Singapore lawyer and academic Jothie Rajah has come out with a book, Authoritarian Rule of Law, on how the government has used the law to systematically dismantle political liberalism. The book has been hardly talked about because the media has generally ignored it. Here veteran lawyer G Raman dissects the book and recounts to P N Balji his favourite chapter
1. What does this book show about politics and the law in Singapore?
On the political plane the book deals with the decimation of dissent in Singapore. Law has been used as a tool for this purpose. The veneer of “rule of law” is exposed with all its warts and blemishes. The defence by the PAP on its adherence to rule of law is made short shrift of.
Dr Jothie Rajah presents a masterful study of the doctrine of “rule of law” and its corruption by “rule by law”, the very antithesis of “rule of law”. Singapore has not subscribed to the rule of law as so brilliantly illustrated by the laws that Jothie has referred to in her book – the Internal Security Act, the Public Order Act, the Vandalism Act, etc.
Rule by law is the order of the day for the PAP. It is woven into Singapore’s political fabric inextricably. It explains how the PAP has been able to exercise hegemonic power in Singapore since 1959 – 54 years of uninterrupted authoritarianism.
2. The author tries to “unpack the complexities and paradoxical co-existence of the rule of law and rule by law”. What are some of the examples she has used?
Dr Rajah has used the medium of an academic dissertation to comment on the “rule of law” in Singapore. The breadth and depth of her research is such that almost every sentence is footnoted to support her arguments. Her treatment of the subject is not polemical nor is there any trace of rhetoric.
She has cited other scholars of standing on the anatomy of rule of law. Quoting Randall Peenenboon, “’rule by law’ as operating when ‘states …… rely on law to govern but not accept that basic requirements that law bind the state and state actors’”. She touches on Thio Li-Ann’s explicit comment, “…..Singapore state’s subordination of liberal democratic values to statist goals like stability and economic growth…….is more accurately characterized as ……..rule by law”.
Dr Rajah goes back to the colonial past on the intrusion of ‘rule by law’. “The one defining event that might have ruptured colonial ‘rule by law’ and generated a groundswell of awareness for ‘rule of law’ individual rights – an anti–colonial battle for independence – did not occur in Singapore. The closest thing to a liberation movement was represented by the left-wing Socialists and the Communists in post World War II Singapore. But because of the Cold War anxieties of the time, the British allied with the pro–‘West’ PAP to repress the left wing, smoothing the way for ideological continuity between the colonial state and the nation-state”.
Repression has been the hallmark of the PAP’s rule. Rule of law was subservient to rule by law. Dr Rajah goes on to postulate:
“Thus it is that ‘rule by law’ has had a long and powerful presence in Singapore. The liberal humanism of the Constitution and the Proclamation sits like a thin, extremely fragile veneer upon deeply rooted structures that counter and devalue the proclaimed democracy, liberty, justice and equality. ‘Rule by law’ has a far deeper legal tradition in Singapore than ‘rule of law’”.
3. And what conclusions does she come to?
To continue with the earlier question, Dr Rajah’s conclusions would inevitably stem from her own political perspective. She has stated her position in very clear terms :
“While I have done my best to resist polarizing positions, I ought to declare my own normative inclinations towards a ‘rule of law’ that presents and upholds political liberalism”.
That is her stand and to her it is meaningless relegating rule of law to second place in preference to economic success and administrative efficiency which emphasize function rather than “values and ideals”. She decries material well-being against norms of democracy and liberalism.
4. Which is your favourite chapter? And why is this your favourite chapter?
Chapter 5, which also happens to be the longest. It has a telling headline : “Policing Lawyers, Constraining Citizenship”. The headline, so aptly chosen, tells all – how the legal profession has been emasculated and citizens deprived of their basic freedoms.
It is my favourite subject because it deals with the legal profession (the Bar) which in every country is the mouthpiece of society. By their very calling the Bar puts on the mantle of a defender of rights especially in disputes between citizens and state. But almost every member of the Bar who chose to represent political detainees got himself detained.
What is worse, the Law Society, one of whose objectives is to comment on the Bills introduced in Parliament had this right taken away. It can only comment on Bills and Acts of Parliament if invited to do so. The Law Society had its wings clipped. It has almost been made redundant.
The chapter represents quintessentially the theme of the book – rule of law v rule by law. In her own unique penetrating style Dr Rajah sums up the Singapore situation :
“The ‘rule of law’ / ‘rule by law’ ambivalence of the Singapore state is reflected in the way the state carefully adhered to ‘rule of law’ procedures while scripting a ‘law’ (ironically concerning the legal profession) that undermines ‘rule of law’ principles.”
