Holding onto my hat

Holding onto my hat

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Blue Pill or Red Pill?

I delivered this speech on 2 June 2012 at the ‘That We May Dream Again’ Event.

Click here for the link to the YouTube video clip of my speech.

How many of you have seen ‘The Matrix’, the movie with the handsome Keanu Reeves as Neo and Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus? [1]  

In the Matrix movie, Morpheus offers Neo a choice of two pills: a blue pill and a red pill.  This is how Mopheus explained the choice to Neo:

I imagine that right now, you're feeling a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole? 
Let me tell you why you're here.
You're here because you know something.
What you know you can't explain,
but you feel it ... … There is something wrong with the world.
You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. 
You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.
You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.  

Credit: Christian Mes, Law School Memes

I kinda felt like Alice in Wonderland tumbling down the Rabbit Hole, when I read Teo Soh Lung’s book, and when I began to find out what happened to those who were arrested on 21 May 1987.

‘Prequel’ to Operation Spectrum

Straits Times article published on 22 May 1986
But let me tell you what happened exactly one year before.

On 22 May 1986, the Straits Times reported that the Law Society of Singapore was strongly critical of the Government for proposing new laws which would curb the freedom of the press.  Teo Soh Lung was head of the Law Society Committee which prepared the critical press statement.  The Law Society was concerned that the proposed new laws would restrict freedom of speech. The Law Society’s public objections to the proposed laws attracted much attention. 

But despite the controversies, the proposed new laws were voted through by Parliament and became law in August 1986.  After all, there were only 2 opposition MPs out of 79 seats in Parliament.

Was the Government unhappy with the Law Society for speaking against the proposed new laws?

A few months later in 1986, the Government proposed yet another set of new laws, this time aiming at the Law Society.  One of the proposed new laws was to remove the Law Society’s right to offer comments on matters affecting law, unless asked by the Government to do so.

Again, Teo Soh Lung headed the committee under the Law Society to review these proposed new laws aimed at lawyers.  About 400 lawyers met and passed a resolution for the Law Society to call on the Government to withdraw its proposed amendments to the Legal Profession Act.  However, despite the strong objections, the proposed laws were voted through by Parliament and became law in October 1986. 

So a very peculiar situation thereby arose in Singapore. The Law Society is, by law, not allowed to speak up on law, unless invited up the Government to do so.  This restraint on the Law Society remains to this day.  The Law Society cannot speak, unless spoken to.  

Then, in the early hours of 21 May 1987, Teo Soh Lung was arrested and detained under ISA.

Do you think her arrest was expected or unexpected? 

For Soh Lung, it was completely unexpected.  She had been watching Miss Universe the night before. 

‘All Power Has Legal Limits’

Soh Lung and other detainees appealed to the Court against their ISA detention orders. [3]

In the course of dealing with Teo Soh Lung’s appeal, the Court of Appeal declared that all power has legal limits. The rule of law demands that the courts should be able to review the Minister’s decision to detain anyone under ISA. The Minister did not have unlimited discretion. 

This was wonderful news to the detainees.  The detainees would have the Court’s protection against abuse of the ISA.

What happened next?

Within one month, the Government drew up new laws to take away the Court’s power to review the Minister’s decision to detain a person under ISA.  The proposed new laws would completely reverse the effect of the Court of Appeal’s judgment a month ago.  These new laws were voted on by Parliament and become law in January 1989.  Henceforth, if the Minister decides to detain a person under ISA, he has no obligation to explain his decision to any Judge.  This is still the case today. 

Strange?  I think so.  The Government acted with lightning speed to amend the Constitution and the ISA, to cancel the effect of a Court of Appeal judgment. 

Credit: Jared Nash, Law School Memes
The Singapore Constitution

In Singapore, Parliament can enact or amend ordinary law with the support of a simple majority (i.e. more than 50%) of elected MPs. 

As for the Constitution, it cannot be amended unless with the approval of two-thirds of elected MPs. 

However, throughout the history of Singapore, there has never been more than a handful of opposition MPs in Parliament.  That being the case, it would not be terribly difficult to get the requisite majority needed to amend the Constitution or to change laws. 

In fact, since independence, there have been some 40 acts of parliament to amend the Singapore Constitution.  Our Constitution has been amended loads of times.

