M Ravi files lawsuits against Wong, Law Society

UPDATE at 4:50 pm, Friday 20 July: From M Ravi’s office: “Please note that we will not be filing the Writ today. We will instead be issuing a Letter of Demand to The Law Society of Singapore.”


Lawyer M Ravi, who has been in the news lately, has filed a lawsuit against the Law Society of Singapore (LSS), and Mr Wong Siew Hong, who heads the sub-committee for Member Care in the LSS.

Mr Ravi is also filing a complaint against Dr Calvin Fones with the Singapore Medical Association (SMA).

The lawsuits and complaint stems from what transpired in the past week.

Dr Fones had informed the LSS, through a letter, on 16 July that he had seen Mr Ravi 2 days prior and had diagnosed him as having a “manic relapse” of his bi-polar condition. Dr Fones wrote that thus Mr Ravi was “currently unfit to practise law.”

Mr Ravi has described Dr Fones’ diagnosis as “ridiculous.”

Upon notification of Mr Ravi’s alleged “relapse” of his medical condition, Mr Wong – who was assigned as the liaison between Dr Fones and the LSS on the matter – attempted to inform the High Court on Monday, as Mr Ravi was presenting his arguments in the case on the Prime Minister’s discretionary powers to call by-elections, of Dr Fones’ diagnosis.

Judge Philip Pillai met with Mr Wong, the Attorney General Chambers (AGC) and Mr Ravi in his chambers and reprimanded Mr Wong and the Law Society for having the “audacity” to appear in court without an application to be heard.

On Monday afternoon, Mr Wong made his second attempt to inform the Court of Mr Ravi’s alleged medical condition.

This time, Justice Quentin Loh was presiding over the case on several leaders of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) for illegal assembly. In chambers, Justice Quentin Loh dismissed Mr Wong’s arguments and allowed proceedings to continue. Mr Ravi was not in Court and had Mr Louis Joseph stand in for him then.

On Tuesday morning, Mr Ravi was representing Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam in a pre-trial conference. Mr Jeyaretnam is seeking an injunction from the Court to stop the Singapore Government from providing a US$4 billion loan to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Mr Wong’s 3rd attempt to stop Mr Ravi from acting for his client was in vain again – but this time because Mr Wong himself was late for the proceedings and had only arrived after they ended.

These events have raised widespread shock and criticisms of Mr Wong, Dr Fones and the LSS which, incidentally, said that Mr Wong had “acted on his own volition” and that he did so “with the best of intentions.”

Critics, however, charged that his actions have brought the Bar into disrepute. The Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore (ACLS) criticised the LSS and that the behaviour of Mr Wong had “left a very bitter taste in the mouths and has potentially brought the Bar into disrepute.”

Questions have also been raised about how a supposedly confidential and private medical report could be circulated to the Law Society by Dr Fones, and whether Mr Wong had misrepresented himself to the courts, since the LSS said that he had “acted on his own volition.” Would the courts have allowed him to be heard, since he had no locus standi in all the 3 cases which proceedings he interrupted, if he had not represented himself as a representative of the LSS?

These are some of the questions which perhaps Mr Ravi’s lawsuits will shed light on.

Stay tuned for more updates from publichouse.sg.

Read also: Doctor’s letter “ridiculous”, says M Ravi.

Doctor’s letter “ridiculous”, says M Ravi

By Andrew Loh / Richard Wan

On Monday morning at the High Court, a representative from the Law Society of Singapore attempted to have lawyer Mr M Ravi disallowed from carrying out his legal duties in Court, Mr Ravi told publichouse.sg and TR Emeritus in an exclusive interview in the same afternoon.

Mr Ravi was acting on behalf of Mdm Vellama Marie Muthu in her case to request the Court to declare that the Prime Minister does not have unfettered discretion in deciding when to call by-elections.

Before the proceedings began in the morning, the representative from the Law Society, Mr Wong Siew Hong, had approached both senior counsel Mr David Chong, acting on behalf of the Attorney General, and Mr Ravi, outside the Court room. Apparently, Mr Wong had a copy of a letter from Mr Ravi’s psychiatrist, Dr Calvin Fones, which Dr Fones had earlier sent to the Law Society. The letter was shown to both Mr Chong and Mr Ravi.

In his letter, Dr Fones said: “I reviewed Mr Ravi on Saturday 14 May in my clinic following concerns expressed by his friends about his recent moods and behaviours.”

Mr Ravi has confirmed that the date – 14 May – is wrongly stated by Dr Fones. It should be 14 July instead.

Indeed, Mr Ravi had gone to see Dr Fones because his law firm partner, Ms Violet Netto, was concerned that Mr Ravi was feeling the pressure of the workload he was bearing. Ms Netto, according to Mr Ravi, had asked him to see if he needed for Monday’s court hearing to be adjourned. If so, he would require a doctor’s letter to give to the Court.

On Saturday, Mr Ravi went to see Dr Fones who`gave him a letter, if he needed to provide it to the Court. “I said I don’t need any letters for adjournment and I am shocked that a letter was written,” Mr Ravi said. Dr Fones also told Mr Ravi that he could go back to him if required and provided Mr Ravi with the letter. Dr Fones basically said Mr Ravi is under a lot of stress and that he may not be able to attend Court. In effect, it was a medical certificate.

On Sunday, however, Mr Ravi was already feeling better and felt he could attend Court on Monday, which he did. Dr Fones’ letter to the Law Society, however, said Mr Ravi “is having a manic relapse of his Bipolar Disorder” and added that Mr Ravi “is currently unfit to practice law and his illness is likely to affect his pro&essional capacity.” Dr Fones letter, noticeably, was written in the present tense, although he had seen Mr Ravi two days prior.

Dr Fones letter was dated 16 July 2012 which, incidentally, was Monday, the day the hearing into the by-election case took place.

According to Mr Ravi, Mr Chong seemed disinterested in what Mr Wong had to say at first. Both parties then proceeded to Court to submit their arguments on the case at hand, the PM’s discretionary powers on by-elections.

Mr Ravi made his submissions, followed by Mr Chong. However, before Mr Chong spoke on the by-election issue, he informed the Court that there were certain matters to be addressed in Chambers before he proceeded.

Justice Philip Pillai, the presiding judge, asked Mr Ravi if he had anything to raise in Chambers. Mr Ravi said he had none. The judge then proceeded with the hearing and Mr Chong went on with his submissions on the by-election case.

After the proceedings had ended, Mr Wong – the Law Society representative – asked to address the Court. Justice Pillai then called all parties into Chambers where Mr Wong argued why Mr Ravi should not be allowed to continue with the case.

Justice Pillai, who was reported to be upset with Mr Wong’s intrusion into the Court room earlier, said that the behaviour of Mr Wong was “unprecedented” and admonished Mr Wong and the Law Society for it. He asked Mr Wong if Mr Ravi currently had a valid practising certificate, to which Mr Wong answered affirmatively. The judge said that was the only thing he was interested in and said since Mr Ravi had a valid certificate, he was free to act in Court.

“Justice Pillai made clear that the Law Society had nothing in the day’s proceedings,” Mr Ravi told publichouse.sg and TR Emeritus.

In the afternoon of the same day, an associate from Mr Ravi’s law firm was representing Mr Ravi in another case in a separate Court involving another client. The Law Society too tried to get that Court to halt proceedings on the same grounds, that Mr Ravi was unfit to practise – even though Mr Ravi was not in Court for that hearing. The judge dismissed the Law Society’s arguments and allowed proceedings to continue.

According to the Legal Professions Act:

“25C.—(1) If the Attorney-General or the Council is satisfied that a solicitor’s fitness to practise appears to have been impaired by reason of the solicitor’s physical or mental condition, the Attorney-General or the Council (as the case may be) may apply to a Judge by originating summons for`an order that the solicitor submit to a medical examination.”

No such summons had been filed by the Attorney General or the Law Society for Monday’s hearing.

