Let Chee Soon Juan attend our forum.
That is what a New York-based human rights group is calling for in an open letter to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
In a strongly worded 14-paragraph letter dated 24th April, the Human Rights Foundation asked PM Lee and his government to reconsider its decision to bar Dr Chee, the secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, from attending the annual Oslo Freedom Forum on 7-9 May as one of its 30 guest speakers.
The Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF) is a conference about human rights first held in May 2009. However, as a bankrupt, Chee needs permission to go overseas from the Singapore government.
According to Thor Halvorssen, president of the foundation, they learned on Monday that Chee’s application for leave to travel to Oslo for the event had been denied by the Insolvency and Public Trustee’s Office.
“A general travel restriction aimed at preventing a bankrupt individual from defrauding creditors may be legitimate. However, in this case, the travel restriction against Dr. Chee is aimed at further curtailing the freedom of expression of an opposition leader,” Halvorssen said in the open letter to Lee dated Tuesday.
Chee was declared bankrupt in February 2006, after losing two defamation lawsuits to former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong. He was slapped with a hefty $500,000 bill in damages.
Halvorssen said Singapore is bound by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is widely regarded as customary international law.
“Article 19 of the Declaration states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,’” he noted.
Speaking to Yahoo! Singapore, Chee said he saw no reason why he should be barred from attending the forum.
“The rationale for prohibiting a bankrupt from traveling is to prevent him/her from running away and not paying the creditors. If I had wanted to do that I would have left a long time ago,” he said.
“Another reason is that they don't want the bankrupt to squander his or her money and not pay it to the creditors. Again, this is not a concern as the organisers of the forum have undertaken to pay all of my expenses for the visit… so the reason for not allowing my travel seems to be more political than anything else,” he added.
In an email interview with Yahoo! Singapore, Halvorssen said, “The prime minister has the opportunity to show the international community that his government will allow someone to criticize his politics. If he ignores our letter, it merely reinforces the growing perception across the globe that Singapore is not a democracy.”
This is not the first time Dr Chee has been denied permission to travel overseas for overseas functions.
He was once allowed to leave Singapore in 2009 to visit his ailing father-in-law who subsequently passed away.
Yahoo! Singapore has been in touch with the Prime Minister’s Office but has yet to receive a reply. The government, however, has previously defended its human rights record.
The open letter has also been published on U.S. online news site Huffington Post, which has published the letter in full. Read the letter here in full.
Initial reaction to the open letter has been mixed.
On the Huffington Post website, Jeffrey Tas commented, “As far as I know and in my opinion, there are worse infringements of "human rights" in for example Middle East, China, India, as well as in parts of Africa… I support Singapore's decision not to grant Dr. Chee leave, because in as so far as the actions of Dr. Chee go, he does not represent Singapore, he does not represent the general Singaporean, and he does not give a fair assessment of Singapore and how the system works.”
However, another reader, Dennis Cowan, urged the Singapore government to reconsider its decision.
“The right to challenge, debate and criticise will never go away and dissatisfaction in human behaviour must be addressed and reasoned with...denying rights only leads to frustration and unhappiness in both directions... permit Dr Chee to be seen and heard by those who want to hear him speak, even if you don't.”