Can it be right to constantly amend the Constitution or to keep changing the laws?  What are the limits?

We have seen how quickly laws have been proposed and voted through by Parliament.  This is because our system is one where the ruling party has, at all times, held an overwhelming majority of seats in Parliament. 

I don’t think it is just about amending or abolishing the ISA.  Ultimately, the ISA is but a tool.  As with any tool, we also need to consider he who wields the tool.  We need to consider the entire system under which we operate. 

So under our present system, how is the use of powers checked and balanced?  Who checks and balances powers?  Who can we rely on for protection against unjust use of powers?  The Courts ?  Opposition MPs ?  NMPs ?  NCMPs ?  Mr Brown perhaps ? 

The ‘One’ Who Shall Protect Us

But I know The One who can be our Strong Protector. The One is in our midst here.  The One I speak of is YOU and ME: Citizens, Ordinary Citizens who are not afraid to Speak Up when things do not seem right. 

A strong civil society with an active citizenry is a powerful counter-weight against any wrong use of powers.  They know the power of our combined voices.  Which is why much efforts have been made, and will continue to be made, to control our freedoms.   

Friends, for too long, we have been afraid and too silent.  But let us not be afraid or silent anymore.  Let us embrace our whole humanity – we are people who think and feel.  And we CARE and we WILL speak up against wrongs and injustice.

Let us re-activate our minds, quicken our conscience for rights and wrongs, restore our voices and reclaim our freedoms.  Let us bring active citizenry back to its rightful place in our society.  Our minds, our heart and our voices in active citizenry - that is our best safeguard against bullying. 

The Choice

Let me come back to what Morpheus said to Neo. 

Here is the blue pill. Here is the red pill. 

Take the blue pill – forget the hard truths, remain in Oblivion and dream about illusions.

Take the red pill - know the truth, leave your detention cell, and dare to dream about a new future. 

Do you not want to take control of your life? 

Do you not want to shape your own your future? 

You need no longer be slaves to fear.  Freedom is at hand. 

Take the red pill and take your place in society. 



[1]  In Greek mythology, Morpheus is the God of Dreams, responsible for the dreams of people.

[2] The complete dialogue between Morpheus and Neo is fascinating.  Click here for the dialogue transcript:  Click here for a clip of this pivotal scene from the movie.

Me with Chng Suan Tze
[3] Chng Suan Tze v Minister of Home Affairs [1988] SGCA 16.   

Me with Teo Soh Lung

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Exploring the Extent of Executive Discretion

Part-time cleaner, Mdm Vellama d/o Marie Muthu is a Singapore citizen and resident voter of Hougang Single Member Constituency (SMC). 

On 15 February 2012, her Member of Parliament (MP) was expelled from his political party, which left his parliamentary seat vacant.  The next day, the Prime Minister said that there was no fixed time within which he must call for a by-election. He added that "there are many other issues on the national agenda right now".[1]

Unhappy at the prospect of being indefinitely without the service of an MP representing her vote, Mdm Vellama applied to the High Court on 2 March 2012 for remedy.

Asking to see the Judge

Mdm Vellama’s High Court application is for a declaration that the Prime Minister does not have unrestrained discretion when deciding whether or not a by-election should be called in Hougang SMC, and a mandatory order requiring the Prime Minister to advise the President to call a by-election within three months or some other reasonable time determined by the court.

According to Rules of Court, Mdm Vellama would first need to obtain the Court’s “leave” (i.e. permission) before her application can be heard by the Judge and decided on the merits.  The purpose of this initial “leave” stage is to serve as a filter:

“… to be a means of filtering out groundless or hopeless cases at an early stage, and its aim is to prevent a wasteful use of judicial time and to protect public bodies from harassment (whether intentional or otherwise) that might arise from a need to delay implementing decisions, where the legality of such decisions is being challenged.”[2]

As the Attorney-General explained:

“Leave must first be obtained in judicial review proceedings so that cases which are misconceived or unarguable can be weeded out.”[3] 

Hopeless cases which do not deserve to be heard, should be stopped on its tracks at the door.

On 2 April 2012, a High Court Judge decided that Mdm Vellama’s application passed the initial filtering test.  Mdm Vallama was given leave for a substantive hearing and a Hearing Date of 16 April 2012 was given to her.

