Fined politician loses chance to stand in poll

July 30, 2002

By Amy Tan

Chee's submissions in the tudung trial

OPPOSITION politician Chee Soon Juan lost his chance to contest the next general election when he was slapped with a fine on Tuesday, July 30 for speaking in public without a permit. Chee, who was fined S$3000 (US$1704) at the end of a three-day court hearing, made a speech at Singapore's lone public soapbox in February about three Muslim girls who were barred from state schools after they wore headscarves or "tudungs" to class.

Although Chee was registered to speak at Speakers' Corner, he did not have an additional police permit required for almost all public events, including concerts and political rallies.

The charge, under the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act, has highlighted the city state's restrictions on free speech and the difficulties faced by opposition politicians.

A fine of S$2000 or more bars a person from standing in a general election for five years. The People's Action Party, which has dominated parliament since independence in 1965, won a new five-year term in a walkover last November.

Chee, a former university lecturer who leads the Singapore Democratic Party, has been jailed twice in the past for refusing to pay fines for making speeches without a permit.

District judge Kow Keng Siong said Chee's speech "clearly constituted public entertainment as defined in the act".

Chee opted to pay the fine on Tuesday rather than serve a default sentence of three weeks in jail but did not view his exclusion from elections as the end of his life in politics.

"You're not talking about a democratic system, so my political career goes on to fight for democracy in Singapore in whichever way I can," he told reporters outside court.

Chee also is battling a defamation lawsuit brought by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew over comments he made during last year's election.

Several opposition politicians have had to pay hefty damages for defamation in the past. Leaders of the ruling party say they go to courts only to defend their reputations from unfair attack.


Speakers' Corner opened in a central park in September 2000, promising citizens a venue to air their views in a country known for its strict censorship laws.

Only Singaporeans can stand on the soapbox and must register with police beforehand. The rules do not preclude political topics but say speeches should not be religious in nature or foment hostility among Chinese, Malay and Indian communities.

The row over the Muslim headscarves was a highly publicised standoff between the parents of the schoolgirls and the state, over religious freedom, the government's concern for social cohesion, and the right to enforce a school dress code.

"I do not deny that I did speak on the wearing of the tudung by Muslim females. But if that is all it takes to convict me on this charge, then we are little more than machines," Chee, who acted in his own defence, told the court on Monday.

A police inspector told the court on Friday that Chee had registered to speak at the park and was warned not to touch on religious issues as part of the regulations. Chee also signed a form stating he could be charged in court if he broke the rules.

Deputy public prosecutor Bala Reddy told the court Speakers' Corner was not the appropriate venue for Chee's speech as it contained "numerous references to religion".

But Chee said it was "clearly a criticism about the government's policy of suspending the girls from school and not a discourse on or about religion or religious matters". After hearing the sentence, Chee called Singapore ``autocratic'' and told reporters that his political career would go on.

``I will still fight for democracy in Singapore,'' Chee said, adding that he would remain the secretary-general of his party.

Chee, a fiery critic of the government, is currently being sued by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew for defamation. Critics say such cases are used to quash political dissent. Singapore's leaders say the defamation cases protect their reputations.

Before Speakers' Corner opened in September 2000, Chee was jailed for speaking publicly without a permit.