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Panellists discuss LKY’s use of defamation lawsuits and ISA

SINGAPORE — Was former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s practice of suing opposition politicians after general elections a “wise thing” to do, and is the Internal Security Act (ISA) consistent with the rule of law?

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SINGAPORE — Was former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s practice of suing opposition politicians after general elections a “wise thing” to do, and is the Internal Security Act (ISA) consistent with the rule of law?

Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh threw these posers — oft-cited criticisms levelled at Mr Lee by his detractors — at former Law Minister S Jayakumar and retired Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, who were discussing the country’s rule of law at a conference yesterday to mark Mr Lee’s 90th birthday.

Professor Jayakumar, who helmed the Law Ministry for 26 years, reiterated that the defamation suits were not Mr Lee’s way to “drive home a point that (the Opposition politician) should not have stood for the elections”, citing how media publications, such as the Far Eastern Economic Review, were also one-time defendants.

Rather, the point Mr Lee was trying to make was to get those who impugn his integrity to justify their allegations, he added.

“He is prepared for a robust criticism of his policies. He can be criticised for foolishness, maybe even for incompetence, for arrogance, but his red line was — not on reputation and integrity,” Prof Jayakumar said.

“So whether it’s opposition politician or any other source, if you allege his integrity, say corruption for example, he would want to demonstrate that that is a red line ... He’s prepared to justify his record.”

He noted that although in other jurisdictions, “in the cut and thrust of politics, all sorts of accusations are hurled”, Mr Lee wanted to “establish a threshold here that you have people of integrity, including himself, in government, in Cabinet and they are prepared to defend the integrity”.

He also detailed the exhaustive way in which Mr Lee prepared his case before bringing them before the courts to debunk the myth among some that it was because he felt the judiciary would always rule in his favour.

In his speech earlier, Prof Jayakumar also said that Mr Lee’s approach to the rule of law in ensuring order in society leaned towards protecting the interests of society at large rather than that of individuals.

Prof Koh cited some Singaporeans’ view of the ISA — which allows for detention without trial of individuals whose acts threaten national security — as example that Singapore had “rule by law, rather than rule of law”.

Rejecting the contention, Mr Chan said that the standard definition of rule by law was that the government is subject to the law and accepts so.

In that case, there would be rule of law, and the government is not “ruling by law”, he reiterated.

“If the government does not rule by law, in the technical sense, what else can it rule by? That’s the only legitimate way by which it can rule,” he added.

In his speech, Mr Chan also pointed out that the crux of criticisms of the ISA was that it allowed for arbitrary arrests and indefinite detention of the government’s political opponents and critics, and that the courts are powerless to intervene.

Such criticism was “not justified” in his view, said Mr Chan, because the ISA allows detention without trial only on the grounds of national security and detainees are entitled to challenge allegations on fact.

Mr Chan said that those who cite the ISA as intimidation for speaking up are likely doing so out of “self-induced fear”.

He added that the President cannot authorise an individual to be locked up “ipse dixit” — Latin for an unsupported statement that rests only on the authority of the person making it — and detentions expire as soon as the threat posed by the individual ceases.

Nevertheless, he noted that the Constitution was amended in 1988 such that the President’s satisfaction for an individual to be detained cannot be questioned and that judges had to follow the law.

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