It is however unclear if Dr Fones’ action of providing his diagnosis of Mr Ravi’s alleged medical condition to the Law Society is because Mr Ravi had given his permission for the doctor to send his medical reports, henceforth, to the Law Society, following an earlier case in 2008. In August that year, Mr Ravi was ordered by District Judge Carol Ling to submit himself to “psychiatric evaluation” at the Institute of Mental Health, after the Attorney General had received the Court’s approval to compel Mr Ravi to do so.

When asked about this, Mr Ravi said there were conditions on how the doctor could divulge information of his medical evaluation and to whom. The doctor could only do so after he had examined him and after Mr Ravi had seen the report. Also, the report was to be made known only to his law firm partner, Ms Violet Netto, and Mr Ravi’s younger sister. Neither was informed of Dr Fones’ diagnosis before the letter was sent to the Law Society on Monday.

Moreover, Mr Ravi said Dr Fones had seen him for only 10 minutes on Saturday, and thus questions if that is enough time for the doctor to assess him and to say that he had had a “relapse.”

Mr Ravi maintains that he is well and that this was ev)dent in his behaviour in Court on Monday. He says that the fact that Justice Pillai allowed him to continue with the hearing and to make his submissions showed that there was nothing wrong with him.

Also, he said, the Court room was packed in the gallery with members of the public who would have noticed if he had acted unusually. He also questioned why, if he was having a relapse as Dr Fones claimed, were his law firm and family not informed, and why only the Law Society was informed about his alleged conditions.

Finally, Mr Ravi asked why Dr Fones had not prescribed him any medication, if his diagnosis was a serious one.

Mr Ravi said the Court and the Law Society had been fed “wrong information”, referring to Dr Fones’ letter. He described what Dr Fones had written as “ridiculous.”

“He did not examine me today,” Mr Ravi said on Monday.

He also referred to Dr Fones’ claim that Mr Ravi’s “friends” had expressed “concerns” about Mr Ravi’s behaviour. “I do not know which friends they are,” Mr Ravi said, “because I’ve asked Violet Netto, who is my associate. If at all anyone should complain, it’s her. [But] she said she had not spoken to anyone. So this is really out of line, to damage my character and reputation.”

Mr Ravi admitted that he “is a little stressed” but added that this was not unusual and that this was understandably so as he has been involved in many cases” of late.

“To set the record straight, I am well,” he said. “The public saw my performance, the judge definitely was with me.”

Indeed, a member of the public seated at the public gallery – Mr Ng – felt that Mr Ravi had conducted himself professionally and had not noticed anything wrong or unusual about the proceedings, he told publichouse.sg.

Mr Ravi has been involved in death penalty cases for 10 years and is recognised as Singapore’s most eminent human rights lawyer. His most prominent capital cases include those of Nigerian Amara Tochi and Malaysian Yong Vui Kong, who currently sits on Singapore’s death row. A week ago, he was invited by the United Nations rappoteurs on the death penalty to a consultation in New York where Mr Ravi gave his views on Singapore’s use of the death penalty. The rappoteurs’ reports will be presented to the United Nations’ General Assembly later this year.

On Tuesday, Mr Ravi goes back to Court for a pre-trial conference, to act on behalf of Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam. Mr Jeyaretnam is seeking an injunction from the Court to stop the Singapore Government from providing loans to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as part of the IMF’s plan for the Eurozone. Mr Jeyaretnam is arguing that the Singapore Government was in breach of the Constitution by not first having sought the approval of the elected president and Parliament.

As for Monday’s case into the PM’s discretionary powers in calling by-elections, Justice Pillai has reserved judgement.

“I love Singapore, I love my people,” Mr Ravi said. “That’s the reason why I am here despite all odds.”

Making justice count

“MOM’s Labour Court recovers S$1.5 million for 1,500 Singapore workers in 2009.” (MOM press release, 8 February 2010)

“MOM’s Labour Court helped more than 700 workers recover about S$750,000 in first half of 2010.” (MOM press release, 28 September 2010)

The above headlines refer to local, or Singaporean, workers. The situation for foreign workers, however, remains unclear. According to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which are involved in providing aid to migrant workers, many of these workers face salary disputes with their employers. And seeking recourse through the Ministry for Manpower (MOM) Labour Court is not always a fruitful exercise.

The case of Nepalese worker Rana Kumar Rai, highlighted here, is a case in point. Basically, he was made to jump through the hoops, from the MOM to the Labour Court, but to no avail in seeking to retrieve the money owed to him by his employer.

Rana had had a Labour Court judgement handed down in his favour but he soon realised that enforcing such a judgement was another matter altogether. In brief, he would have to enforce it through his own means.

And this is where the system of justice breaks down completely for workers like him in such situations. But the problems and obstacles Rana and others like him face are not new. They have been raised previously, even in Parliament.

But first, what exactly is the Labour Court and its purpose?

The Labour Court is empowered by law to inquire into and arbitrate disputes between workers and employers, if mediation between the parties does not yield any agreement. The decisions or orders of the Labour Court are enforceable judgements. However, what happens if, in spite of the Court’s decision, an employer refuses to comply with the order?

As far as migrant workers are concerned, this is where the problems start.

For one, to enforce the judgements, the worker will have to go to the Subordinate Court to apply for a Writ of Seizure and Sale on the employer or company to recover the sum due to him. This was what the MOM had advised Rana to do.

But to do that, the worker would have to fork out S$270 for the stamp duty charge, pay for the bailiff’s fee of S$50 an hour, and make a minimum deposit of between S$150 to S$800, depending on the value of the debtor’s property. These are debilitating fees for a worker who is in financial dire straits.

And since the worker would not be proficient in the language of the courts or be familiar with court procedures and documentation, he would need to engage a lawyer to help him do these things too. For workers who are already hard-pressed to even have enough money for food, to be able to afford these fees remains nothing more than a theoretical possibility, or a virtual impossibility.

And while going through this long tedious legal process, what is the worker to do to survive in the meantime? His employer would have terminated his work permit and left him with no food or accommodation, as in the case of Rana. And getting a special pass from MOM to remain in Singapore so that he can see through the resolution of the dispute is not always possible either. In fact, oftentimes, MOM will only issue the worker a special pass if he is involved in a MOM investigation. As in Rana’s case, his special pass was terminated once MOM had completed its investigation into his employer, while his salary dispute case was still unresolved. So, a worker would face repatriation, even if he decides to enforce the Labour Court’s orders. This is because enforcement of such orders is not considered within the ambit of the Employment Act, and therefore the worker might not be issued a special pass to remain in Singapore to see through the enforcement.

NGOs such as the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) have offered suggestions to the authorities which could help in preventing such salary disputes in the first place, such as requiring employers to pay salaries directly into the workers’ bank accounts. This will leave an electronic trail which, when necessary, can be used to adjudicate salary disputes.

The NGOs have also made suggestions on what can be better done when non-compliance of court orders take place.

Some of the suggestions include:

Employer to pay Labour Court salary arrears in escrow

This means that the Labour Court’s powers be expanded to order an employer to pay the sum owed to the worker in escrow to the Court. The Court will then in turn pay the sum to the worker. Two things are achieved with this: one, employers would take such court orders more seriously since they would be dealing directly with the courts, rather than a disempowered, resource-less migrant worker; and two, failure to pay within the prescribed time frame would be made a contempt of court or an offence punishable by a substantial fine.

Dedicated enforcement unit

The MOM could set up a dedicated unit within its ministry to help workers enforce the Labour Court’s orders. Presently, this is left virtually entirely up to the worker’s own devices and means. MOM does help with the paperwork somewhat but this is woefully inadequate. This dedicated unit’s services would be provided free to the worker-claimant. However, costs can be recovered from the employers as legal expenses. To prevent an overload of work or a large number of cases swarming the unit, access to this unit’s services could be limited to low wage, foreign workers who are often disadvantaged plaintiffs.

The capability in enforcement is what gives teeth to the Labour Court’s orders. Otherwise, these orders would be nothing more than just worthless judgements.

Disallow claims

When employers have the right to pursue similar claims that are already heard in the Labour Court, it puts low wage workers with limited resources at an unfair disadvantage. Such practices should therefore be disallowed.

