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Singapore may be one of the world's most successful economies, but when it comes to human rights, it gets a failing grade, says a new report by the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI).

IBAHRI says Singapore falls "far short of international standards" in the area of human rights, especially with its severe limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly and the press, and of the independence of the judiciary.

According to the report, "Prosperity Versus Individual Rights? Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law in Singapore", "democratic debate and media comment are extremely restricted and government officials have initiated numerous successful defamation suits against both political and media critics."

Leaders of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) - including past and current prime ministers such as Goh Chok and Lee Hsien Loong - have secured apologies and millions of dollars from defamation suits over the past decade. Their victim list reads like a "Who's Who" of Asian and world media: the "Asian Wall Street Journal", "Far Eastern Economic Review", "Time", "Newsweek", "International Herald Tribune", among others.

They also aren't afraid to go after opposition members. The leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), Dr. Chee Soon Juan, and his sister, Siok Chin, have been bankrupted by the courts for not being able to pay the hefty fines brought upon them by defamation suits filed by the Lees.

"There are concerns about an actual or apparent lack of impartiality and independence" in court cases involving "the interests of PAP members or their associates," the report says. Apparently no PAP member has lost a defamation case in a Singapore court.

According to news reports, this is the first time IBA, the world's largest legal organisation with 30,000 lawyers, has criticised Singapore, and it is especially ironic as IBA held its annual convention in Singapore last October against protests by international rights organisations.

Among 18 recommendations, IBAHRI said Singapore should ratify the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and abolish criminal defamation as an offence.

In response, the Ministry of Law said it was "absurd to suggest that honourable and upright judges in commercial cases become compliant and dishonourable when dealing with defamation cases involving government ministers." The ministry also said lawsuits brought on by PAP members usually relate to scurrilous and untrue allegations of corruption.

Read IBA's statement, which links to the full report, here:

Read the Ministry of Law's rebuttal:

(16 July 2008)

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