Appeal against Judge’s decision to hear

On 4 April 2012, in a surprising move (at least to me it was), the Attorney-General filed an Appeal against the High Court Judge’s decision to grant leave to hear Mdm Vellama’s application.  This effectively translates to Attorney-General saying that Mdm Vallama’s application does not deserve to be heard and that the decision by the High Court Judge to hear her out, was wrong.  The Attorney-General’s Appeal will be heard on 16 May 2012.

From anecdotal accounts, it seems that many Hougang constituents and Singaporeans (including me) share Mdm Vellama’s unhappiness with the Government’s position that it is not held to any particular time frame for announcing the Hougang by-election, or for that matter, any by-election when a parliamentary seat of an SMC becomes vacant.

History of By-Elections

Mdm Vellama’s anxieties are not without basis.  There had been instances in the past, where parliamentary seats were vacated by the respective MPs due to death or disqualification, but where no by-elections were held:

(a)  In December 1983, the MP for Havelock constituency, Hon Sui Sen, passed away in office. His seat was thus vacated. No by-elections were held in the ward until the General Election in 1984, when the Havelock seat was erased from the electoral map.

(b)  In November 1986, the late JB Jeyaretnam’s seat in Anson was vacated after he was disqualified from holding a seat in Parliament. No by-elections were held and the seat remained vacant until the 1988 General Election, when the Anson seat was erased from the electoral map.

(c)  In December 1986, the Geylang West seat became vacant after its MP Teh Cheang Wan committed suicide. No by-elections were held until the 1988 General Election when the Geylang West seat was erased from the electoral map.

Academics have weighed in[4] and Singaporeans are keen to know the Court’s opinion on the limits of Executive discretion in respect of SMC by-elections.

Why Appeal?

Given the public interest in Mdm Vellama’s application, it is perplexing that the Attorney-General has decided to vigorously challenge the High Court’s decision to hear Mdm Vellama's application.  If the Attorney-General’s Appeal succeeds, Mdm Vellama’s case would be thrown out; which means that she, Hougang constituents and Singaporeans will be denied of the Court’s opinion on the question whether the Prime Minister’s discretion is or is not limited to a definite time-frame for calling by-elections.

If Mdm Vellama’s application is indeed "legally flawed" as the Attorney-General has argued, then it is doomed; and the Court will eventually dismiss it after it has been heard.  So what's the harm in letting Mdm Vellama have her day in Court and to let justice be seen to be done?

Legal Costs?

In Court proceedings, when a party “wins”, the winning party can ask the Court to order the losing party to pay costs.  If the Attorney-General’s Appeal succeeds, would the Attorney-General ask the Court to order Mdm Vellama to pay costs?  I hope not.

Every Singapore citizen in all other constituencies has his own elected MP to serve him.  Mdm Vellama has turned to the Court for help because she fears she would not be having what every Singaporean in all other constituencies has.  It would be disappointing enough if the Attorney-General "wins" their Appeal, for that would mean that her application is thrown out.  To be made to pay the Attorney-General's legal costs for asking the Court for help, would be a disastrous result.      

Role of Attorney-General

We know that the Attorney-General is the Government’s legal adviser[5].  If the Attorney-General serves the Executive, then do the interests of the Executive coincide, or conflict, with the interests of the public (i.e. citizens) in respect of the legal questions posed by Mdm Vellama’s application? 

What if the Executive one day decides to abolish SMCs altogether?  Or if supposing Executive thinks it is better to hold elections once in 10 years in the interest of political stability and to avoid the expense and distraction of holding general elections once every 4 or 5 years? 

If (hypothetically) the Executive wants to amend the Constitution in a manner which serves the political interests of the ruling party at the expense of civil liberties, and if the ruling party has the requisite two-thirds majority in Parliament to pass such amending legislation, who will defend the citizens’ rights from being encroached upon?

What will be the role of the Attorney-General in such a hypothetical scenario?  As the Government’s legal adviser, the Attorney-General would presumably defend the Government’s position with all its best efforts.

Screen-shot from http://www.singapore-elections.com/parl-1997-ge/cheng-san-grc.html 
Workers’ Party’s Complaint in GE 1997

In the aftermath of the 1997 General Elections, the Workers' Party complained to the police that PAP leaders (Prime Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong, Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tony Tan and Deputy Prime Minister Brigadier-General (NS) Lee Hsien Loong) had been inside a Cheng San GRC polling station on Polling Day, when none of them were candidates for Cheng San GRC[6].