Temporary Job Scheme (TJS)

As Rana’s case shows, resolution in salary dispute cases can drag on for lengthy periods of time. MOM should allow the worker to seek alternative employment in the meantime. The TJS should not be limited to those who are required to remain in Singapore as prosecution witnesses alone. It should be extended to those with Labour Court claims too.

Rana’s case is not an isolated one. It is thus important that employers do not get the impression that they can get away with exploiting these workers, or that a Labour Court’s order is a worthless piece of paper not to be complied with.

Clearly, there must be serious consequences for employers who disregard a court order.

The suggestions above by the NGOs and others should be seriously considered by the authorities. And really, there must be a recognition of the rights of the worker – based on the time-honoured principle of “an honest day’s work deserves an honest pay”. Unscrupulous employers must not be allowed to get away with such blatant disregard for the law and our courts.

For the moment, however, it would seem that workers like Rana have no recourse to retrieve what rightfully belongs to them, from years of hard work. If even court orders are easily ignored, then what really is the Labour Court for?

How the system failed this worker

By Andrew Loh

For most of us, obtaining a court order in our favour would be the final vindication of our case. We would also expect that the judgement order be adhered to or be enforced. Otherwise, the court’s decision would be the result of nothing more than a worthless and meaningless legal process.

Unfortunately for Nepalese Rana Kumar Rai, the Labour Court’s decision in his favour – over a salary dispute with his employer – is precisely that, a seemingly worthless paper judgement in his favour.

This is his story and how the system here in Singapore has failed him.

Rana, who hails from eastern Nepal, first came to Singapore in September 2009. With a wife, a 4-year old son, elderly parents (father, 65; mother, 63), and 2 younger siblings to care for, he looked for better prospects to help lift his family out of the poverty they were in.

Borrowing from relatives and loansharks, he cobbled together some S$8,000 to pay an agent in Nepal to bring him to Singapore for work. Rana was told that he would be working 10 hours a day, and be paid a salary of S$1,000 per month. The contract he signed, however, indicated a salary of S$1,800. He was also told that he would be paid for overtime if he worked beyond 10 hours a day, and that he would get 2 days off per week.

After he arrived in Singapore, Rana was put to work at 326 F&B Coffee Shop Private Limited in Woodlands, slogging 18 hours everyday, from 5.30am to midnight. Despite working more than 10 hours daily, he was never paid for overtime. In fact, he tells publichouse.sg that his employer paid him only part of his salary each month after the first year. He was also never allowed any days off, contrary to the contractual agreement.

At some point he didn’t have enough money to buy food for himself and had to rely on the goodwill of the stall owners at the coffeeshop.

Worried that his family back home would not be able to survive without his earnings, he called the employment agency in Singapore to try to resolve the problem with his employer. The agency promised to speak to his employer but he never heard from them again.

Eventually, on the advice of the stall owners, he decided to approach the Ministry for Manpower (MOM) for help. At the MOM, Rana says he was told to return the next day instead. When he went back to his work place that day, his employer asked him where he had been. Rana told him that he had gone to the MOM. He also gave his employer an ultimatum – either he paid up the 14 months salary arrears or he would bring the matter to the courts.

Upon hearing this, his employer said if Rana brought the case to the courts, then he would not be able to work anymore with the company and thus he would no longer be provided food or accommodation either.Naturally, he turned to the justice system to seek redress. His case was heard at the Labour Court in October 2011. In the event, the Court decided in Rana’s favour and ordered his employer to pay up the S$6,865 owed to him by 10 November 2011.

However, the employer refused to pay up. When contacted by publichouse.sg, the Ministry explained that it had advised Rana “of the option to apply for a Writ of Seizure & Sale (WSS) at the Subordinate Court to enforce the Order and recover the sum due to him.”

Healthserve, a local non-governmental organisation, then found a lawyer – Mr Mohamad Baiross – to act on Rana’s behalf in the issuance of the WSS against the employer.

“On request through his lawyer, the Ministry had helped to prepare the WSS documents for [Rana] to submit to the Subordinate Court,” MOM says.

But enforcing the WSS is easier said than done, especially for a foreign worker whose dire financial situation is precisely the reason he is bringing the case to Court.

According to a 2010 joint-report by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) – the two NGOs which are at the forefront of providing aid to migrant workers in Singapore – there are other costs involved in enforcing a Court Order.

“The writ of seizure and sale requires a bailiff to seize from the debtor property to be auctioned for sale to settle a debt. MOM offers a service to help claimants pursue their claims through this channel. However, claimants have to pay for the stamp duty charge (S$270) and other costs such as the bailiff’s attendance fee, which is charged at a rate of S$50 per hour. In addition, a claimant is also required to make a minimum deposit of between S$150 to S$800, depending on the value of the debtor’s property.”

Lack of financial resources, however, is not the only limitation or obstacle facing migrant workers in such situations.

When a dispute arises and the worker makes a complaint, the employer would often terminate the worker’s work permit immediately – which can take effect within 24-hours or days, and without the worker being aware of this which then puts him at risk of being an overstayer in Singapore, subject to jail and caning if found out. Also, the employer would deny the worker accommodation, which means the worker will have to fend for himself. This is a real problem for any worker who has no money in his pocket. They may end up sleeping on the streets, for weeks or even months, until their cases are resolved – or they are sent home to their countries, whichever comes first.

For Rana, he faced another problem – being denied eligibility in being placed on the MOM’s Temporary Job Scheme (TJS). He had appealed repeatedly to the MOM to grant him a Temporary Work Permit (TWP) so he could find employment while awaiting the resolution of his salary dispute with his employer. This would also enable him to send some money home to his family which depends on his salary to survive. However, according to aid workers, MOM said “he is not from approved source country for TJS.”

In the meantime, the employer has sold off the coffeeshop to new owners. It is now called “326 Coffee Shop Pte Ltd” – with the original “F&B” removed. This makes enforcing the WSS on the employer virtually impossible. Indeed, Mr Baiross feels there is little chance of Rana being able to retrieve any money from the WSS, even if it is enforced as the employer is a private limited company which appears to have no assets. Moreover, the employer appears not to be trading anymore.

In November 2011, MOM initiated investigations into the employer for “infringement of the Employment Act (cap 91)”. The MOM provided Rana with accommodation as he was needed to help in the investigation.

In late April 2012, the MOM informed Rana that he was no longer required to remain in Singapore to assist in the investigations.

Ms Jacqueline Tan, a community worker with Healthserve, raised some money from friends and family for Rana. The Nepalese community here chipped in as well. At the initiation of the MOM, the Migrant Workers Center (MWC) gave Rana S$1,000 to purchase a return ticket to Nepal.

Rana is grateful for the help and the support from these groups and individuals. He has since returned to Nepal. Life is still very much a struggle for him and his family. Both his parents are ill and he faces societal and family pressure. Rana’s hope is to send his son, whom he had not seen since leaving Singapore when his son was just 4 months old, to a decent school in Nepal so he does not end up like him. But Rana has no money to do so, having been left high and dry working in Singapore, with a mountain of debt which he has no way of repaying.

He still owes his debtors close to S$5,700 in principle. With added interests on the loans, the amount he owes is more than S$11,000, a significant amount which he has no way of paying off back in Nepal where work is hard to come by.

In the meantime, his former employer in Singapore has been barred by the MOM from employing foreign workers. But that is small comfort to Rana because the wages he worked so hard for have not been retrieved. In any case, the employer can simply start-up another entity and have his friends or family use their names to register a new business.

“Even though he is no longer in Singapore,” MOM says, “the Labour Court Order remains valid for him to enforce against his employer through WSS.”

Instead of the worker himself enforcing such orders handed down by the courts, perhaps it would be more appropriate and indeed necessary for the authorities to do the enforcing, or to see where the loopholes can be closed. In the next article, we explore what some of these potential solutions are.

As for Rana, it is a travesty of justice that having put up his side of the bargain and worked hard at his job, he is allowed to be exploited and abused in such a manner. It is an even greater injustice that our justice system, which he looked to to right the wrong done to him, has let him down.

