for a political cause and stand for election, under the umbrella of the Workers’ party. At the moment politics is not in my mind because there is a lot of work that has yet to be achieved in the realm of civil society. For example, civil liberty in particular, electoral reforms, the prime minister’s constituency (prime minister has the election department coming after him), the Central Corruption Investigation Bureau. So there are a lot of changes (in terms of the law) to be done and I would like to focus on my time on clinically providing education locally and regionally and participate actively in civil rights movements and law. So I just want to focus on that at the moment and politics is not currently in my mind, unless I am forced to.
What is the current mood of Singaporeans towards the government? Do you foresee the opposition gaining ground in the next elections ?
Hopeful and promising but we must guard ourselves against complacency. Is the tide seeking to replace the government? The answer would be a resounding yes. No one wants a calamitous development which is going to leave our nation that we all love so dearly, in shambles. We are all united in wanting a stable and safe nation to call our home. But many, and in fact I would venture to say, a significant portion of the population has grown weary of the party in power and are ready to see a change in the government. The tide is certainly becoming more discerning and wanting in answers and greater accountability and transparency. The public generally, and especially the young and the internet-savvy are not content to allowing the public to be swayed and persuaded to abandon its rights and to continue to repose its trust and faith in a one-party government where political challenges and opposition are viewed with great suspicion, and whereby its rights are not guaranteed. A good balanced sitting of parliament would be desirable whereby a good and deserving government will be complemented by a deserving and good opposition. The path must be laid for those in opposition to one day accede to power. There must not be hurdles placed in the way of the opposition gaining traction. As to my joining the opposition, that is out of the question. At least for now. My duties as a civil-right activist are better served in Court than they would ever be in Parliament. But of course one may never say never.
Do you hear a calling ? Would you ever consider joining the ranks of the opposition ?
The thing is that human rights and constitutional law is not that it is devoid of politics. To say that human rights is devoid of politics would be very naïve. This is because at the end of the day, political landscape has an influence on the way the law is affected. So it is all connected and we cannot change that perspective.
Would you ever consider taking up a more representative role as a politician in the future?
I am quite happy with what I am doing right now i.e. being able to represent people in court and affect changes. For example, there was a challenge on by-election. The government maintained that by-election is not compulsory and I took it up to the courts through my client. Now the court of appeal says that by-election is compulsory and that by itself is an achievement. Basically, I see that I belong to an institution of representation which is in the preservation of human rights law.
You defended British investigative journalist Alan Shadrake who wrote a book “Once a Jolly Hangman” and his criticism of the Singapore judicial system. Was his book considered an attack on the Singapore judicial system ?
I was the one who defended Alan Shadrake. In my opinion, I do not think there was an attack on the Singaporean judicial system, as I maintained. I maintain now that the judiciary is not a fragile flower that can be offended easily. But Shadrake’s book (despite the fact that there was an increase in sales of the book during the time of his ongoing case) did not really affect the administration, the defense of the judiciary or the confidence of the public administration orthe law in the eyes of the people. There was nothing of that sort so I do not think that Alan should be charged for contempt of court for that reason.
Your defense of death row inmate Malaysian Yong Vui Kong on charges of capital punishment where on 14 November 2013, Yong’s death penalty was officially lifted. Was that a win for human rights ?
That was a huge win for human rights. At the heart of human right is life. When life is taken away it is irreversible. Therefore, the prevention of life is most important and the fact that the judge has now given discretion as opposed to the mandatory death penalty (which was the norm before that in itself) was a big change. We felt relived that the noose around death sentence penalty means has been loosened now.
What do you foresee happening in the future with capital punishment in Singapore ? Would the Singapore judiciary ever revoke capital punishment ?
Capital punishment has to continue to change as the world keeps on changing since there is a moratorium against death penalty and many countries in the world are starting to abolish death penalties. I think Singapore cannot ignore such change that is happening around the world and would eventually have to follow this change. In due time, I believe I would see in my generation that death penalty punishment be abolished in Singapore.
You basically challenge the constitutionality of 377A which forbids homosexual acts in public? Do you foresee a time in Singapore where same sex marriages are allowed in the constitution ?
Ultimately, the law needs to acknowledge that (same sex relationship) is natural and recognize that it will become problematic and unfair if same sex loves cannot get married to each other. But the immediate issue is not about the marriage itself but is more about the decriminalization of homosexuality which is a colonial legacy that is significantly affecting members of the population including homosexuals, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and that law is something we are trying to work on right now as part of the challenge of constitutionality of 377A.