The Workers' Party cited two sections of the Parliamentary Elections Act:

Section 82(1)(d):
"No person shall wait outside any polling station on polling day, except for the purpose of gaining entry to the polling station to cast his vote". 

Section 82(1)(e):
"No person shall loiter in any street or public place within a radius of 200 metres of any polling station on polling day."

However, the Attorney-General stated that the PAP leaders had not broken the law.  

Pointing to the use of the word “outside” in Section 82(1)(d), the Attorney-General explained[7]:

“Plainly, persons found waiting inside the polling stations do not come within the ambit of this section. …. Only those who wait outside the polling station commit an offence under this section unless they are waiting to enter the polling station to cast their votes.”

As for Section 82(1)(e), the Attorney-General pointed to the use of the word “within” and explained[8]:

“The relevant question is whether any person who is inside a polling station can be said to be "within a radius of 200 metres of any polling station". …Plainly, a person inside a polling station cannot be said to be within a radius of 200 metres of a polling station.”

If at that time, Singapore had an independent election body overseeing the election procedures, I think the Workers’ Party would probably have lodged their complaint to such a body instead of lodging their complaint to the police as they did.  I wonder how such an independent election body would have dealt with the Workers’ Party’s complaint.

In the English case of Adler v George [1964] 2 QB 7, the UK Official Secrets Act 1920 stated that it was an offence to obstruct a member of the armed forces “in the vicinity” of a prohibited place. The defendant was in the station at the time of the obstruction.  He argued that if he was on the station he could not be in the vicinity of the station. The court held that it would be absurd for a person to be liable if they were near to a prohibited place and not if they were actually in it.  The defendant’s conviction of the offence was upheld.
List of legislation amending the Constitution

Amending the Constitution

As we know, the provisions of the Constitution may be amended by the votes of two-thirds of the total number of elected MPs, which works out to 58 out of the current 87 parliamentary seats.  This has been done numerous times in the past. Since 1965 to date, there have been 37 acts of parliament to amend the Singapore Constitution.

More importantly, Singapore’s electoral system has been amended at least four times since 1984, each of these amendments coming into effect shortly before general elections, as the following table illustrates:[9]

Constitutional Amendment
Effective Date
Nomination Day
Lead Time
Introduction of Non-Constituency Member of Parliament scheme
10 Aug 1984
13 Dec 1984
4 months
Introduction of Group Representation Constituency scheme
31 May 1988
3 Sep 1988
3 months
Introduction of Nominated Member of Parliament scheme
10 Sep 1990
21 Aug 1991
11 months
Change in Group Representation Constituency scheme
2 Jan 1991
21 Aug 1991
7 months
Act 41 of 1996
12 Nov 1996
23 Dec 1996
< 2 months

I imagine the short lead time between the effective date of the electoral changes and the date of elections would have made it difficult for opposition parties to react and to prepare themselves for elections.     

Notably, Singapore has never had an independent body overseeing election procedures and the drawing of constituency boundaries.  Our Election Department has always been under the Prime Minister's office.  Criticism by opposition parties of an unlevel political playing field cannot be independently evaluated. 

Balancing the Powers

Unless there are sufficient opposition MPs in Parliament (at least 29) to deny the ruling party their two-thirds majority, citizens have only two defenders left to protect their civil rights: the Judiciary and Civil Society. 

The effectiveness of the Judiciary in checking the Executive will be curtailed whenever the scope of judicial review of executive decisions are being reduced or eliminated (e.g. section 8B(2) of the Internal Security Act). 

The effectiveness of Civil Society in speaking out for the protection of fundamental liberties will be curtailed so long as freedom of speech is circumscribed by legislation mandating the requirement to obtain a licence to speak publicly, assembly or gather in public (Public Order Act), restricting the formation of societies (Societies Act), vigilant, vigorous enforcement of defamation laws by political appointment holders[10], and so forth.

We have heard the old adage: Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  All power must have limits.  The exercise of Executive powers, as with any other kind of powers, cannot be unfettered. 