Why then would anyone want to take the risk of seeking justice if, in the end, even a court’s judgement is not enforceable, and one would lose one’s job and be repatriated? What faith would such a worker have in the very system of rules and legislations which was ostentatiously set up to protect him in the first place?

Read Part 2 on what MOM can do in cases such as these here: Making justice count.


Special thanks to Woo Wei Ling and Stephanie Chok.

M Ravi invited to consultation with UN

By Andrew Loh

Singapore lawyer, Mr M Ravi, has been invited by the United Nations to attend its consultation with experts on the various issues relating to the imposition and implementation of the death penalty.

The 2-day session, to be held at Harvard Law School, United States, on the 25 and 26 of June, will place particular emphasis on the notion of the “most serious crimes” for which the death penalty continues to be imposed.

The invitation to Mr Ravi is from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Mr Christof Heyns; and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Mr Juan Méndez.

Others who have also been invited to the consultation include representatives from Amnesty International, the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (Uganda), the International Harm Reduction Association, the International Commission against the Death Penalty, and the Center for International Human Rights, among others.

Three key issues will dominate the discussions:

  1. The notion of the “most serious crimes”. The session will discuss the ways in which it has been applied by domestic legislators and courts, and the remaining challenges.
  2. Complicity: Under this item, experts will focus on different forms of State complicity in the imposition and implementation of the death penalty.
  3. The death penalty and torture. The experts will examine the circumstances under which the methods of execution of the death penalty, on the one hand, and the death row phenomenon, on the other hand, may amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The results of the consultation will be incorporated in the Special Rapporteurs’ reports on the question of the death penalty to be presented before the United Nations General Assembly at its 67th regular session in October 2012.

The report by Mr Heyns will address a number of issues relating to the death penalty, including the definition and scope of “most serious crimes”, the statistics on executions and instances of inter-state cooperation facilitating the imposition of the death penalty.

The report by Mr Méndez will address methods of execution as possibly constituting torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; as well as the death row phenomenon and the circumstances under which it could amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Regarding the implementation of the death penalty, special attention will be paid to the relevant jurisprudence and criteria to determine under which circumstances the implementation of the death penalty, the death row phenomenon, and the methods of execution may amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The overall goal of the meeting is to reflect upon the extent to which the imposition and implementation of the death penalty comply with the existing international standards. Experts will address the remaining protection gaps and discrepancies in the imposition and implementation of the death penalty.

Mr Ravi, widely recognised as the island state’s most prominent human rights lawyer, told publichouse.sg that he is “pleasantly surprised” by the invitation. “They have so many countries to worry about and yet they have selected Singapore,” he says. “This report will have an impact in the way UN deals with the matter [of the death penalty].”

“This is the first time in 10 years of struggle to abolish the mandatory death penalty [in Singapore] that I’m meeting the UN Rapporteurs directly,” he adds.

Mr Ravi has been involved in some of Singapore’s most contentious death row cases, most notably his 4-year fight in the courts to save Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian drug trafficker sentenced to death in Singapore in 2008. Yong is currently incarcerated in Singapore’s death row and has lost all the battles in the courts. His only chance of avoiding death is through a clemency from the president.

In 2010, Singapore opposed the resolution by the UN General Assembly for a moratorium on the death penalty. Singapore introduced one of three amendments to the draft resolution before the vote, aimed at softening the language. The amendment proposed adding that the General Assembly “reaffirms the sovereign right of all countries to develop their own legal systems.” The amendment was rejected, and the resolution eventually passed. Singapore’s objection to the resolution, however, has left many Singaporean activists and anti-death penalty supporters disappointed.

Singapore continues to defend its use of capital punishment, which is carried out through hanging. In February last year, the city state submitted its report on the country’s human rights track record to the United Nations, as part of a review of all UN member states. Defending its use of the death penalty, the Singapore government said it “considers capital punishment as a criminal justice issue, rather than a human rights one.” It also said the punishment “is imposed only for the most serious of crimes.”

Campaigners, however, see it differently, especially when it comes to drug traffickers. Singapore’s notorious Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA), for example, has come under criticism for its presumption clauses, which effectively turns the basic tenet of justice – that one is innocent until proven guilty – on its head.

It has been an uphill battle for campaigners like Mr Ravi. But he is not deterred. This invitation to make representations to the UN is seen by anti-death penalty supporters as another step in the campaign to eventually have capital punishment abolished from Singapore’s law books. Mr Ravi hopes that through such engagement with the UN, the public will get to understand international advocacy and the fact that the UN plays a crucial role in raising state accountability vis a vis the death penalty.

Dr Lim Hock Siew – a lesson in resilience, strength and humility

Dr Lim Hock Siew, detained for almost 20 years in 1963, passed away on 4 June 2012. He was 81.

The first that I’d heard of Dr Lim Hock Siew was when Martyn See wrote about him on his blog and later when he made that video of a speech by Dr Lim in 2010. Swiftly, the Media Development Authority (MDA) banned that film in July that year.

The film remains banned till this day because, the authorities say, it is “against the public’s interest” for it to be allowed to be shown.

I then had the opportunity to meet Dr Lim on several occasions, most notably a private session conducted by Function8, where Dr Lim related his side of the story of the events leading up to his incarceration in 1963’s Operation Coldstore. He would remain detained in jail for almost 20 years under the Internal Security Act (ISA). More… As with all ISA detainees, he was never charged or given the chance to defend himself in a court of law.

The label – “ISA detainee” – conjures frightening imagery for some people. These detainees must be unpatriotic insurgents capable of heinous crimes and activities, such as rioting, using explosives, murder even, to get their way. These are, of course, what the Government – through the media it controls – would want the public to think.

Why else would the authorities ban a video of Dr Lim – even when it has been almost 50 years after Operation Coldstore, and 30 years after Dr Lim was released from incarceration in 1982?

The first thing which I experienced when I first met Dr Lim were his gentle ways and gentlemanly mannerisms. He’s a soft-spoken man but his memory of what happened 50 years ago were still vivid and he could relate them with surprising clarity, especially given his age and how sometimes the rest of us may not even recall events just a few years back.

The last time I met Dr Lim was at the wake of Soh Lung’s mother just a few months back. A group of us were seated at a table, and it was quite late in the evening. Dr Lim and his wife, Beatrice, arrived and sat with us. While we didn’t speak much that night, I noticed his frailty [Dr Lim had been sick for several weeks at that time] and admired his resilience and determination to tell his story whenever he could. It was – is – important for those of us who are far removed from what took place in 1963, to know the other side of the story – because the Singapore Story is not only the narrative of one side, the side which “won” and became the government.

The Singapore Story – indeed, Singapore’s history itself – was not only birthed from the wombs of uncertainty, of blood and tears, but also from injustices committed, and state violence inflicted on those who “lost” the fight. Dr Lim and his colleagues are not less part of our history – they too are the threads which we weave into the fabric, the landscape of our nation – than those who get to trumpet their victories.

Dr Lim never received any apologies from Mr Lee Kuan Yew, or from the Singapore government, for the 20 years Dr Lim lost while incarcerated.

While Dr Lim may have now left us, he would have taken some comfort in knowing that in the last years of his life, there were Singaporeans like Martyn who cared, and who helped tell his story. And they will continue to do so and perhaps one day, when our nation has rid itself of its self-inflicted fear, our history will be more accurately reflected and told to our children.

Rest in peace, Dr Lim.

I will always remember you for the lessons you taught me in resilience, strength and humility. And I thank you.

Withdrawn edition of Catholic News on “Marxist conspiracy”

On 14 June 1987, the Catholic Church had printed copies of its June 14 edition of the Catholic News with a statement from the Church to its faithful.

However, for reasons unknown, the then Archbishop, Gregory Yong, decided to withdraw that edition of the Catholic News.

We reproduce it here, with the statement from the Church to its followers, explaining the Church’s position on the arrest of 22 Singaporeans, including church workers, by the Government on 21 May 1987.

The arrests were known as “Operation Spectrum“.

The Catholic Church’s statement as on 14 June 1987 in the withdrawn edition of the Catholic News:

MY DEAR People of God and well-wishing friends,

The peace of the risen Christ be with you always. We have been going through a very difficult time, full of anxiety and anguish, not knowing what is happening in our Church and to our Church.

