Lee Kuan Yew

Singapore's ex-leaders write off political rival's huge debt from defamation case

Firebrand opposition leader Chee Soon Juan released from bankrupty by creditors in time to 'muddy' election waters in 2016

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 7:17am

Prominent Singapore opposition leader Chee Soon Juan has been discharged from bankruptcy, the government said, after an unprecedented concession by two former prime ministers to whom he owed about S$500,000 (HK$3.2 million).

Ex-prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong agreed to accept a reduced amount of S$30,000 from Chee, which will free him from bankruptcy proceedings formally on Friday, a statement by the Insolvency and Public Trustee's Office said.

Chee, the firebrand leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, was declared bankrupt in 2006 after he failed to pay S$500,000 in court-ordered damages to Lee and Goh. The two had sued him for defamation for comments he made against them during the 2001 general elections.

The development means Chee, 50, will be able to travel outside the country freely and also contest the next elections, which are due in 2016. Still, some commentators saw the concession by Lee and Goh as a political manoeuvre - allowing Chee to contest the elections could split the fragmented opposition's votes further at a time when the ruling People's Action Party has lost much support because of rising prices and an influx of foreigners.

"It could be that Lee Kuan Yew has mellowed, but it's hard to believe that he has changed because it doesn't fit his character," said respected political commentator and former newspaper editor P.N. Balji.

"The other possibility could be to 'muddy the waters', especially for the coming general elections. Chee's party and the [other opposition] Workers' Party do not see eye to eye and there might be a split in votes for the opposition."

Lee, modern Singapore's founding father, and Goh have frequently and successfully sued opposition leaders and other critics for defamation. A report published by Human Rights Watch in January criticised the country for resorting to charges of contempt of court, criminal and civil defamation as well as sedition to rein in its critics.

Lee was Singapore's prime minister from 1959 to 1990, when he handed over power to Goh.

Chee, a trained neuropsychologist, raised the S$30,000 primarily through donations and proceeds from the sale of his books on politics. He was informed in September that both Lee and Goh were willing to accept the reduced amount.

"The important thing [is that] being discharged from bankruptcy means it will allow me to plan and lead the party into the next general election," Chee said.

"The big strategy that we're banking on right now is to come up with shadow policies on health care and housing as alternatives to that of the government. The PAP is floundering in these policies and in taking the country forward."