Democracy is a flawed system, no doubt; but this imperfect system respects the collective voting might of ordinary citizens and makes everyone equal.  Whether rich, influential, poor or obscure – each citizen has one vote.   

In functioning democracies, Executive powers are checked and balanced by: 

  • Clearly defined constitutional guarantees of fundamental liberties
  • presence of sufficient numbers of opposition MPs in Parliament
  • an independent Judiciary with effective, sufficient powers of judicial review over Executive decisions
  • a Civil Society which is not overly hindered by laws restricting freedom of speech and public assembly
  • an independent elections commission to oversee election procedures

As of now, are all these safeguards securely in place in our socio-political landscape?

By Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss

[2] Public Service Commission v Lai Swee Lin Linda [2001] 1 SLR(R) 133 at [23]
[3] http://www.agc.gov.sg/documents/AGCPressRelease5April2012.pdf Attorney General v Vellama D/O Marie Muthu Civil Appeal No. 35 of 2012
[9] Page 67, An Introduction to Singapore’s Constitution (2005) Kevin YL Tan
[10] http://maruah.org/2012/03/05/maruahs-comments-on-the-practice-of-threatening-defamation-lawsuits/#more-1372

Note: This article was published by The Online Citizen on 28 Apr 2012:

With Teo Soh Lung (15 Jan 2012, Hong Lim Park)
With M. Ravi (27 Apr 2012, Breakthrough Cafe)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

"Raffles Hotel Singapore" - Not Singapore's

Raffles Hotel [1] on Beach Road is undoubtedly an icon. I love the place. I am sure many Singaporeans are fond of the place too.

Built in 1887, it was extensively renovated between 1989 and 1991. I must say, those involved in the restoration works did a marvellous job. The architecture of the building and its elegant interiors evoke the nostalgic ambience of a bygone era. Raffles Hotel is certainly a Singapore landmark I would be proud to boast about and to bring my foreign friends to see.

Sadly, Raffles Hotel does not belong to Singaporeans, as I only recently found out. Until 2005, the hotel was owned by Singapore-listed “Raffles Holdings”[2], a Temasek Holdings company.

In 2005, Raffles Holdings sold all of its hotel assets to US-based Colony Capital for SGD$1.72 billion. The portfolio of assets owned by Raffles Holdings consisted of 41 hotels and resorts, with its most prominent establishment being the luxurious 103-suite Raffles Hotel. (I guess I did not pick up on this news at the time it was announced.)

At the time of the acquisition, Colony Capital chief executive Thomas J. Barrack said: "We are honored to become the custodian of one of the finest hotel chains in the world and a true national treasure of the people of Singapore. We deeply respect the historical significance of the Raffles Hotel, Singapore and we consider it our responsibility to protect that legacy."[3]

In 2006, Colony Capital teamed up with a Saudi businessman to buy Fairmount Hotels and Resorts in a deal that resulted in Toronto-based Fairmount Raffles Hotel International[4] becoming the new owner of Raffles Hotel.

On 8 April 2010, The Straits Times reported that a Qatar sovereign wealth fund has bought Raffles Hotel for US$275 million (S$384 million), making it the third change of ownership in seven years.

This morning, 14 January 2012, I read in the Straits Times[5] that “Singapore’s grand old dame Raffles Hotel is finally in the hands of its new Qatari owners” - the government-owned Qatar National Hotels Company.

Though I feel a sense of loss upon reading today’s Straits Times article, the fact is, that the horse bolted out of the stable seven years ago.

Still, questions nag my mind:

  • How could parent company Temasek Holdings consider it alright to sell away “Singapore’s grand old dame”? There is only ONE Raffles Hotel and it is of historic and sentimental value to Singaporeans.
  • Did Singapore need the money badly that we had sell off our heirloom and heritage? (To my understanding, people sell off their family jewels in times of war or crisis, out of necessity, in order to survive their hard times.)
  • Have Singaporeans benefitted from the proceeds of the sale of Raffles Hotel in 2005? More hospital beds? Better care facilities for our elderly? More affordable housing for Singaporeans? Higher subsidies for education? Improvements in public transport?

I suppose it is pointless to lament the loss of Raffles Hotel. The next time I talk about Raffles Hotel to my foreign friends, I have to remind myself that Raffles Hotel does not belong to Singaporeans, so I have nothing to boast about.