I thank you for all your prayers and the assurance that you are supporting me and the Church with your prayers, fasting and sacrifices. You have not prayed, fasted and sacrificed in vain.

I thank especially all those who went to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour Church to participate in the special Mass offered for our detained brothers and sisters and their families, relatives and friends (May 27). You conducted yourself admirably. Nobody could find fault with your behaviour although many including myself went there with some trepidation and apprehension.

On that occasion I asked you to pray for me and my priests as we were to gather the following day to consider a serious matter that concerns the whole Church and to issue a statement. The meeting which could have divided and polarised our priests brought about a better understanding among ourselves and unified us as we produced the following statement:

We refer to the statement from the Ministry of Home Affairs )May 26) regarding the investigation into a “clandestine communist network” and the arrest and detention of 16 person, May 21.

Four of the 16 are full-time workers in Church work. They are: Vincent Cheng Kim Chuan, Executive Secretary of the Archdiocesan Justice and Peace Commission. Ne Bee Leng, full-time staff of the Catholic Centre for Foreign Workers (formerly the Geylang Catholic Centre). Tang Lay Lee, full-time staff of the Young Christian Workers’ Movement. Kevin Desmond De Souza, full-time staff of the Catholic Students’ Society of the Singapore Polytechnic.

Among the 16, there are also 6 voluntary workers in some of our Catholic organisations. They are: Mah Lee Lin (Chait Chee Cathokic Centre), Teo Soh Lung (Catholic Centre for Foreign Workers), Kenneth Tsang, Tan Tee Seng and their respective spouses, Jenny Chin Lai Ching and Low Yit Leng (Justice and Peace Commission).

We are greatly perturbed at the arrests and the Ministry’s statement. We are also concerned for those detained and their respective families.

We have been informed by the Ministry of Home Affairs that none of the ten has been detained because of his/her work in Catholic organisations, but because of their “possible inviolvement in a clandestine communist network”.

The Catholic Church is totally opposed to Marxism/Communism which is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Catholic Church, however, must continue its mission of spreading its teachings on matters pertaining to justice as they apply to social, economic and political issues.

These teachings of the Church are part of its mission and tradition and have worldwide application. They do not derive from any one system of theology.

We affirm our confidence in and continued support for all Catholic organisations mentioned in the Ministry’s statement.

To the best of our knowledge, the full-time workers have been fully committed to the work of the Catholic organisations in which they served.

The six voluntary workers have generously contributed their time and talents to specific work in the Catholic organisation with which they were associated.

We hope and pray that justice will be done and be seen to be done.

We also hope the detainees will be treated justly and humanely.

Thank you once again for remaining calm, supportive, prayerful. We have been assured that we can count on your support whenever we need it.

God keep us all faithful to Jesus, his way of life.

Your appreciative archbishop and priests,

Gregory Yong

Archbishop Gregory Yong and his priests,

May 30, 1987

The ghosts of Whitley Road

An essay by Dr Vincent Wijeysingha – to mark the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum

In 1987, I was at junior college. Just across the road, twenty-two other Singaporeans were at Whitley Road Detention Centre. They were locked up under the Internal Security Act, a sinister law designed to silence critics, first of the colonial government and later of the People’s Action Party who had promised to bring freedom to the people of our island.

Speaking to the press in 1995, after a whole generation had been effectively silenced, then Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, told The Straits Times:

“As Prime Minister, I reserved executive powers in the Internal Security Act and the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, both inherited from British times, which I did not repeal in order to be able to act against subversives or criminals like drug traffickers against whom there is insufficient evidence for a court of law, without having recourse to the courts.

In other words, I was my own carrier of a hatchet. I needed no hatchet man.

All those who have been dealt with by me know that I have never flinched from going into a dark street on a dark night and it happens to be a cul-de-sac. No outlet – either the gangster of I will come out alive.

I have done this a few times. I am prepared to do this again.”

These brave words belie an insecure man; a man who has never had to meet a gangster in a dark alley. A man who played out the dismal drama of his bullying oppression by recourse to powers outside and beyond himself. Power operated by henchmen against those who dare to think a different world. Power to make men torture one another. Powers which allowed Operation Spectrum to happen.

I was too young at the time of the arrests to take much of an interest in them. I knew none of the detainees or their families personally. And even if I wondered what lay up Onraet Road which I passed every day on my way to the bus stop I was insufficiently curious to find out. Today, having read Teo Soh Lung’s book, Beyond the Blue Gate, an autobiography of her two-year detention, I know I would have been met by a blue metal gate and another world beyond. A world I was entirely innocent of until I arrived at Sheffield to commence postgraduate work in August 1996. Suddenly I was exposed to the truth of Operation Spectrum.

I devoured what I found: books and articles and newspaper clippings about that distant moment in our past when, like a key slammed in a bolt, Singapore suddenly stopped being a community and became a police state. It was a world where people were imprisoned for helping the poor; where men were ordered to torture their fellow citizens and found it agreeable to do so. A world where rulers reshaped their actions into a truth recognisable only to them: a government determined to stamp out even the possibility of ideas or activity contrary to its worldview.

The Singapore in which the detainees happened to find themselves in the mid 1980s was beset by a deep recession, the result of the government’s ambition to upgrade the economy from one where low-skill production manned by cheap labour gave way to high technology. A programme aimed at what the then Minister for Trade and Industry, Goh Chok Tong, described as a Second Industrial Revolution. The failure was widespread and deep. It was typical of centralised management, of insufficient forward planning and limited understanding of the global economy.

Singapore was not ready for such a massive and wholesale restructuring. It was too small on the world stage to effect such change and too dependent on capital and production flows which were decided far away. The result was the worst recession the nation had known in twenty years. Unemployment numbers soared and the factories began to operate on 24-hour shifts to recoup losses. The social impact was considerable although the controlled media, by and large, were silent. It was left to social workers, lawyers, student activists, playwrights, and religious leaders to highlight the problems and try to alleviate the distress of the unemployed and the poor.

On the political side, the middle eighties was a period of neoliberal strongmen. In Manila, Ferdinand Marcos still oppressed his poverty-stricken people, once one of the wealthiest in the region. Further south in Jakarta Suharto continued his harsh reign. Across the Causeway, Mahathir Mohamad had just come through his second General Election. In the west, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, loud proponents of economic growth at the cost of individuals and communities, were secure in office. So was the Chilean dictator, General Pinochet, who had seized office in a coup that despatched the popular leader, Salvador Allende. In Rome, a right-leaning, anti-Communist Papacy looked less than unfavourably upon the dictators of the world and when it raised its voice to call for justice was less strident against leaders of the right than of the left.

But a wind of change was beginning to blow across the world. In 1986, Marcos was toppled in a bloodless, almost elegant coup led by the widow of his slain enemy who was strongly championed by the Catholic Church. Advocates of justice all over the world saw in the ascent of that diminutive, kindly lady to the leadership of her nation the sign of a new dispensation, one which would place people at the heart of governance.

In Singapore, the nation’s Parliament now contained two opposition members after a hiatus of more than a decade during which only People’s Action Party members occupied its leather couches. The people of Anson and Potong Pasir had responded positively to the call for better treatment of the poor emanating from the Workers’ Party member and more democracy and accountability from the Singapore Democratic Party Member. A fairer, kinder world was not far off.

But at the Istana Annexe a startled Lee Kuan Yew, jockeying hard to establish the next generation of PAP leaders, saw only unrest and a threat to the settled order. An order that to be sure, brought significant economic growth to a tiny island only twenty years away from, in his words, “an independence we never sought”. An order founded, in his words, on “a very tightly organised society”. Confidently, he had said,

“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yet, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use.”

As the late President Devan Nair recounted, he had greeted the news of Mr Jayaratnam’s entry into Parliament in 1981 “like a caged fury”. No doubt his return to Parliament in1984, joined there by another opposition Member, terrified him. The downfall of the once unassailable Marcos in 1986 would only have added to his alarm. It became a time to act.