The dichotomy between ‘procedures’ and ‘principles’ and between form and substance is what informs the book. Form may impress a non-focussed observer. But a focussed observer will note the total lack of substance in the state’s claim that it subscribes to the theory of ‘rule of law’.
5. The author has presented two case studies – the Vandalism Act and the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act – to show how the government has controlled political discourse. What are her arguments?
The chapter dealing with newspapers is titled “Policing the Press”. Dr Rajah is very astute in the choice of language. Her entire text bristles with words and phrases that are evocative delivering her message with a punch without being combative. That is the beauty of the book – a studied detachment but with the eye of a pathologist carrying out an autopsy.
Let us hear from her on the flavour of this chapter :
“This case study demonstrates the manner in which the enactment of legislation has undermined and reconfigured a freedom closely connected to the freedom of expression and the pluralism of political liberalism: the freedom of the press.”
Need I say more? The total muzzling of the print media and the ownership and control of the broadcast and telecast media by the government have sealed the coffin of press freedom in Singapore.
As a true academic Dr Rajah presents the case for the government as well in dealing with press freedom. She refers to the speech Lee Kuan Yew made at the June 1971 Annual Assembly of the International Press Institute defending the actions he had taken in banning two newspapers and detaining the journalists of a third newspaper. The defence by Lee was “that Singapore newspapers had periodically become fronts for hostile foreign interests and that the Singapore Government, as a responsible government, must act to prevent this ‘anti-national’ subversion.”
Dr Rajah also exposes Lee’s real thoughts on press control. He considers himself as the guardian of people’s values. They need guidance so as to protect them from the wily and pernicious message purveyed by the West. She cites Lee :
“At a time when new nations require their people to work hard and be disciplined to make progress, their people are confused by watching and reading of the happenings in the West. They read in newspapers and see on TV violent demonstrations in support of peace, urban guerillas, drugs, free love and hippieism. Many people are uncritically imitative.”
Dr Rajah sums up Lee’s attitude on press control and in that process reveals his treatment of the people of Singapore :
“He issues to ‘the people’ the instruction to ‘work hard and be disciplined to make progress’, a didactism that simultaneously infantalizes ‘the people’ and elevates the state by placing Lee in the position of pedagogue”.
Dr Rajah traces the methodical but sweeping inroads that the government has made since 1971 into press freedom. The Presses Act abandoned any pretense at respecting press freedom when it ordained that 99% of the shareholders shall be entitled to one vote each while the remaining one per cent were entitled to 200 votes each. The Editor and the Chairman of the Board of the company publishing the newspapers were to be government appointees.
The Vandalism Act has been scrutinized intensely by Dr Rajah. She has taken account of the political forces at work when this Act was passed. The opposition Barisan Socialis had taken the struggle for democracy to the streets. Slogans were painted on roads and bus shelters and posters hung from street lamps. [It will be recalled that Parliament was not convened to discuss the “separation” of Singapore from Malaysia in August 1965. It was only convened in December of that year because the government was forced to do so in order to pass the budget for the ensuing year.] Parliament which is to be the centre for discussion of important national issues was shut during this period. Can one blame the Barisan for taking their struggle to the streets?
She deals with the severity of punishment for vandalism – three strokes of the cane and imprisonment for up to 2 years. She criticises the Act as being regressive. Perhaps Dr Rajah should have encapsulated her abhorrence of the law by dealing with the then Attorney-General Ahmad Ibrahim’s view of the Act. Lee referred to Ahmad Ibrahim’s disagreement in drafting the law because, to quote Lee, Ahmad Ibrahim wrote screeds of opinion on why he thought the Act was against the accepted norms of criminal jurisprudence. But Lee put his foot down and the Act was passed. Ahmad Ibrahim was one of the last few intellectuals who had a straight backbone.
6. Do you see the government making any changes to these two laws in the near future?
No! Under the PAP the legal arsenal for dealing with dissent has only grown stronger. Even pledges made by the government are not kept. It will be recalled that Lee Hsien Loong had once said that if Malaysia were to abolish the Internal Security Act Singapore would consider doing the same. But alas! The very next day after Malaysia announced the abolition, Singapore confirmed that it will not do so!
So long as these two laws help PAP to be propped up, they will not be scrapped.
7. Can the government continue to use the law to control political discussion in Singapore?
Habits die hard. Why should they dislodge something that has worked for their benefit for the last 54 years? However, given the increasing antipathy towards the PAP and the use of the social media to express alternative views by the younger Singaporeans, a day will come when all repressive measures will be thrown overboard as jetsam.