Lawyer associations in unison with Ministry of Home Affairs statement on judgement by US court
Just today, two main lawyer associations in Singapore had their letters published in the Straits Times forum to express their disagreement with and contempt of the findings made by US Immigration Judge Samuel B. Cole on the Singapore criminal justice system, in his judgement to grant asylum to Singaporean blogger Amos Yee on 24 March.
In the Law Society’s letter, its President, Gregory Vijayendran wrote:
“The Law Society of Singapore (the Society) disagrees with the findings about Singapore’s criminal justice system by US judge Samuel Cole, in allowing asylum for Mr Amos Yee in the United States (US judge grants Amos Yee’s asylum request; March 26)…
..The judge’s opinion in the judgment appears to gloss over the critical fact that Mr Yee was lawfully prosecuted in a court of law.
In his 2016 prosecution, he pleaded guilty to charges of wounding the religious feelings of Christians and Muslims.
He was ultimately convicted, and sentenced, by competent courts in Singapore for criminal offences.
At all times, Mr Yee had been legally represented and was afforded all due process in law.
Allowing immunity for hate speech only encourages the undermining of values in a functional democracy.
That may be the new normal elsewhere. But law and order in Singapore trumps any individual’s desire to shoot his mouth off with social virulence and venom.”
The Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore (ACLS) had expressed their outrage at the assertion by the American courts that Yee was persecuted by the Singapore Government, and the consequent impugning of the Singapore criminal justice system, echoing the argument by the Law Society made on the judgement.
Arguments in unison with MHA
The main thrust in the arguments by both associations is by and large very similar to that made on 25 March by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
MHA wrote that Yee was charged and convicted for engaging in hate speech against Christians in 2015. He was also convicted on another charge for publishing an obscene image. Yee was charged again for hate speech in 2016, against Muslims and Christians.
It then stated that Yee was represented by counsel in both the 2015 and 2016 proceedings, and that the US adopts a different standard, and allows some such hate speech under the rubric of freedom of speech.
In an attempt to give an extreme example of the US’s liberal law, MHA said that the US allows the burning of the Quran in the name of freedom of speech.
MHA also noted in its statement that Singapore takes a very different approach, and that anyone who engages in hate speech or attempts to burn the Quran, Bible, or any religious text in Singapore, would be arrested and charged.
Displeasure by association and MHA does not make sense
Both lawyer associations and the MHA argue that Yee was rightly charged in court and that Singapore does not condone hate speech.
But what exactly are they arguing against with their reasoning?
Two main points from their reasoning:
1) Yee was fairly charged in court for the offences and he was defended by a legal counsel
2) Hate speech is not condoned in Singapore as compared to the US
Judge Cole granted Yee his asylum application on the basis that Yee had met the burden of proving he had suffered past persecution on account of his political opinion, and had a well-founded fear of future persecution in Singapore.
The judge did not argue that hate speech should be condoned. In fact he made mentions of this in his judgement.
Acknowledging that the posts Yee had made were offensive, he wrote, “Yee’s social media posts in Singapore, though undoubtedly offensive to many, do not create any basis to deny asylum as a matter of discretion.”
Judge Cole, in his judgment, listed eight points to justify his opinion that Yee had been politically persecuted by the Singapore Government:
- The “Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead” video was scathing in its criticism of not just the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, but of the Singapore regime in general. About Mr Lee: “He was a dictator but managed to fool most of the world to think he was a democrat, … [D]uring your rule, you controlled the entire media and education, proliferating nationalistic propaganda on a daily basis, … Despite our voting rights, he is undoubtedly totalitarian.” About Singapore in general: “We are one of the richest countries in the world, but we have one of the highest income inequalities, highest poverty rates, and our government spends one of the lowest on healthcare and social security. The money spent on the public is so low, it’s more representative of a third world country, and yet the amount of taxes is one of the highest in first world countries.” So, the video contained harsh criticism of both Mr Lee and the Singapore government.
- Religion was only tangential to the video. The video was almost entirely about Mr Lee and Singapore, and its discussions of religion were only used to make a point about Yee’s dismal opinion of Mr Lee. In fact, religion took up only about 30 seconds of the video’s 8½ minute content.
- The public response to the video was entirely about its criticism of Mr Lee, not about its offence to religion. Yee and both his witnesses testified similarly about the nature of the public attention to the video, and their testimony went unrebutted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
- The evidence presented showed that Yee’s prison sentence was unusually long and harsh, especially for a young offender.
- The terms of Yee’s pre-trial release prohibited him from posting to social media. These restrictions were also highly unusual and restrictive, and served the main purpose to silence Yee’s criticism of the government.
- Other people who had made disparaging comments about religions but who were not similarly critical of the Singapore regime had avoided prosecution. These included Calvin Cheng and Jason Neo. Both had made comments critical of Islam, equating Muslims with terrorists. Neither was charged.
- Regarding the obscenity charge related to the line drawing, many more-explicit pictures were available to the Singapore public and did not result in prosecutions. But this particular drawing had the face of Mr Lee superimposed on one of the figures (behind one with Margaret Thatcher’s head). This again raised the inference that the prosecution was politically motivated.
- The country condition reports and expert and lay witness testimony all describe that this is the modus operandi for the Singapore regime — critics of the government are silenced by civil suit for defamation or criminal prosecutions.
Based on those eight points, the judge argued that he was convinced by Yee’s evidence and that of the two witnesses that though Yee’s prosecutions might have been legal under Singapore law, the prosecution clearly served a “nefarious purpose,” namely, to stifle political dissent, as it was a criminal prosecution by the Singapore government and was therefore inflicted by the government.
The judge noted that the US government might rebut this presumption by establishing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that either:
- there had been a fundamental change in circumstances in the country of removal, such that Yee’s life or freedom would not be threatened on account of the protected ground; or
- Yee could avoid future persecution by relocating to another part of the country, and under the circumstances, it would be reasonable to expect Yee to do so.
He pointed out that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had not presented any evidence to rebut this presumption. The regime is the same and there is nowhere safe in Singapore for Yee to hide from the government, as noted, and Yee’s return to Singapore would likely result in additional prosecutions.
So condoning of hate speech or fear of future prosecution?
Nowhere in the judgement to grant Yee asylum does it state that his asylum was being granted because the US supports or condones hate speech, and thus, Yee was being welcomed to the country as a refugee.
The ruling is clear that the Judge was convinced Yee had been and will be subjected to political persecution, should he remain in Singapore.
It would be fair had the respected legal associations and the MHA kept their disagreement based on the judgement that had been passed, and rebutted the points the judge had made, instead of creating a straw man in defence of what would seem to be an international embarrassment to the Singapore government’s freedom of speech record.
Were one to observe the media attacks and coordinated statements against the US ruling, one would probably agree with the judge that Yee would not be safe* in Singapore, whether it be state-sanctioned actions or not.
* Yee was struck by 49-year-old Neo Gim Huah on his way to a pre-trial conference on 30 April 2015. Through a translator, Neo had said that Yee had been disrespectful of and had insulted Lee Kuan Yew, and that he had only wanted to teach Yee a lesson as an elder and did not want to hurt Yee.