When Pope John Paul visited the city-state in late 1986 the Prime Minister raised his fears with him. Claiming a reverential esteem for the church’s stand against communism, he alluded to “funny goings-on” in the modern church. No doubt he was mindful of the role played by the Filipino church in the defeat of his friend. (Indeed he protested to the Pope that he was no Marcos.) And of course, in terms of that man’s blatant ransack of his people’s wealth, he was not. In terms of the general uplift of the population that Lee’s government had achieved in the past thirty years, the assertion must be accepted as true. But not all of the community had shared in the progress and there were significant pockets of deprivation and poverty, enlarged by the recession.

Twenty-two young men and women, motivated by the relief of suffering, went among the poor, comforting the afflicted, cataloguing their hardships and educating the community. The worst fallout was borne by local factory workers whose wages and conditions were not keeping pace with the overall (in some years, spectacular) economic growth. Among their number were lowly-paid, badly-treated migrant workers whose rights and conditions Jolovan Wham, the social worker who runs a labour welfare organisation, and won two awards this year for his work, will confirm have shifted very little.

That Wham is able to continue his work, in many ways far more outspoken than that of the activists of 1987, unmolested by the state, is testament to how much our society has grown. But these days are a long way off from 1987 when in the early morning of the 21st of May, the men and women of the Internal Security Department were despatched to arrest from their beds, in the silent hours of the morning, sixteen men and women (later to be joined by a further six) whose values had become so despised of the government.

The foundational principle of the work that social activists do is the dignity of the individual rooted in a rights discourse that is such a valuable part of our human heritage. We recall the uplifting words of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

The idea of rights being inherent in individual conscious entities is an old one. We instinctively know that everyone is endowed with certain entitlements merely by reason of being human. As human beings, we draw from our common spiritual and philosophical heritage and we agree that by virtue of having consciousness, being able to feel pain, being moved to share in (and therefore alleviate) the sufferings of others, we enjoy certain rights. We basically agree that our fellow human beings should have access to the full range of resources that enables them to grow and develop not merely as homo economicus but also as entities with hopes and dreams, creative urges and compassionate impulses. Those same attributes that lead us to detest suffering also guide men and women to work for their removal.

But in years following, an almost convincing argument crept in: that social justice must take second place to economic development. This found a conceptual home in the theory of ‘Asian values’ with Lee Kuan Yew as a most vociferous proponent, declaring, “A country must have economic development, then democracy may follow.” The Asian financial crisis of 1997 decisively put paid to that idea and Lee himself, in his autobiography published three years later, went so far as to say that actually such values are shared by humanity as a whole. Thanks to the important work of the Nobel laureate, Professor Amartya Sen, among others, today we know instinctively that human rights and economic development should and can go hand in hand. Otherwise, the denial of rights becomes the very means by which adequate resources are restricted from the broad mass of the community and distributed more abundantly among the rich and the powerful. Singapore’s cabinet ministers’ wages are a case in point.

Instinctively, these ideas of fairness and justice formed the basis of what the twenty-two who came to be referred to as “Marxist conspirators” were advocating through their writings, their literary productions, and their work among the poor. They laboured peacefully to uplift their brothers and sisters from whose hands we secure our wealth. Though they were called conspirators, they worked entirely in the open. Though they were accused of seeking the violent overthrow of the state, in all of their writings they denounced aggression and advocated collaboration and partnership.

The government made no case against them apart from fanciful assertions duly reported in the press complete with illustrations and charts. But from all the available reliable evidence, and there is much, these men and women were as far away from conspiracy and violence as it is possible to be. The simple and very straightforward reason is that there was no case. Prime Minister Lee said in 1988,

“It is not a practice, nor will I allow subversives to get away by insisting that I’ve got to prove everything against them in a court of law or evidence that will stand up to the strict rules of evidence of a court of law.”

As a lawyer schooled in the English legal tradition, he would have been aware that the rules of evidence have been carefully built up precisely to safeguard against the caprice of rulers. It is no wonder that the PAP government has refused international calls for a commission to investigate the claims of a violent Marxist conspiracy. When the Home Affairs Minister recently pronounced on the use of the Internal Security Act he was unable to offer any evidence of the veracity of the government’s assertions in 1987 and had to resort to allegations and hyperbole.

And significantly, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, speaking in 2001, declared, “Although I had no access to state intelligence, from what I knew of them, most were social activists but not out to subvert the system.” He should know for not only was he a friend of one of the detainees, he himself was investigated for similar false charges.

The twenty-two were not out to subvert the system. The singular evidence of their work was that they functioned within the system. The government did not act to avert disorder and carnage. The reality is that the government’s objection was to their work among the casualties of the economic policies of the 1970s and 1980s. They told them that, regardless of Lee’s characterisation of them as “economic digits”, they were in fact beings of worth and prestige. That their privations mattered; that they were a blot on the government’s copybook, an insult to its claim to Confucian government. It had turned a deaf ear to their cries and intimidated the media and the academe into silence so that their fellow Singaporeans might not know they existed. The spoke truth to power and power was offended. It responded in the most brutal way: by taking away their freedom and by inflicting pain on their bodies.

Recalling the case of Operation Spectrum, and reading the papers gathered by concerned parties all over the world, I am suddenly struck by the realisation that the real conspirators, the real practitioners of violence were the government and its officers. Its construction of this elaborate tale of shadowy fifth columnists patiently and painstakingly planning the violent deposition of the PAP government to usher in a Marxist utopia would be laughable were it not for the psychological damage it left on our society and on the detainees. They constructed poor arguments and made clumsy allegations of clandestine networks. They told convoluted stories that imputed culpability from innocent, pedestrian activities. They humiliated a senior religious leader. Most shameful of all, they used brutal torture to elicit false confessions. This is the real narrative of the era. Our government forfeited its moral right to lead the nation the instant it resorted to torture.

Now, let us be clear. The interaction between economic stability and human rights is a reality: a perennial exchange and a constant weighing up of priorities. But today we countenance a nation whose GINI coefficient (high even in 1987) is almost double that of the First World, whose ratio of income between the top and bottom 20% of earners has doubled in twenty years, whose elders work into their old age or scavenge the dustbins of our nation while our leaders still draw the highest wages of politicians anywhere in the world. We are entitled to wonder why the persistent promise of future wealth has never arrived for the common man. Have we not mortgaged our values to pay a cheque drawn upon the hopes and dreams of our people only to be told that the cheque has bounced?

This question was posed in 1987. Doing research, writing reports, engaging in public debate, the detainees sought answers to these questions. But they did not vest the responsibility to find solutions solely with the government. Nor did they enter into a quarrel. Instead they went out quietly among the poor and the marginalised to work out what to do. They crafted many solutions: legal advice, social activities, language classes, support for poorly-treated workers to negotiate with their employers. They also sought to enlighten the community and train us to care for the oppressed.

The government’s alarm was not at the possibility of a Marxist revolution. It was that the status quo was being challenged. It was that the economic digits, whose quiescence and docility facilitated the wealth that Singapore became renowned for, were being made aware of their rights. The cardinal sin that the detainees committed was to tell the poor that their state was neither inherent in their genes nor characteristic of their ethnicity but the outcome of government philosophy. Lee famously said, “God did not make the Russians equal. Lenin and Stalin tried to. You are too long, they chop you down. The end result is misery.” In the pursuit of meritocracy, a laudable idea, his government formed instead a society intolerant of the weak and sceptical of compassion. The twenty-two paid heavily for their audacity and presumption.

Today, we are twenty-five years from that dark moment. There are many Singaporeans alive today who were not born when Operation Spectrum took its terrible course but its effects are yet with us. Individuals and organisations still act under a cloud of uncertainty, unsure of where the famous Out of Bound Markers lie since ministers have said they cannot identify them until they are breached. Such a formulation would be immediately recognisable in a civilised society as an insidious authoritarianism.

Twenty-two young idealists, optimistic of our society’s capacity to become better, decided to make it so. That they (and we) are only just recovering from the effects of Operation Spectrum is testament to its dreadful effectiveness. If on the anniversary of that day we celebrate their courage, it is because we know their work was right. The government was wrong. It is only the passage of time – nothing more – that has sent them from the political stage and released them from the obligations of justice.


Dr Vincent Wijeysingha is a lecturer is social work and Treasurer of the Singapore Democratic Party. He writes in his personal capacity.

On Saturday 2 June 2012, That We May Dream Again, a commemoration of Operation Spectrum including speeches by Dr Wijeysingha and others as well as an exhibition, will take place at Speakers’ Corner from 3 to 7 pm.

“I have always loved the Catholic Church”

As we commemorate the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum, former priest Edgar D’Souza gives a detailed and frank account of his experience of that harrowing time.

By Elaine Ee

When Edgar D’Souza decided in the early 1960s, at the tender age of 16, that he wanted to become a Catholic priest, little did he foresee that some 20-odd years later he would get caught up in a web of arrests that resulted in some of his most respected colleagues being detained without trial and he being suspended from the Church he so dearly loved.

For this Selangor-born gentleman, who had come to Singapore in the early 1950s as a child, the Church has always been a source of inspiration.

“I was brought up in a devoted Catholic family by my widowed mother and maternal grandparents,” D’Souza recalls. “From primary school days at St Michael’s, I was an altar boy and saw priests as leaders of a worshipping community. A number of them were also family friends.

“I came to admire priests, the way they guided people in their lives, particularly by assisting the poor and needy through organisations like the St Vincent de Paul society. When I was in secondary school at St Joseph’s Institution, thanks especially to the encouragement of my maternal grandparents, I felt the desire to serve the Catholic community as a priest.”

After a retreat at St Francis Xavier’s minor seminary in Ponggol, D’Souza’s decision to become a priest was sealed. In January 1964, he entered this minor seminary and studied there for a while before moving on to the major seminary in Penang, where he completed his training in December 1972. He was ordained in June 1973.

Shortly after, he was sent to the US for postgraduate studies and returned with a Masters in Religious Education. With that, he began getting involved in the Catholic media and was appointed Associate Editor of the Catholic News and Press Liaison officer to the late Archbishop Gregory Yong.

And that set the stage for the tumultuous events of Operation Spectrum, that forever changed the course of D’Souza’s life and the lives of many others involved in the arrests and left an indelible mark on the history of the Catholic Church in Singapore.


D’Souza shares with Elaine Ee (EE) of publichouse.sg his vivid memories of that painful period.

EE: When the 1987 arrests took place, what was your initial reaction?

I was utterly shocked. I knew some of those detained personally, as they were workers in church ministries.

Vincent Cheng had studied in the seminary with me and I knew him well. I could not believe he was anything but an ardent Christian who only wanted to follow the way of Jesus Christ. He cared for the poor and marginalised and wanted justice for all—especially for the voiceless and down trodden. At that time he worked with Fr Joseph Ho of the Justice and Peace Commission. Vincent was executive secretary.

I knew Ng Bee Leng, a social worker, who worked with Fr Guillaume Arotcarena, director of the Geylang Catholic Centre, assisting foreign maids who had issues with their employers. The centre offered refuge to foreign domestic workers and had lawyers acting pro bono for them. Teo Soh Lung was one of these lawyers.

I knew lawyer Tang Lay Lee and her work with the Young Christian Workers group in Jurong with Fr Patrick Goh.

And I knew Kevin de Souza (not related), who worked with students from Singapore Polytechnic. Through him I offered spiritual support (offered masses and gave talks particularly on the church’s social teachings) to a students’ group.

All these people were working with the Catholic Church and following her teachings in the light of Vatican Council II, which saw the role of the church to realise Jesus’ views and teachings in a modern world.

EE: What made you decide to speak up for church associations that were implicated in the arrests?

After the detentions, the media (particularly the foreign media and Catholic media overseas) sought information regarding the detainees and wanted comments from the Singapore Catholic Church. The Archbishop was not keen to talk to the media directly. His preferred modus operandi was to issue statements. He did this as he did not want to be misquoted.

The families of the detainees sought support from the Catholic Church. They went to the priests who had worked with the detainees. They wanted to make clear that their loved ones were doing church work and not involved in anything political against the government. They also wanted to share personal information about their detained family members.

The priests involved with these groups met to see what could be done to provide correct information about the detainees and support their families. As the Archbishop’s Press Liaison officer, I was the one who contacted the media.

When I worked in the Catholic News office (which was just walking distance from Archbishop Yong’s residence), I usually met him once or twice a day for meals.

I continued to do this after the detentions and these meetings allowed me to brief the Archbishop on what was going on and kept him updated on what I was doing and who I was speaking to from the media.

Soon after the detentions, the Archbishop called a meeting of all his priests to discuss the detentions and what the church needed to do to support the church workers that had been detained.

The meeting took place on 28 May 1987. The Archbishop, with his priests, issued a press statement that was to become the basis of a pastoral letter jointly written by him and his priests. I recall the Archbishop signed both the statement and the letter as head of the Singapore Catholic Church. He then instructed that the pastoral letter be read at all masses on the weekend of 30-31 May.

The two documents made clear that the Catholic Church was against Marxism as it was contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ. They went on to say that the church had to continue its mission of spreading its teachings on justice, and apply it to social, economic and political issues. They further reiterated that this teaching, which was part of the Church’s mission and tradition, had worldwide application and was not derived from any one system of theology.

The documents then expressed confidence in and support for all the Catholic organisations mentioned in the Ministry of Home Affairs 16-page statement on the detentions issued on 26 May 1987.

Next the documents testified to the commitment and generosity of the detained church workers and the organisations they were associated with. Finally the statements ended with the hope that the detainees would be treated justly and humanely and prayed that justice would be done and seen to be done.

When I met the Archbishop on Monday, 1 June, he told me that then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had contacted well-known Catholic Dr Ee Peng Liang the day before, and indicated he wanted a meeting with the Archbishop and a church delegation. Later that Monday, the Archbishop met with his Council of Priests. They drew up a list of 19 persons including nine priests (I was one of them) and lay persons who knew and/or worked with the detainees.

Subsequently, the Archbishop was informed that nine people on his list (including me) were not “accepted” by the government for the meeting.

The meeting took place on 2 June.

Archbishop Gregory Yong was summoned to a meeting with Lee Kuan Yew. After that meeting, the Archbishop apparently did an about turn and withdrew his support for the church workers that had been detained.

EE: What really happened at that meeting and how do you feel about it?

Before the Archbishop left for his meeting with Lee Kuan Yew, I asked the Archbishop if he would make any statement after meeting the PM. He told me that he would not make any statement until he consulted his priests as he did for the pastoral letter.

Later I learnt that after the meeting with the PM, all members of the church delegation were asked to leave, except the Archbishop. They returned to the Archbishop’s house to await him.

I was told that the Archbishop was taken to a room where the secretary to the Pope’s Representative based in Bangkok, Fr Giovanni D’Aniello, was present. I was told that he had flown from Bangkok and had met with the PM earlier at the Istana. The Archbishop did not know that Fr D’Aniello was in Singapore or that he had met with the PM.

After meeting with Fr D’Aniello, the Archbishop and the PM went to a room set up for a press conference attended by members of only the local newspapers, radio and TV. I do not think the Archbishop expected to be taken in for a press conference. When he returned to his house, he told members of his delegation who were awaiting his return:

“I was cornered.”

I knew the Archbishop disliked talking directly to the media. I believe that he would have wanted to consult his Council of Priests, reflect and pray, then issue a statement, rather than face a press conference without any prior preparation.

I recall that the press conference was televised that night on the local news.

The PM Lee made it clear that while his government would continue to uphold freedom of religion, it would not tolerate the use of religion as “a cover for subversive activities” and would act against those who hid behind religion to spread Marxism or communism.

At the press conference the Archbishop said that after going through the depositions of Vincent Cheng, he had no way of disproving Cheng’s statements so he would “take things at their face value for now.”

I believe these words of the Archbishop were not reported in either The Straits Times or on television*. The Archbishop’s words were reported in The Business Times on 3 June 1987, but were buried in paragraphs five and eight of an article headed, ‘Vincent Cheng used Church for his own ends. ARCHBISHOP CONCEDES CASE’ **.

The PM then said that it was not the government’s practice nor would the government allow subversives to get away by insisting that they had to prove everything in a court of law or show evidence that would stand up to the strict rules of evidence of a court of law.

I was terribly shocked by what happened. I realised that the Archbishop was under immense duress. I think he felt that he either had to back down on his support of the Church workers and priests and the right of the Catholic Church to uphold the Catholic social teachings or face a confrontation with the government.

This resulted in the Archbishop doing what he ultimately did. The Archbishop was a church leader. I do not believe he was astute in political matters.

Later, the Archbishop and his Vicar General (second in command in the Archdiocese) came to see me in the Catholic News office. The Archbishop appeared to be very distraught. He asked me if the next issue of the Catholic News had already been printed. When I told him it had, he asked to look at it. He looked at the front page that carried the full text of his pastoral letter and the photos of the four church workers who had been detained.

Archbishop Yong then instructed me that this particular issue of the Catholic News was NOT to be circulated and he held me responsible for ensuring this was done.

He then told me he wanted to meet the four priests (Guillaume Arotcareana, Joseph Ho, Patrick Goh and myself) at his house with the same church delegation the next day, 3 June.

The meeting was held at the Archbishop’s house.

The Archbishop briefed us of what had happened at the meeting with the PM and then invited the others of his delegation to say what they thought about the meeting. The Archbishop indicated to all of us that the key message was that the PM was ready to detain us four priests unless the Archbishop kept “his house in order.”

Fr Patrick Goh asked the Archbishop to tell him and the other three priests if we had acted or done anything that was contrary to the Catholic Church’s teachings.

To this the Archbishop said:

“Father, it’s not what I think but what they think.”

The next day, 4 June, the four priests met to review the previous day’s meeting with the Archbishop and we collectively decided to resign from all the official offices we held in the archdiocese. We believed that this would help diffuse the tension between the church and the PM.

I left Singapore for Melbourne on Friday, 5 June, to be with my grandmother, mother and sisters, who had years ago migrated to Australia. The other three priests also left Singapore shortly.

EE: You were subsequently suspended, along with the other three priests involved, the Geylang Catholic Centre shut down, and the Justice and Peace Commission subjected to tighter controls. What are your thoughts about this?

I felt the Archbishop was either coerced to do this by either his own advisers (priests, religious and lay people) or thought that these actions were for the long term good of the Church and its relationship with the government. He must have felt that if he did not “cooperate,” the government could “make life hard” for the Catholic church as a whole.

EE: How did your friends and other priests react to what happened to you?

Many of my priest and lay friends expressed deep disappointment with the Archbishop and felt he was a weak leader and he “abandoned” the detained Church workers. They felt he was intimidated to take the steps he did. However, he was just a priest trying his best to do what he thought was good for the Church in the long term—he was not a politician.

EE: Was it solely your decision to resign from your posts in the church?

Yes. The other three priests and I did not want to escalate the tension. We love the church and did not want to hurt it. Each of us said this at a joint priests’ meeting at the St Francis Xavier’s seminary on 5 June.

EE: What did you do after leaving Singapore?

I went to live with my immediate family in Melbourne. I decided to use my freedom to devote my time meeting with various media in Australia and New Zealand and gave them what I believed was a true and fair account of what had happened. I also met a few prominent Catholic Church leaders in both countries for the same purpose.

EE: Why did you eventually decide to leave the priesthood altogether?

I felt very betrayed by Archbishop Yong. I knew I could no longer work as a priest with him or in Singapore. I also realised on a personal level that I loved a Singapore woman lawyer (with whom I had a long friendship) and wanted to marry her.

Sometime towards the end of 1987, I resigned from active ministry of the Catholic priesthood, and we married in Melbourne in December that year. We are blessed with a wonderful daughter who recently graduated with a Masters degree in Clinical Embryology from Monash University. My wife presently runs her own legal practice in Melbourne.

EE: What has your relationship with the Church been like since?

The Church has always been my “mother” and I have always loved the Church. That has not changed.

Till today, I love the church dearly, as I believed it works to communicate the teachings of Jesus Christ. I also assist with Christian instruction in the Melbourne parish where I worship.

EE: Nearly 25 years on, how do you feel about the events of 1987?

Sad and disappointed that so many people, their families and lives were adversely affected by this action.

I still hold the view that the ex-detainees are people of integrity. I respect their courage and determination. They acted correctly then and were unfairly detained. I am proud to call them my friends.

EE: Is there anything you wish you did differently?

No. I would do it all over again, as I believe in justice, care and service especially for the marginalised and downtrodden.

EE: What is your wish for Singapore?

May Singaporeans today work together to enjoy true freedom and democracy. I hope and pray this will be achieved for the Singapore I still love and cherish.

Misleading reports by Straits Times and Today

By Andrew Loh

On 12 May 2012, the Straits Times print edition and Today (online) both reported on the court application by Ms Vellama Marie Muthu with regards to the Hougang by-election.

Ms Vellama, a Hougang resident, had sought the court to declare that the Prime Minister does not have “unfettered discretion” in deciding whether and when he would call a by-election. She also sought the court to order the PM to hold a by-election in Hougang within 3 months or any “reasonable time” the court sees fit.

In April, High Court judge, Philip Pillai, dismissed the Attorney General’s objections and ordered the case to be heard in open court. The Attorney General then appealed against his decision at the Court of Appeal (CA). Ms Vellama, represented by lawyer M Ravi, subsequently appealed against the AG’s appeal, arguing that the AG had not followed the proper court procedures in filing his appeal.

Justice Andrew Phang ordered both appeals to be heard on 16 May which, incidentally, is also Nomination Day for the Hougang by-election.

In its latest report on the case, the Straits Times said:

[Front page]: “The quick turn of events prompted Hougang resident Vellama Marie Muthu to withdraw her bid to get the courts to order the Prime Minister to hold a by-election within three months. Yesterday, her lawyer M Ravi wrote to the Attorney General’s Chambers [AGC] to withdraw the application, citing ‘dramatic developments in the last 48 hours’.”

[Page A12, Headline]: “Bid for open court hearing withdrawn”

[Extract of report]: “A Hougang resident is withdrawing her bid to get the courts to order the Prime Minister to hold a by-election within three months, citing ‘dramatic developments of the last 48 hours.’”

In the Today report, it said:

[Headline]: “Hougang resident withdraws application on by-election”

[Extract of report]: “Hougang resident Vellama Marie Muthu has decided to withdraw her application asking the courts to order a by-election in the constituency, saying that her “factual objective” has been achieved, and she was prepared to forgo her ‘legal objective’.”

The 2 reports, however, have left out the conditions upon which Ms Vellama will consider withdrawing her application, which Mr Ravi’s letter to the AGC had stated.

The reports did not mention that Ms Vellama’s offer to withdraw her application is contingent upon two agreements from the AGC, namely:

  1. That the AGC withdrew its appeal against Judge Pillai’s decision for the case to be heard.
  2. That the AGC would not seek costs against her.

The letter said if the AGC agreed to the 2 conditions, only then is Ms Vellama “prepared” to withdraw her application.

She made the offer to withdraw because “the factual objective of her litigation has now been achieved” with the Prime Minister having called a by-election in Hougang where Ms Vellama is a resident.

Mr Ravi’s letter concluded:

“Our client has instructed us to obtain your client’s agreement to the terms of a consent order whereby, with no order as to costs, and upon the withdrawal of her Judicial Review application… and striking out application… and your client’s withdrawal of Civil Appeal…, the approval of the Court may be obtained for the matter to be recorded as resolved by consent.”

When contacted by publichouse.sg, Mr Ravi said his client “has not withdrawn” her application and reiterated that she would consider doing so only if the AGC agreed to the two conditions mentioned in his letter to the AGC.

If the AGC decides to proceed with its appeal, Ms Vellama is prepared to fight the appeal, Mr Ravi said.

Mr Ravi said he is, at present, still preparing for the hearing on 16 May.